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?