"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Marley's Boast


Forced by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to suffer through hour after hour of adaptations of his own A Christmas Carol, at what point would Charles Dickens break down and become a changed man? Would it be the sight of Henry Winkler from An American Christmas Carol, and his "I am not the Fonz" old man makeup? Would it be when he realized Vanessa Williams's turn in this year's A Diva's Christmas Carol wasn't going to offer up a leather-heavy Christmas past in a photographer's flat in downtown Syracuse? How about Bob Cratchit played by a frog puppet? Lawanda Page as an earthly spirit? Jim Backus's line readings? Or would the sheer weight of films, stageplays, radio shows, sitcom episodes and public readings be enough to do the deed, spinning the Victorian author through time and back into his own bed, anxious to get up and start the second half of his writing career without first publishing this transitional and hugely popular work?

Dickens may not have minded one bit. After all, A Christmas Carol was written for the same bottom-line reasons Ebenezer Scrooge treated his single employee like a dotcom contract worker. Dickens would occasionally insist on publishing flourishes paid for out of his own pocket, and for as long as he avoided a lucrative second career as a reader of his own work, there was an aspect to his personality that indicates he was as comfortable amid the swirl of public approbation as an older cat who has just discovered a new home's largest plastic heating grate. Dickens just might be pleased to see how thoroughly his feverishly-written ghost story has burrowed its way into the subconscious of the English-speaking world during its most extravagant period of holiday excess.

Cultural historians cite A Christmas Carol as one of the major reasons the celebration of Christmas in England enjoyed a 19th century comeback. In the centuries following, Dickens's story seems to exist as both a specific work and a curious multi-media sub-genre, codifying both a proper appreciation of, and celebration strategy for, the Christmas season. It is as much a part of Christmas as tree killing, gift exchanges, and guilt. The lessons we can learn from its ubiquity may be as valuable as any comforting Yuletide memory.

A Christmas Carol sprang from its author's head in marvelously good shape for the long haul. As the generation of pre-Tenors PBS fans scarred forever by the hours of their lives lost to Roger Rees and Nicholas Nickleby can attest, A Christmas Carol is short in a good way, a way that can be expanded upon, left as is, or even made shorter according to need. Seen from the other side of a filmed or staged treatment, Dickens's original story looks less like a novella than an infinitely mutable story treatment featuring rock-solid structure — a skeleton-lean narrative progression of crimes, hauntings and redemption that can be streamlined for timeliness and casting needs. Don't have enough characters in your sitcom for a Jacob Marley? Send in the Christmas ghosts! Theater company lacking young males? Fold nephew Fred into employee Bob and see if anyone notices!

Different media can pick up on different Dickensian flourishes: theater over-the-top characterizations of the type that attract local Lionel Barrymores, film special effects opportunities and broad visual staging, Wellesian radio drama the rich language used to describe the meals and festive parties in which Scrooge could not take part. It's impossible to believe Dickens could have been completely oblivious to the franchise possibilities, given the prevalence of aggressive theater producers, the eventual possibilities for income from readings (he would make his debut with his own adaptation of this work), and the popular Magic Lantern slideshows, all of which worked together to extend the life of A Christmas Carol into the 20th Century where the baton would fall to newer forms — silent films in 1901, 1908, 1910, and 1915, for starters. Every pre-sold first novel that reads as if its characters were derived from photo spreads in Movieline works out of a variation of the same glorious tradition.

Like more recent Yuletide thoroughbreds The Gift of the Magi and It's a Wonderful Life, Dickens's ghost-story narrative boasts a plot kernel and central relationships that could survive outside of any mention of Christmas. The Christmas-eve setting casts the holiday into the highly flattering role of moral amplifier. In modern stories, December 25th is such a juggernaut of goodwill that audiences will accept any and all acts of temporary redemption it deigns to impose, whether on the Grinch, Tim Allen, or the Bradford family. Dickens's bluff, worked out in a three-pronged argument for the holiday's importance, has become a market-driven status quo, and one that flatters readers and audiences with optimistic outcome after optimistic outcome. Forget Scrooge's play-ending reformation: a three-pronged lifestyle intervention featuring the undead would work wonders for most people. And what about those suspiciously helpful supporting characters? In many families, relatives rescind an offer of holiday merriment at their house if you put your coat on the wrong bed, let alone subject them to years of verbal abuse. And we should all hope to go into business with someone who will crawl back to the world of the living seven years after kicking the bucket to help put our spiritual houses in order: Jacob Marley, Rotarian of the Century!

A Christmas Carol adaptations have helped enforce the Dickensian version of holiday-celebrating, but who can say how showing a very special Scroogian Full House (that, well, fails to recapture the book's rapturous, life-affirming zeal) might boost the holiday suicide rate? A theology of good works for their own sake and a cosmology of hidden veils thinly pierced to reveal spirits tortured by their lack of ability to pitch in, both become ridiculous in the absence of Dickens's poker face and humble but highly effective sales spiel. Our vague sense of obligation toward the original work and its intentions gets us through a million clumsy adaptations that stumble through Dickens's bigger messages by picking and choosing among his details. The blind faith in Christmas isn't something to be explained or dissected; it's an appealing smell you can't get out of your sweater. In that Christmas has become a high holiday of secular compassion and worldly consumption, Charles Dickens gave the Western world its easiest-to-read gospel. And with Tim Curry, Patrick Stewart, Fred Flintstone, Bill Murray, Michel Bouquet, and Cicely Tyson among its apostles, there's no shortage of people willing to spread the Good Word.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black