The Man Who Invented Christmas (18 page)

In total, the number of early productions of
A Christmas Carol
came to about half those of
Oliver Twist
and were about the same in number as the adaptations of
Martin Chuzzlewit,
though it should be noted that the
Carol
figures are quite respectable for a “one-installment” publication. Most of the other novels, appearing in twenty installments over many months, would have a much longer shelf-life in the popular entertainment consciousness.

One other influence particular to Dickens’s time is also worth considering. Even though the Theatre Act of 1843 weakened government influence over theatrical productions, the office of the Examiner of Plays still remained, wielding considerable influence over what appeared on stage, with subject matter that suggested the merest possibility of the profane receiving special scrutiny. Prayers, biblical quotations, and representations of established church figures were routinely excised by government censors. Thus,
A Christmas Carol,
secular though it is, may have been considered controversial by more staid—or more timid—production companies of the time.

Even years later, advertising copy for an 1885 production in Edinburgh went so far as to tout the “strictly moral” nature of the play. “The Very Rev.
DEAN STANLEY
,” the producers wished to remind the public, “in his funeral Sermon preached at the Grave of CHARLES DICKENS in Westminster Abbey, pronounced the ‘CHRISTMAS CAROL’ to be the finest Charity Sermon in the English language.”

Whether moral concerns played into it or not, the tally of productions of
A Christmas Carol
over the next fifty years was about half the number mounted in 1844 alone. In fact, it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that a significant uptick in adaptations of the story came, and that was a development that came with the advent of a brand new way of storytelling.

Novelist and Dickens admirer John Irving asserts that the particular strength of a Dickens novel is to make an audience feel more than think. And while it might be argued that in most fiction the aim is to entertain first and edify second, if ever there were a medium where the manipulation of an audience’s emotion is paramount, then the motion picture form is it.

In
A Christmas Carol,
film producers were to discover the mother lode. The first motion picture version of the tale was a silent picture called
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost,
produced in Great Britain in 1901. That was followed by half a dozen more silent films on both sides of the Atlantic, including one 1910 version by Thomas Edison. The first sound version, also called
Scrooge,
was made in 1928 in Great Britain.

In 1934 Lionel Barrymore starred in a U.S. radio-play adaptation titled
A Christmas Carol,
an event that proved so popular that the piece became a holiday tradition that lasted into the 1950s—his brother John Barrymore and Orson Welles successfully took over during two different seasons when Barrymore fell ill. It is Barrymore’s series, in fact, that is generally credited with making Dickens’s story the popular phenomenon it has become in the United States.

There was another filmed version,
Scrooge,
produced in Great Britain in 1935, and in 1938 came the first significant film production in the United States, titled
A Christmas Carol,
produced by Joseph Mankiewicz and starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.
Variety
gave the film kudos—“Top production, inspired direction, superb acting”—and indeed the version holds up well to this day.

In the 1940s the new medium of television got into the act, with John Carradine and Vincent Price starring in different versions, and in 1949 Ronald Colman narrated the first commercial sound recording of the story.

It is the consensus of most critics that the very best film adaptation of Dickens’s story came in 1951 with the British production of
Scrooge
(released in the United States as
A Christmas Carol
), with Alastair Sim as Scrooge and Mervyn Jones as Bob Cratchit. The film received favorable reviews in the United States, but, likely because of its rather downbeat portrayal of Scrooge, it did not become widely popular until the 1970s, when it began to receive regular television airings during the Christmas season.

Other notable adaptations include a musical version—
Scrooge
—produced in Great Britain in 1970, starring Albert Finney in the title role and Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost. The film was nominated for several Oscars, and Finney won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy. In 1984 Clive Donner, who had edited the Alastair Sim production of 1951, directed another well-received British version,
A Christmas Carol,
starring George C. Scott. The film was originally shown on the CBS television network in the United States, where it won Scott an Emmy nomination for Best Actor.

In all, the story has spawned at least twenty-eight film adaptations, including versions starring Bill Murray as a greedy U.S. television executive (
Scrooged,
1988); a Disney version starring none other than Scrooge McDuck in the title role; and cartoon versions featuring the Flintstones, the Muppets, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the Jetsons.

Nor is there any sign that the practice is at an end. In 2007 director Robert Zemeckis (
Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express
) announced plans for a major animated version of the story starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Christopher Lloyd, Bob Hoskins, Gary Oldman, and others. The story has also inspired at least two operatic versions in the twentieth century, including one by Thea Musgrave in 1978; a one-man Broadway show with Patrick Stewart in the 1990s; a widely performed Christian-themed version called
The Gospel According to Scrooge;
long-running adaptations at regional theaters (thirty-three seasons at the Raleigh, North Carolina, Theater in the Park, twenty-five at the Indiana Repertory Theater); numerous sound recordings; and parodies by the likes of Lord Buckley, Stan Freberg, and even Beavis and Butthead.

According to a count made in the late 1980s, at least 225 live stagings, films, radio dramas, and television plays based on Dickens’s “little Carol” had been produced after 1950, and that number does not take into account the untold number of amateur and regional productions staged every year. Not only has
A Christmas Carol
become the most “adapted” of all the author’s works, but it would be hard to name any other work of fiction that has thereby become so ubiquitous a part of Western popular culture.

Undoubtedly Dickens would have been chagrined that he never saw a penny from all this modern-day “re-originating,” but surely the man who had vowed to deliver a “sledge-hammer blow” upon the consciousness of an insensitive public around him would also have been gratified to see how intertwined—indeed, how synonymous—his “little Carol” has become with the “season of giving.” Celebrating Christmas without some reference to
A Christmas Carol
seems impossible, a remarkable fact given that the book was published more than 150 years ago. Indeed, the resonance of the story has remained so strong through the generations that commentators have referred to Dickens as the man who invented Christmas.

15.

C
ertainly, Dickens would not have made such a claim on his own behalf. As the record makes clear, he was well aware of the traditional celebration of the Christmas holiday, he enjoyed it, and he had written of it with enthusiasm on a number of occasions before he wrote
A Christmas Carol.
And the work of many of his illustrious predecessors demonstrates that Dickens did not singlehandedly dream up the concept of a yuletide season with its various accouterments.

As early as 1712, in his
Spectator
installment “Christmas with Sir Roger,” Joseph Addison has his fictional narrator wax eloquent regarding the holiday, “when the poor People would suffer very much from their Poverty and Cold, if they had not good Cheer, warm Fires, and
Christmas
Gambols to support them. I love to rejoyce their poor Hearts at this Season, and to see the whole Village merry in my great Hall.”

Nearly a century later, in 1808, Sir Walter Scott published his long poem
Marmion,
which begins its sixth canto with a vivid description of a Christmas feast: “The fire, with well-dried logs supplied / Went roaring up the chimney wide…The wassel round, in good brown bowls / Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls / There the huge sirloin reck’d; hard by / Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie. / Nor failed old Scotland to produce / At such high tide, her savoury goose / Then came the merry maskers in / And carols roar’d with blithesome din.”

Such celebration and sentiment was further glorified by Washington Irving, who begins the Christmas section of
The Sketchbook of Geo
ff
rey Crayon
by noting that “The English…have always been fond of those festivals and holidays which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life; and they were, in former days, particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas.”

Irving goes on to enumerate any number of the features that characterize what are now thought of as belonging to the “Victorian” or “Dickensian” Christmas, but were actually practices that Irving thought had been too long neglected in England, including “the complete abandonment to mirth and good fellowship, with which this festival was celebrated. It seemed to throw open every door, and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness…. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly—the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled round the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes, and oft told Christmas tales.”

It is probably true that Irving and others who appreciated the ideals of Christmas and the rituals formerly associated with its practice had reason to complain. In those days, when December 25 rolled around in London—and given the assaults of Cromwell and the Puritans and the grind of an industrialized society’s life—it must have seemed at times a bloodless, unromantic place. But though there had been this gloomily evocative writing by Addison and Scott and Irving and the industry of artists and scribes and publishers who had concocted Christmas annuals and seasonal periodical issues (including Dickens himself), never before December of 1843 had there appeared a piece of writing of the nature of
A Christmas Carol.

One thing that sets Dickens apart is that unlike a wistful predecessor such as Washington Irving, who seemed content to lament the passing of those grand and glorious celebrations of yore and the general malaise of the society around him, Dickens was convinced that he had the tonic for what ailed his countrymen. His approach was to restore Christmas, not lament its passing.

Furthermore, Dickens’s tale does not merely describe the season or its aspects as much as it embodies them in its characters and actions. And its form—that of a “ghost story,” or fairy tale—is perfectly suited to transmit such concepts as good fellowship, compassion, and charity from the realm of the abstract into a tangible shape that can be experienced by an ordinary audience. At the same time, when the writer employs a ghost as a character, and introduces the supernatural into a narrative, he forms an implicit contract with the reader that while the proceedings are realistic, they are not real, and are not to be taken too seriously. Thus, a reader can journey into the “ghost story” safely, seeking his entertainment, and with no suspicion lurking that the writer is trying to convince him of anything.

Of course, most writers who use the form of the ghost story have absolutely no serious designs upon their readers. In escapist literature of the kind, the aim is simply to thrill and amaze, and indeed there is plenty of that in
A Christmas Carol.
But the real work of the volume, as Dickens made abundantly clear, was to deliver that “sledge-hammer blow” on behalf of the poor and unfortunate. The beauty of the book is, then, his use of a deceptively innocent form to do such serious work. Many other writers since have married the “ghost story” genre to serious intent, including Henry James (
The Turn of the Screw
) and Shirley Jackson (
The Haunting of Hill House
). But as history would have it, Dickens was the first to do it so adeptly, and he came to the rescue of a downtrodden holiday that a repressed Western world was fairly bursting to revive.

There may have been other factors to account for the widespread public embracing of Dickens’s story, including Queen Victoria’s marriage to a German husband, who brought with him an affinity for certain aspects of the season’s symbology and practice, and popularized them among the English people, including the now-obligatory Christmas tree with its ornaments and its presents piled high, not to mention the great value Germans placed on family unity and communal celebration.

But one of the primary gifts that Dickens gave his contemporaries was a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity—which is, after all, the basis for the celebration.

Dickens, though nominally an Anglican, was a vocal critic of organized religion, especially where he saw hypocritical divergences between the preaching and the practice of Christian charity. Many critics have suggested that in his little Christmas fable—whether consciously or unconsciously—he complemented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions, and a decent life for all. Just as vital as the celebration of the birth of a holy savior into a human family was the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.

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