We as a culture owe Charles Dickens a big apology. War on Christmas? Ha! It’s nothing compared to the outright torture we have done to his “A Christmas Carol” since its publication in 1843.
Movies in 3D, television sitcoms, cartoons, musicals. I have even seen a horrendous version set in the spring and starring Winnie-the-Pooh. His friend Rabbit had to learn the true meaning of Easter, and at the end, Tigger even winked toward the camera while saying “What the Dickens?”
The frustrating thing for me is, thanks to all of these variations and adaptations, there are entire generations that only know this story through other people’s retellings of it and not from Dickens’ actual text.
So why do so many run to pillage this holiday classic? Frankly, it’s surely a money thing now. People have come to expect it just like the decorated tree in the living room. And the sheer irony of this yearly cash grab around a story where one of the themes is the evil of greed would not have been lost on Charles Dickens. For Dickens knew poverty first hand, his dad even spent some time in a debtors prison. This financial trial in his life left Charles scarred and the repercussions of it can be felt throughout all of his books.
Yet, no matter how good, no matter how well-intentioned the adaptation or performance, nothing matches the sheer literary grandeur and mastery of the original classic. It is, in my opinion, perfect from the first sentence to the very last.
Let’s start at the beginning…
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
In “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens is tapping into a Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories around the holidays. It was also believed that on Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, ghosts would be among us -- a scene Charles Dickens recreates with Scrooge at his window. So Dickens, right from the start, is easing his contemporary audience into a story that would not have surprised them on a cold winter evening. But then he changes it, and this is where his genius sneaks in. For his ghosts have a message, a lesson. They are not simply saying “boo!”
It is the message from the ghosts that many Dickens adapters miss their mark. Yes, you can say the Ghosts of past, present and future, and you would be right, but you’ll also be missing the gravity below those scenes. They are so much more than ghosts.
Through the tour of his past, Scrooge remembers his lost humanity. In the present, he learns to see it in others. And in the future, he recognizes its existence after he is gone. This lesson of Scrooge transcends different religions, beliefs and non-beliefs. It’s almost too bad this tale is tied to a holiday that comes around only once a year.
Everything else — possessions, wealth, and today’s obsession with fame — are meaningless next to the heart of a small, loving boy with crutches. For we all have the capacity to change like Scrooge, to grow, to make a positive difference in this world. Oh, if all the talent and money that has been spent on retelling this story each year were instead used to do some good, I’m sure Dickens would have appreciated that gesture a whole lot more.
“A Christmas Carol” is Charles Dickens at his writing forte. It is a book made to be read aloud, and I hope you will try it yourselves this year, like readers would have done when the book was first printed. And please remember that, as the clock turns for a new year, in Charles Dickens eyes we all need to be good to each other, rich or poor -- or, as Tiny Tim once observed:
God bless us, every one.
Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels “A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.