The Dickens You Say

Every holiday season, beginning on or after Thanksgiving, I reread Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a newly-minted tradition, because I’d never read the book at all until about four years ago.

I was finally moved to read it by the realization that the story pervades the culture of Christmas in the United States and the United Kingdom more completely than just about any other work. There are other big ones: Dr. Seuss’s book and animated short How The Grinch Stole Christmas; the movies A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life; the Peanuts television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”; various seasonal songs and carols; and of course Haddon Sundblom’s paintings of a red-suited Santa.

We’ve ritualized our annual consumption of all of these, and it’s common to hear people say “It doesn’t feel like Christmas season has begun until I’ve read/seen/sung ______.” Some version of “A Christmas Carol” is king of these, and it’s one of only two that has contributed a word to the language, “Scrooge” (meaning miser). I have three favorite movie adaptations of my own:

  • Scrooge (1970): The idea of a musical adaptation of Dickens is as logical as asking “please sir, may I have some more?” And “Thank You Very Much” is a beloved song from my childhood.
  • Scrooged (1988): This surreally funny version isn’t well-loved by critics, but as a person with a degree in television, I love the update, and the cynicism, which isn’t entirely deflated by the end of the story as in Dickens’s story.
  • A Christmas Carol (1951): When Dickens wrote his story, I feel certain the Ebenezer Scrooge he imagined looked and acted just like Alastair Sim. At the end of the story, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he’s almost unhinged in his childlike, giddy joy. Alastair Sim does this part of the story better than any other actor who’s taken the role.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): The greatest innovation of this adaptation was hiring Gonzo the Great to play Charles Dickens as an on-screen narrator. This let them include Dickens’s beautiful prose, which most other adaptations have to omit. It was listening to Gonzo’s narration year after year that finally inspired me to read the book. Kermit and Robin are perfectly cast as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively, and Michael Caine really commits to Scrooge; he plays it straight and serious, which is the only right way to work with the Muppets.

People are suckers for stories of redemption. I think that’s why “A Christmas Carol” is so popular. We want to believe bad people can be saved, and Christmas is the time we want to believe it the most.

That “A Christmas Carol” is in the public domain is another reason why we’re subjected to endless adaptations and works derived from it year after year after year. Just about every television show ever on the air has done an “A Christmas Carol” episode (well, maybe not Meet The Press), from Family Ties to Dora the Explorer to Xena: Warrior Princess. Almost all of them are wretched and unwatchable. They’re lazily written, and the shows’ existing characters have to be awkwardly mapped onto the book’s characters, usually to unsatisfying ends. It’s hard to bottle lightning.

I learn something new from the book every year. Last year I learned that “Walker!,” which was shouted by the little boy Scrooge asked to buy the giant turkey for the Cratchits’, was an exclamation in Dickens’s time that essentially meant “You’re shitting me!” Another year I discovered that Scrooge told his nephew, Fred, to go to hell when Fred invited him to Christmas dinner. But you have to read between the lines to know that’s what was said; Victorian readers probably didn’t have the stomach for such a blunt profanity.

This year I realized that reactions to Scrooge’s meanness are maybe gendered. The women in his life—Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife—give up on him. Contrariwise, Marley’s ghost, Bob Cratchit, and Fred himself, seem to cling to a hope, ultimately rewarded, that the old man can be saved. I don’t know yet what, if anything, that means, but I love that I’m still discovering new things to ponder, year after year.

“A Christmas Carol” isn’t a full-length novel; it’s only 70 pages in the edition I own. I bet most people could read it in a day or two. I highly recommend it.