Sunday, July 7, 2013

Is There Any Way To Breathe New Life Into "A Christmas Carol" — ?


By Lars Trodson

The thing that was going through my mind as I watched Jim Carrey’s version of “A Christmas Carol” when it was in theaters a few years back was whether that movie was finally going to put an end to any new filmed versions of the book. That 3D spectacle (produced by Disney) seemed so tired and spent, so devoid of any new ideas (I wondered if the screenwriters had actually read the book), that I thought it was the final nail in Jacob Marley. This turned out to be true. The versions that have come out in the four years since have been jokey, gimmicky, low-budget jobs (one has a character named Bob Crotchrot instead of Bob Cratchit, to give you an idea.)

But truth be told, the entire "Christmas Carol" franchise had already seemed to have grown damp and tired by 2009. The story had been repeated so many times, in so many way, that it no longer had any real power to surprise or delight. The novel is so slender that a 90 minute or two hour version pretty much contains everything that Dickens wrote. Even the classic half-hour version by Richard Williams from 1971 feels, in its own way, complete.

I think watching “A Christmas Carol” has become the tradition. We don't really have a transformative experience watching the story any more. We go through the motions; the viewing of the movie is now a bauble, an ornament, a connection to our past yuletide traditions. Scrooge opens his window and calls out to the boy ("A wonderful boy! An intelligent boy!") but it no longer moves us.

Scrooge is, simply put, too familiar, too famous. One of the reasons for this is that the novel is in the public domain; you don’t have to pay any rights for it. If you’re an actor of a certain age (Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine), or a production company looking to add to the pile of holiday fare, you can produce your own version. More than one local theater company balances its books at the end of the year by putting on a production of "A Christmas Carol."

It’s too bad that it's run out of steam, because it is a lovely story. The characters are beautifully drawn — and of course Scrooge himself is a masterful creation. He’s obviously one of the great creations in all of literature. I've begun to wonder if there was any life in the old boy yet.

I've been looking at various versions, almost all of which have remarkably similar beginnings. It’s usually a London street scene, bustling, people singing carols, and the camera soon swings into Scrooge & Marley’s. Scrooge is counting his money and Bob Cratchit is trying to warm himself by the heat off a single lump of coal.

Then in comes Fred, Scrooge's nephew, an affable fellow, and then the two men from the charities ask Scrooge to help out the less fortunate come into the office. Even the most casual acquaintance of this story can repeat this dialogue: "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." After they are rebuffed, Scrooge debates Bob Cratchit about the merits of the holiday — "A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" — Scrooge goes home and he’s visited by Jacob Marley's ghost, who laments that he neglected his fellow man. He tells Scrooge that he may "have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer."
To which Scrooge replies: ""You were always a good friend to me."

It seems that the friendship between Scrooge and Marley is one element not fully explored in the filmed versions of the story. I'm not going to associate this relationship with kind of homoerotic undertones — although some have tried — but the beginning of the book is, after all:  “Marley was dead, to begin with." But the reference is most often used as a mechanism so that we know who Marley is when his ghost comes to pay a visit a later on.

The other element to explore is the idea that Scrooge is a true outsider; that is, he may not be a Londoner, and perhaps not even an Englishman. His outsider status may have a geographic reason.

I had looked at an online version of Dickens' biography and read that the author had seen a grave of a Scotsman named Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, and the inscription on the headstone was "A Meal Man" — meaning he sold corn. Dickens, so the story goes, misread the words as "A mean man", and was left with the sad impression that Scroggie must have been truly mean to be burdened with this description for all eternity.
Scroggie was Scottish (Dickens saw the grave in Edinburgh). A popular stereotype of the Scots is that they are impecunious and that is of course one of Scrooge's dominant traits.

It would not have been unusual for Dickens (or any other 19th century novelist) to engage in some casual bigotry and ascribe a popular stereotype, yet, it's important to note that Dickens doesn't mention what nationality Scrooge is. All we know is that he lives and works in London. But it would not be historically inaccurate to have a Scotsman living in London in 1843, the year the book was published.

By 1860 (according to oldbaileyonline.com), there were 3.2 million people in London, and "38 percent of those folks were from someplace else."

Having Scrooge be Scot would add to his alienation. He would be outside of London society - while his nephew Fred would be much more assimilated and much more comfortable. It could be (if you wanted to add to the backstory, that Scroggie changed his name to Scrooge to blend in but to also not completely erase his heritage. (In color versions of "A Christmas Carol", including the George C. Scott and Mr. Magoo versions, the youthful Scrooge has red hair, a decidedly Scottish trait, so this connection is at least hinted at.)

But why not make it more explicit? Why not employ an actor that is decidedly Scottish to play the role? (It should be pointed out that Alistair Sim, the actor most associated with Scrooge, was, indeed, Scottish, but there's no trace of a burr in his accent.)

The other aspect of the story is the idea that Scrooge was really devastated by Marley's death. Dickens puts it this way: "Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner."
Those last two descriptions are key: each was the other's only friend.

There is another pointed detail: "Scrooge never painted out old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterward, above the warehouse door: Scrooge & Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge & Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him."

Having lost his friend, having lost the affection of his sister and his first and only love, Scrooge has simply shriveled up, and so it is not out of callousness that he ignores Bob Cratchit and Fred, it is out of hurt and jealousy. It is the fact that they have happy families, and children, and company — and Scrooge does not (the cruelty of Scrooge's father is hinted at). It could also be why Scrooge was lonely as a child, and the loneliness of children is a motif throughout the story.

At one point, in a moment that does not make it from book to screen, the Ghost of Christmas past asks: 

"What is the matter?"

"Nothing," said Scrooge. "Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something; that's all."

Some of the warmest and heartbreaking moments in the book occur in the Cratchits' rooms, around the table, with Tiny Tim and without him.

Of course, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the images of Ignorance and Want in the guise of two starving, filthy children, a boy and a girl.

Take this exchange, not often included in any filmed version, between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. They are talking about Scrooge's sister, Little Fan:

"Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered," said the ghost. "But she had a large heart!"

"So she had," cried Scrooge. "You're right. I will not gainsay it, spirit. God forbid!"

"She died a woman," said the ghost, "and had, as I think, children."

"One child," Scrooge returned.

"True," said the ghost. "Your nephew!"

Scrooge seemed uneasy in his mind, and answered, briefly, "Yes."

And, of course, the first person Scrooge sees on the morning of his redemption is a young boy, who goes and buys the fatted goose for the Cratchits.

It seems as though there are rich veins to be mined in "A Christmas Carol" if the themes of friendship and family are explored more personally, more from Scrooge's point of view, rather than simply painting him as a mean, cheap, heartless old man. It could be that his story will resonate more powerfully if we realize that Scrooge has been as much rejected and hurt by the world, as he has been by it.

In that way, I've written what I think might be an affecting way to open the story:

SCENE 1

SFX: The sound of a clock ticking can be heard before any image is seen.

WORDS ON THE SCREEN: New Year's Day, 1838

FADE IN: The point of a dip pen hovers over a document in extreme closeup.

CUT TO: A line on the document where a signature should be written.

CU: A drop of black ink drops just above the line and splashes on the paper.

CUT TO: The point of the pen is set down just above the line, and the hand slowly, neatly, writes out the name: EBENEZER SCROOGE.

A solicitor picks up the document, looks at the signature, and blows on the ink to dry it. He places the document in a folder, and he places the folder in his valise.

CUT TO: SCROOGE, sitting still and staring at nothing in particular.

SOLICITOR
(Gently)
Mr. Scrooge?

SCROOGE looks up, silently.
SOLICITOR
Our business is concluded, Mr. Scrooge.

SCROOGE nods but does not move. The SOLICITOR puts on his coat.

SOLICITOR
(Picking up his hat)
Mr. Scrooge?
(Silence)
Will you be moving into Mr. Marley’s lodgings?

SCROOGE
What?

SOLICITOR
Mr. Marley has left you his lodgings. Do you have any plans for them, sir?

SCROOGE
(Quietly)
I suppose I’ll be moving into them, yes. I don’t know. Perhaps.

SCROOGE stands.

SOLICITOR
(Helping SCROOGE on with his coat)
You were his only friend, Mr. Scrooge?

SCROOGE
He was my only friend, yes.

SOLICITOR
(brushing Scrooge’s coat)
A horrible thing to have happen on Christmas Eve, sir.

SCROOGE
Excuse me?

SOLICITOR
Mr. Marley's death, sir.

SCROOGE
Oh, yes... well.

SOLICITOR
Well, a good new year's day to you, sir.

SCROOGE
Oh, yes. Thank you.

SOLICITOR
Will you be quite all right, sir?

The SOLICITOR picks up his valise and puts on his hat. SCROOGE puts on his hat and walks to the door.
SOLICITOR
Health and happiness, sir.

SCROOGE turns and looks at the SOLICITOR with a mixture of anger and sadness and he makes a noise, more like a grunt, to acknowledge the absurdity of the SOLICITOR's comment.

SCROOGE walks out the door and into the wind and the cold.


OPENING CREDITS