“Christmas Carol” adaptations include Rich Little playing Edith Bunker as Cratchit’s Wife

While preparing lessons in recent weeks as I teach Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first time, I have absorbed myself with all things Dickens’ re-discovering why this book has remained a classic for 175 years.

I also wanted to have my students examine several filmed adaptations of the story, determining the faithfulness to the text, and comparing interpretations of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The first one we viewed was the MGM version made in 1938 starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  If you are unfamiliar with Owen, one of his last film roles was as Admiral Boom in “Mary Poppins” who would fire a cannon on his rooftop.

As a kid, I always liked this version not knowing how much it diverged from the source material.  A key scene in the book is when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals under his robe a boy and a girl representing ignorance and want.  You won’t see it in this version.

The famous last scene in the story of Scrooge pretending to be angry at his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for arriving 18 and ½ minutes late to work on the day after Christmas has been replaced with

Scrooge going to Cratchit’s home on Christmas armed with food and toys.  He informs everyone present, including his nephew Fred, that he will raise Cratchit’s salary.

June Lockhart, the actress best known for the TV series “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” (and is currently 93), made her screen debut playing a child of the Cratchits, both portrayed by her real-life parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart.

The 1951 British version was originally called “Scrooge.”   Clive Donner who edited that film would later direct the 1984 TV version starring George C. Scott.

For me, this is the version that best replicates the spirit (no pun intended) of Dickens’ original.  Scott portrays Scrooge as a troubled man not an irritable ogre.  In a scene not in the book, Scrooge laments out loud and alone, “What have I done to be abandoned like this?”

There is much to admire in the 2009 Jim Carrey film directed by Robert Zemeckis.  However, the motion capture computer technology overwhelms the story, must as it did in Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express.”

One version I did not share with my students must rank as the strangest adaptation.  “Rich Little’s Christmas Carol” from 1978 has the impersonator playing all the roles himself.  Since most of the personalities come from the 1970’s and earlier, anyone under 40 would have to access a who’s who of famous people in the 20th century in order to understand it.

Little is President Nixon as Jacob Marley’s ghost with reel to reel tapes replacing the chains.  Watching this with my sons, I had to frequently stop not only to explain who Nixon was, but the significance of the tapes as well.

Yet where do you begin to explain to a 15-year-old who Paul Lynde was and what made him famous (I struggled with this while he was still alive).  Then the quandary of explaining Rich Little dressed as Jean Stapleton playing Edith Bunker who is playing Mrs. Cratchit.   Pause and insert a whole lesson on Norman Lear sitcoms.  Never mind Truman Capote as Tiny Tim.

Well, no matter which version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” you watch, the notion that an old man full of hatred can transform into a man of goodwill seem improbable, but it is an idea that has kept this book alive for nearly 200 years.

What would the scenes from your past look like, the regrets, the heartaches, the people who touched you and those who you hurt?  If you could become a nicer person, what images would get you to change for the better?

Yes, “A Christmas Carol” is a work of fiction.  In reality, change does not come overnight, if at all.   But what is wrong in believing it is possible, even once a year?

 

 

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.