13 Days of Christmas 13: A Christmas Carol

Posted: December 23, 2011 by crowbait in Film, Reviews

On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… Thirteen “Bah! Humbugs!”, Twelve Zombies OozingEleven Naughty KringlesTen Mogwai CreepingNine Obscene Phone CallsEight Santas BleedingSeven Cookies SnarkingSix Trees-a-Slaying… FIVE GARBAGE DAYS!… Four Naked ElvesThree Death CarsTwo Curling Duels and a Hell Goat in a Pear Tree

Crowbait: The classic Christmas ghost story. Written in the 1840’s by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol is probably the most popular Christmas themed horror story of them all. And it is most definitely a horror story. Dickens teaches us to appreciate the joys of Christmas by putting them in sharp contrast with poverty, illness, greed, ignorance and death. These messages are delivered to a villainous old man by an assemblage of tortured ghosts and supernatural personifications of time, including the hooded and robed spectre of death representing the inevitable future. Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Carol  has been adapted for the screen, large and small, dozens of times. Dozens. My favorite however has always been the first adaptation I saw: The 1984 made-for-TV version starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Most of my love for this adaptation can be credited to Scott. A respected actor with a horror pedigree thanks to the classic film The Changeling, Scott had just appeared as a villain in the film of Stephen King’s Firestarter earlier that same year. His Scrooge is a villain, through and through. While other Scrooges have the selfish and miserly attitude that drives them to be unpleasant for the sake of driving away time-wasters, Scott puts real relish into such lines as “. . . any fool who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips would be boiled in his pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!” His growls rise into sharp exclamation as he shouts “Mr. Cratchit!” to chide his clerk (here portrayed by David Warner.) His exchanges over the plight of the poor show a man who goes beyond not caring, feeling they deserve his personal hatred for their impositions. To turn this monster into a man requires the intervention of some truly powerful apparitions.

The inclusion of a horse-drawn hearse rolling through the snowy streets amid billows of fog set the tone right away and the grim and gloomy environment carries through nearly every scene, sometimes in contrast to the joy of the people as they prepare their celebrations. Marley’s appearance as ghastly door knocker is supplemented by Scrooge’s imagination etching him on the tiles in his fireplace. His arrival is complete with the mysterious bells and clattering chains we have come to expect of all childhood ghosts since. Christmas Past is as ineffable as ever and the sadness of Scrooge’s downfall as a young man is weighed on as heavily as his small moments of happiness. Christmas Present is jolly and jovial and brings most of the humor to the story but his stay ends with Scrooge confronted by the lives of the destitute poor he condemns and the personifications of Ignorance and Want as sickly orphans. Christmas Future is absolutely horrifying. It drifts out of a fog bank, a black silhouette against the light and in place of speech the electronic wail of an amplified violin punctuates its gestures.

As written, Scott’s Scrooge hangs on to his ways to the bitter end, moving through the stages of grief as he comes to terms with what he has been and what he can do, must do, to be more than a wretched monster whose passing the world would rejoice. When he turns the corner, Scott brings out a delightful exuberance and an almost childish playfulness when he teases Bob Cratchit before revealing to him his change of heart.

No other adaptation has captured my attention the same way. More recent film versions seem to think that the story is a parable meant for children and so they introduce humor or action to alleviate the weight of the terrible and frightening things that are part of the story. A Christmas Carol is a message for everyone, young and old. It deserves attention, now more than ever, as we see greed destroying things on a worldwide scale in a series of chaotic events that become personal horror stories every day.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dickens’ work is that despite the focus on Christmas, his holiday is almost entirely secular. Apart from the Cratchits’ short prayers, there is almost no mention of religion in the story. Dickens believed that the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t need to be Luke. 2.8-14, but it can be about simply caring for each other and sharing what we have to bring some small joy to everyone. Merry Christmas to all.

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