A Christmas Carol -short story by Charles Dickens

The Muppet Christmas Carol, – film starring Michael Caine, and Kermit the Frog, oh, and Miss Piggy!

 

It being Dicken’s bi-centenary, I thought I should look at the adaptation of one of his stories. Dickens, like Shakespeare in an author whose works have been adapted for film since the earliest days of the motion picture and which are still being drawn upon. Every generation seems to need to re-assess, and re-present its view of the Dickensian world.

The connection is not merely one of continued popularity though. Taking into account Eisenstein’s essay on Dickens and D.W. Griffiths, we must recognise that the writer was not only one of the first to be adapted, but also was one of the major sources of the very techniques that film makers would develop for the telling of stories. It is easy to forget in our visually educated society that when the first movies were made audiences were likely to jump for safety when a speeding train bore down on them from the screen, to run for cover when a gun was fired (even silently), and to have no idea what was going on when they scene changed from one group of characters, or even one setting, to another. Eisenstein quotes Griffiths, who explains that he drew his concepts of jump cuts and montages (in particular) from specific verbal equivalents in Dickens’ work.

Much has been written about adaptations, often in serial form, of the Dickens novels, which themselves were all published initially in serial form. My choice is of his, perhaps most famous, short story. The BFI have recently released on dvd a collection of early Dickens’ films, and among them, with a dating of 1909, is a silent version of A Christmas Carol, entitled Scrooge. In effect it is a series a scenes, with one or two ‘titles’ in text, to explain what is coming next. These little cameos show Scrooge shutting up shop for Christmas, encountering Marley’s face in his door-knocker, and being visited, one by one, by the three ghosts. There is little information on the dvd, and the abrupt ending, as Scrooge sees his own and Tiny Tim’s grave, suggests it is not quite complete, but the main elements of the story are there. Scrooge’s distress at seeing his own past is powerful and moving, despite the obvious overacting of the period in which it was made.

There may well be earlier adaptations of the story. There are certainly later ones, starring actors as varied as Alistair Sim, and George C.Scott. I have seen, twice, a wonderful stage version at Keswick’s excellent Theatre By The Lake. My favourite though, and I have watched it every year since my daughter was about five, is The Muppets Christmas Carol. In fact, and I’m a fan of Zulu, and Get Carter, and Mona Lisa, but not Alfie, I would say that it was Michael Caine’s finest hour.

What I particularly like about this muppet adaptation is its inclusion of Dickens himself, and of his ‘ideal reader’, the rat, Rizzio. This brings an element to the tale (if not the tail) that is authentically Dickensian, despite being absent from the published text, for Dickens was a pioneer, and is still perhaps the most successful practitioner, of the authorial public readings. Compared to him, in terms of number of performances, and size of audiences, those who have followed are but rank amateurs!

There’s a deeper authenticity too however, for the authorial Dickens, though he does not appear with Rizzio beside him in the short story, is a presence, speaking directly to us throughout his writing. In fact, he makes us all, his readers, into little Rizzios. Dickens, in his readings and his writings, was not embarrassed by giving his audiences a goodly shoving in the emotional directions he wanted them to go. Modern authors rarely display overtly such strength of conviction – we are far too conscious of the liberties of our readers.

 

A Christmas Carol was the first, and most successful of Dickens’ Christmas stories, which for a few years became a tradition for him. It formed part of his repertoire of public readings, was popular throughout his life, and has remained so ever since. Along with O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, it is perhaps the best known Christmas story in the English speaking world, and probably beyond. It is a muscular tale, the painful truths of which, about the corrosive effects of selfishness and lack of charity, the inability to give and receive love, are not weakened by what we think of as the melodramatic style of the story. The Muppet adaptation captures both, and the fact that Scrooge is an actual human among the puppets (though not quite the only one) strengthens both the melodrama, and those truths. The film highlights his isolation, and emphasises what he is losing by shunning the society of his nephew’s family and friends.

The ghost of Christmas yet-to-come is the most threatening of the three in all versions of A Christmas Carol. It shows Scrooge, not only the death of Tiny Tim, but also his own. It calls from him the question that we ask for ourselves: can the future that has been laid down by our actions in the past be changed by our actions in the present?

It is the Ghost of Christmas Present however, that raises the issue of the two orphans that lurk beneath its robes. Named as Ignorance and Poverty these are the spawn of selfishness and greed, the consequence of irresponsibility and indifference to the condition of others. Squeamish re-tellers of this tale, and here the Muppet version comes under the cosh, will omit these two orphans, who both shame and threaten our society, as they did Dickens’ own, and this is the significant difference between the short story and several adaptations. Dickens never lost sight of the fact that his story was not merely an entertainment, but was also related to the moral situation of his society. However, perhaps the difference is not simply one of omitting an element in order to narrow the intention behind the story. It may be that the modern re-tellings are more concerned with the individual, with Scrooge’s moral trajectory, in which case the issue of the two orphans seems peripheral rather than central, perhaps even a distraction. The implication behind this would be that we like our stories to be about individuals, who are of interest, rather than societies, of which we may be believe there are no such things!

 

[This will be my last adaptation essay for a little while. I need to watch some films, and read some books, and write some essays! But the blog will continue, hopefully twice a month, helped out from time to time by the wisdom of Kowalski, but otherwise with the further animadversions of BHDandMe.]

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