A Christmas Carol: The background.
Of all the cherished Christmas stories we know and love, there is one that stands out above all others. Rudolph and Frosty may wrap up the children’s vote, and the virgin birth of a deity in a cow shed may be preferred by others, but for most people, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which gets the nod.
Easily the best story about a time travelling pensioner who sees dead people……ever, this festive tale has become part of Christmas folklore. The supernatural redemption of the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge has captured imaginations down the years as people are drawn in to this Victorian tale of one man’s salvation on Christmas eve.
Arguably however, despite it’s deserved place in the pantheon of British literary classics, there has yet to be a truly great cinematic adaption of Dickens’ work. For many of us, the only version that sticks in the mind is of the Muppet based variety, or perhaps for the older readers amongst us, the 1951 Alastair Sim film, arguably the closest we have had yet to a ‘classic’ version of the story. Yet many different adaptations exist, many of them unknown, and most likely unseen, by the general public.
I thought it was about time therefore, that somebody stepped up and took on the task of wading through the assorted versions of A Christmas Carol, so that at this festive season, we can truly know which offering is worth seeking out. Yes, but what makes a good adaptation of A Christmas Carol? I hear you ask. Let us first delve into the wild and wacky world of literary wonder, and establish the key themes that any adaptation worth it’s salt, must possess.
Themes and Context
The story was written by Dickens in order to tackle the relatively new issue of urban poverty and in particular the growing underclass of impoverished townsfolk that was produced by the Industrial Revolution. I’m not sure what the PC name for these types was, so proles, paupers, scroungers, whichever you prefer. With the rapid shift away from conventional farming and trade practices, and with the rise in new technological advancements, many of these paupers were suddenly without work or at least without the necessary skills to find a job. Jeremy Kyle would have had a field day in the 1840’s.
The British Government’s answer to this escalating crisis was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Amongst other things, this law saw the establishment of the brutal workhouses and treadmills that turned huge swathes of the urban poor into de-facto slaves. The Daily Mail is leading a campaign to have these re-instated…allegedly. As a result, many were trapped in a cycle of poverty which led them into the ghastly and degrading conditions of the poor houses, where they would live a miserable existence, rarely ever earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Wouldn’t see that happening today mind you.
Dickens himself has first hand experiences of the ruthless attitude towards the poor which was prevalent in Britain in this period. In the 1820’s, his father was sent to a debtor’s prison for an outstanding debt which he simply couldn’t pay. As a result, twelve year old Charles was forced to live on his own and leave school to begin work in a factory. Being from a relatively middle class background, Dickens had a deep sense of superiority towards his work colleagues and thus struggled to fit in amongst the rest of his factory work colleagues. His was the only Volvo in the factory car park, and no one else brought in hummus and french bread for dinner. His experiences working in the factory, as well as the harsh treatment meted out to his father, had a profound effect on young Charles, and had a great impact on his later literary work.
In particular, it is these experiences which led Dickens to write A Christmas Carol The story centres upon the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a heartless man of business who thrives of the despair of others. Scrooge offers no pity towards the poor, and his heartless tirade at the portly gentlemen who come collecting for the poor on Christmas Eve sticks out as the most damming indictment of his character.
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down
the pen again.
"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge.
"Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish
I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour,
then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first,
that something had occurred to stop them in their
useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."
This was then followed by an immortal bit of grouchy banter:
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied. [seems clear enough to me]
“I wish to be left alone,” [ooooooh sarcy] said Scrooge.
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” [Interestingly, this was in the running to be the Tory party slogan for many years. True Story].
Of course by the stories’ end, Scrooge is a changed man, who embraces the spirit of Christmas and becomes a second father to his employee Bob Cratchit’sCratchit
It is Scrooge’s new found love of Christmas that is arguably the second most crucial point of the story. Dickens’ wrote the tale at a time when forgotten Christmas traditions were experiencing a resurgence in popularity in Victorian England. Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree in 1841, the first Christmas Cards were sent in 1843 and the Great Escape was screened on Christmas Day for the first time in 1840. All of these traditions were gradually being re-introduced into society as the celebration of Christmas became not just a religious festival, but also a time of charity and family gatherings.
It is the darkness, death and despair brought on by urban poverty and the joy and happiness generated by good will at Christmas that provide the two contrasting themes of Dickens’ work. If you can’t be bothered to read the book, you’ll just have to take my word for it here.
It’s fair to argue then, that any ‘A Christmas Carol’ film must convey the warmth and frivolity of Christmas time, through key scenes such as Scrooge’s introduction to Christmas morning by the ghost of Christmas present and the Cratchit family Christmas dinner (surprising lack of paper hats and cracker jokes….killjoys ). It must likewise demonstrate the gloom and misery of scenes such as the Ghost of Christmas Present unveiling the allegorical twin children of ‘ignorance’ and ‘want’ and the Cratchit’s grieving for the late Tiny Tim.
And so, with this in mind, we must begin our Dickensian odyssey and examine which of the numerous adaptations best serve the author’s original vision, which offers the best in entertainment, and most crucially, which has the most annoying Tiny Tim. It turns out that this last category was easily the most competitive.