Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts

24 December 2013

Dickens' A Christmas Carol – at the Movies



by Dale C. Andrews


Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.  
       As I wrote in this space two years ago, so begins one of the most popular novellas in English literature. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published just before Christmas in 1843, rushed to the press since it had only been completed several weeks earlier by Dickens. That previous article discussed the back-story of this little classic in some detail, but today lets look in the other direction. While many of us read this slim volume annually as part of our holiday ritual, it is safe to say that many more revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in versions of the story that have been adapted for the screen. 

Tom Ricketts as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1908
       By Wikipedia’s count, which is close enough for present purposes, there have been 42 filmed versions of A Christmas Carol over a period now spanning more than 100 years: The earliest, a 1908 silent version filmed by Essanay Studios in Chicago, starred an uncredited actor named Tom Ricketts as the miser on the cusp of redemption; the most recent, a 2009 animated motion-capture version of the story filmed in 3-D by Disney and starring a very credited Jim Carrey. Rather than discussing each of the 42, lets cull the list a bit. After all, if you are sitting in front of the tree today with your eggnog while you surf the channels looking for some filmed holiday cheer, there are really only six versions of A Christmas Carol that you are likely to encounter over the air or on DVD. And as to those, here is my holiday viewing guide.

     A Christmas Carol (2009) As referenced above, the most recent filmed version of the story is the ambitious 3-D adaptation released by Disney in 2009. The film, written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a followup to his previous holiday offering The Polar Express. As is so often the case when the adjective “ambitious” is used, in many respects the mighty efforts here have produced a version of Dickens’ story that is flawed. First, and notably, the motion capture technique that Zemeckis uses here and in Polar Express, while visually stunning, is also a bit creepy in its rendition of characters. Second, stated carefully, Jim Carrey is not for everyone. And while he works hard at his Scrooge he is still, well, Jim Carrey, an actor not known for subtle performances. Third, the movie was one of the first of the new batch of 3-D films, and as such it employs some of the older 3-D tricks – like throwing things at the audience – that James Cameron subsequently managed to leave behind a few months later with the release of Avatar. Particularly embarrassing is the prolonged scene in the Third Stave of the story, where Scrooge is shrunk to the size of a mouse and then slides down a roller coaster-like incline. When that comes on, think of it as a commercial and act accordingly. (In other words, leave the room for another drink.) The movie does have its moments, however. When not reaching for gimmicks, the 3-D can be beautiful, even stunning, And Zemeckis’ version provides an interesting new perspective for the story, situating Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley above much of the action, as they stare down through the transparent floor of Scrooge’s rooms. The film received mixed reviews, although Roger Ebert gave it four stars. 

       A Christmas Carol (1999) is graced by the presence of Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart is not only a gifted actor, he is also a long-time fan of Dickens’ story and has performed it as a one-man reading in London and New York for years. The film was produced for the TNT television network and is generally available over the air during the holidays. Unlike some other versions, at least the early parts of Stewart’s interpretation have a somber, gloomy aspect to them, much in keeping with the original tale by Dickens. The approach is realistic and I like it. Remember that, as discussed in the earlier SleuthSayers’ article, Dickens intended his story as a morality tale – a condemnation of British child labor laws and the plight of the poor in England in the mid 1800s. Stewart’s version toys with the original a bit, offering up more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley, but this works well even if it involves scenes not envisioned by Dickens. And in addition to Stewart’s bravura performance as Scrooge, watch for a good turn by Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Also watch for the montage, early on, of various denizens of the English working class -- in mines, on boats, in a lighthouse – setting aside their troubles to sing Silent Night. The scene is original to Dickens, but only rarely portrayed in filmed versions of the story.

     A Christmas Carol (1984) is yet another television adaptation of the story, this time starring the late George C. Scott as Scrooge. The film was produced by Hallmark and aired for years on NBC each December. Like the Stewart version Scott’s Scrooge is depicted in early scenes that are not found in Dickens' novella, including (again) in scenes fleshing out more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley’s beginnings. Scott was reportedly anxious to participate in this production since he had long believed that Scrooge tended to be portrayed by others in too broad a brush. Scott’s goal was to present Ebenezer Scrooge as a hard man of business, conservative and strict, but not someone who was mean simply for the sake of meanness. Beyond Scott’s performance, highlights of the version include Anthony Walters’ portrayal of Tiny Tim. Unlike some other child actors called upon to breathe life into that role, young Walters actually looks the part – managing to convey innocence, kindness and frailty in his demeanor. Another highlight is the superb performance by the late Edward Woodward (who played the lead in CBS’ The Equalizer) as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Toward the end of Stave Three Part Two of the book, Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present turn like quicksilver from jovial to fed-up as he listens to Scrooge.  He looks Scrooge in the eye and delivers the following line: 
'Man,' . . . if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. 
No one, and I mean no one, delivers this line as effectively as Edward Woodward. Essayist Lewis Bayard, writing for Salon.com, called this “the best Christmas Carol ever.” Even if you don’t agree, you can’t go wrong watching this one. 

       Scrooge (1970) This version of our story is the Leslie Bricusse musical adaptation, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, which was filmed for theatrical release. I like the version, but it is sort of an acquired taste and decidedly not for everyone. Telling a story as a musical, with certain exceptions, becomes an invitation to tell it as a musical comedy, to play it too broadly, and that light air certainly has its effect on the brooding morality of Dickens’ original story. As an example, the most hum-able song in the score, the Oscar nominated Thank You Very Much!, is sung by those who owed Scrooge money as (unbeknownst to Finney, who is joyfully singing along) his coffin is wheeled down the streets of London. Also a bit strange is the casting of Finney, who decidedly is not a singer, although, according to rumor, the score was originally written for another non-singer, Rex Harrison, who ultimately turned down the role. The film also adds an excruciating scene after the Ghost of Christmas Future in which Scrooge falls into his grave and ends up in Hell, as an accountant to Lucifer. The scene, often cut (thankfully!) in the televised version, was likely added to give Alec Guinness, portraying the ghost of Jacob Marley, one more scene. If it is still in the version you find yourself watching, well, think of it as another invitation to refresh your drink. But don't get me wrong, this version does have its treasures, including the best metamorphosis of Scrooge’s door knocker into Marley’s face ever filmed, a wonderful stint by Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Laurence Naismith, who delivers the absolute best Fezziwig of all time.

     Scrooge (1951), released in the United States as A Christmas Carol. Many (myself included) believe that this modest British production is the finest film version of Dickens’ story. Alistair Sims is so perfect as Scrooge – tall, skinny, gaunt, tortured -- that he played the role not just once, but again in 1971 when he voiced it in an animated version of the story. Interestingly, Sims was reportedly a substitute for Basil Rathbone, who was originally to have played the part. But that is mere trivia – Sims' portrayal is perfect and wonderful. The production also is true to Dickens in the sense that it is presented darkly – for me it plays better in the original black and white than in the colorized version of several years ago. In the black and white film one feels, particularly in early scenes, the desolation of the English working class that is at the heart of Dickens’ story. But at the same time Sims’ version goes beyond Dickens in some respects and, like the George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart productions discussed above, delves into Scrooge’s past life with Marley and Scrooge’s evolution into the miser that we meet in Stave One. Watch for a young Patrick MacNee (later John Steed in The Avengers) in those early scenes portraying the young Jacob Marley. 

       A Christmas Carol (1938) This is likely the earliest version of Dickens’ story that you will find on broadcast channels or streaming video. It starred Reginald Owen, who was also a last minute Scrooge substitute, taking the place of Lionel Barrymore who stepped out of the production because of arthritis, but still provided the film’s opening narration. The film is a good rendition and, perhaps, its only fault is that it has a sort of sunny disposition that makes it difficult to find the London of Dickens. Cratchit looks too well fed; Tiny Tim, too big, too healthy.  The two starving children, "Want" and "Ignorance," who Dickens revealed hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, do not even appear in this version.  But watch for Leo G. Carroll, who later starred on T.V. as Topper and then as Mr. Waverley on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and who delivers a great ghost of Jacob Marley. Also of interest is the fact that the Cratchits are portrayed by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, married in real life, and that one of their daughters, in an uncredited role, is played by their real-life daughter June Lockhart, who went on to a career portraying television mothers in both Lassie and Lost in Space

       Finally, if you are looking for a spoken word version of Dickens, over the years there also were many radio adaptations of A Christmas Carol. One of my favorites was a 1975 episode of CBS’ Radio Mystery Theatre starring E.G. Marshal as Scrooge. Marshal was the host of the series and this episode, as an interesting aside, is the only one in which he also appeared (er, was heard) as an actor. This adaptation is available for downloading on line. 

       So if you are looking for a little Dickens this year, you will not go completely wrong with any of the versions discussed above.  And, as noted, there are some real gems out there.

       Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and see you in 2014.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

16 February 2012

Beginnings




by Janice Law
In writing, as in so much in life, a good start is vital. Unless it’s the dreaded assigned reading, a novel or story with a flat opening is doomed to remain unread and unsold, one reason why so many contemporary mysteries and thrillers start with the page one discovery of a corpse, preferably young, female and formerly beautiful. While a few writers, like Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) in A Fatal Inversion and Eric Ambler in Journey into Fear, are content to build up a suspenseful atmosphere and trust to their literary skill, most prefer to start with more visceral excitements.

But the modern preference for a scene of unbridled carnage is not the only option. Since February 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, we can profitably look at a writer who was supremely confident about his beginnings – and his audience.

He is famous for opening lines like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” that begins A Tale of Two Cities, and he was no stranger to exciting openings. In the first pages of Great Expectations, Pip is frightened by the escaped convict, Magwitch, and early on in Our Mutual Friend, a body, yes, indeed, is pulled from the river. There’s also murder and all sorts of brutality in Oliver Twist, and, besides Our Mutual Friend, another genuine mystery in the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The beginnings of any one of these – or of other Dickens’ works – repay examination, but I will stick with the one I know best, having taught it to many classes of Gen Ed students, most of whom were not enthralled by literature of any type. A Christmas Carol was a happy exception for them, although it lacks the explosions, car chases, and bizarre deaths of the pop fiction and video games they enjoyed.

True, A Christmas Carol does begin with a death or, at least, the fact that Marley, Scrooge’s old partner, is dead. But Dickens doesn’t plunge immediately into the whys and wherefores of Jacob Marley’s demise. He takes time to speculate on whether “dead as a doornail” is really the most appropriate simile, before declaring that it embodies the “wisdom of the ancestors.” He also allows himself an amusing digression on the ghost of Hamlet’s father before he finally turns to the matter at hand, which becomes the immortal description of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Right away, we see two things that appeal to readers. First, an intimate, amusing, and confident voice. Who can resist Dickens’ conviction that we will stay with him through his little jokes and asides? And who wants to resist those energetic sentences with their reckless piling up of nouns and adjectives, all due to be undercut for comic effect. Referring to Marley’s death, he tells us that “Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event...”

And then, there are the characters. When its time to describe Scrooge himself, Dickens really cuts loose, beginning with “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Most writers would be exhausted right there, but Dickens is just warming up. He has a lot to say about his protagonist, much of it funny, all of it sharp, with no wishy washy adjectives, no cliches.

Every character gets similar treatment. There is no such thing as a faceless man or woman in Dickens. The most minor character is sharply delineated and even the holiday display of fruit and vegetables in Carol get the star treatment. This is writing with energy, and I think even reluctant readers respond to the writer’s irresistible enthusiasm.

Of course the passport of genius crosses many borders, but it is not a bad thing to remember energy in writing as well as pyrotechnics in plot. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, there is a tendency to rush to the exciting scenes or to what, in more innocent times, was called the naughty bits. Action writers tend to remember Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum to leave out the parts readers skip, but anyone who has sampled his dialogue knows that if his sentences are short, his high octane prose has been painstakingly distilled.

So can Dickens two hundred years on give us some tips for beginnings? Yes, he can. Write with confidence in your audience. Build up the energy in the prose as well as in the plot, and remember there is really no such thing as a minor character in the hands of a genius.





20 December 2011

Dickens' A Christmas Carol


By Dale C. Andrews

 Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
    So begins one of the most popular and long-lived novellas in English literature.
 
A Christmas Carol, front piece and title page (1843)
    Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, just prior to Christmas.  But the story, from all accounts, had been fermenting like Christmas punch in Dickens’ imagination for many years.

    If you have read biographies of Dickens, or if you perhaps had the good fortune to catch Roy Dotrice’s 13 part 1976 Masterpiece Theatre presentation chronicling the life of Dickens, you already know that many of the characters in A Christmas Carol were drawn from Dickens’ own life.  Characteristics of Ebenezer Scrooge were taken in broad brush from Dickens' father, a man whose moods swung often from joy to darker visages, who was in and out of debtors prison, and with whom Charles Dickens had a life-long love/hate relationship.   Fan, Scrooge’s fragile sister, bears the same name as Dickens’ equally fragile sister, and her son Henry, a sickly child who died young, is almost certainly the model for Tiny Tim.  Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is also the name of Dickens’ younger brother, a spendthrift of whom Dickens largely disapproved.

    There is also evidence that both the story and the theme of A Christmas Carol had haunted Dickens for years before he actually sat down to write the novella.  In fact, a “working draft” of A Christmas Carol can be found buried in another Dickens story, a short narrative of Christmas redemption that appears in the earlier novel Pickwick Papers.   There, in an episode that also transpires on Christmas Eve, the character Mr. Wardle tells those assembled the story of old Gabriel Grub, a lonely and bitter sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins that show him scenes from his own past and, unless things change, his likely future.

    While all of this is useful background information, The Annotated Christmas Carol by Charles Michael Hearn (2004) notes that the catalyst that inspired Dickens to write A Christmas Carol was his visits in early 1843 to Cornish tin mines.  During those visits the author  encountered child laborers working in deplorable and heart-wrenching conditions.  After touring the mines Dickens immediately set to work on a pamphlet that was to be titled "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child," and that was intended as a clarion call to end child labor, particularly in the mines.  Charles Kelly, in his 2003 treatise A Christmas Carol, reports that Dickens soon concluded, however, that his call for labor reforms and charity for the poor would be more resoundingly received if they were set forth during the course of a story, particularly one cloaked in the setting of a London Christmas. 

A page of Dickens original manuscript
    But this revelation came to Dickens in October of 1843, barely two months before Christmas.   In order to ensure that the book would be published at the time of year when its message would resonate the most Dickens had to accomplish a Herculean task.  When Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol it was therefore at a feverish pace.  The book was finished a scant 6 weeks later, in early December of 1843.  Less than two weeks after completing the manuscript on December 17, 1843, Dickens published  the first edition of A Christmas Carol at his own expense. 

    Although expenses related to Dickens’ decision to self-publish (tricky then as it can be now) resulted in less of a return than the always over extended author had hoped for, the little book was nonetheless an immediate commercial success.  The first run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843 and a second press run was immediately begun .  Since then Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. 

    The success of A Christmas Carol inspired Dickens to write four additional Christmas tomes published between 1844 and 1848:  The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain.  Each of these was published just before Christmas in succeeding years, and each involved a similar theme – redemption of the spirit in the context of the yuletide holiday.  But none matched the success of A Christmas Carol.

    So, what was it – what is it – about A Christmas Carol that struck the right chord?  Well, at least back in 1843 some of the success of the book can be attributed to rather remarkable timing.  Stated another way, the little book was a product of its times.

    In the early 1800s Christmas had been more of a somber affair in England.  It was a day barely observed, when businesses remained open and commerce continued to flow.  That fact makes more understandable the grudging question Scrooge poses to Cratchitt:  “You will want all day tomorrow, I suppose?”  Scrooge, after all, had presided over his business in years when a Christmas holiday from commerce was hardly the norm.

    But by the 1830s times were changing, and the Yule had begun its transformation into a joyous year-end celebration.

    Evidence of this transformation abounds.   In 1841, for example, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, German by birth, introduced a tradition from his homeland and the first Christmas trees appeared in England.  1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, is also the first year that Christmas cards were widely exchanged in England.  The singing of Christmas carols, suppressed in England since the Protestant Reformation and the Calvinist aversion to "nonessential" religious customs, also enjoyed a resurgence in the 1830s as wassailing took hold in England.  All of this was in place when A Christmas Carol first appeared in the bookstores of London in December of 1843.

    Even meteorology cooperated with Dickens’ narrative.  The “white Christmas” setting of A Christmas Carol was hardly the norm in London, which more typically receives 6 to 12 inches of snow spread over the entire winter season.  But this was not so much the case during Dickens' lifetime.   In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote: "In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes reality does actually exist before the idealized image."  Probably even more telling was the fact that on Christmas Eve of 1836 – seven Christmases before the publication of A Christmas Carol, and the very night that Dickens tells us Jacob Marley lay dying – London  was blanketed in a blizzard that continued for five days and reportedly left snow drifts of 12 to 40 feet in the city.

    And beyond all of this is the moral of the story, which, as Dickens had hoped, captivated his readers.  In 1843 England -- beset with its poor houses, debtors prisons, and child labor -- the hope of individual and societal redemption that lies at the heart of A Christmas Carol fell on sympathetic ears.  Dickens was not the only Englishman appalled by these conditions, nor was he the only one hoping that society would begin to move toward a more charitable approach toward poverty and its ravages.

    So a joyous Christmas story, set in a snow-bound England, and telling a tale of redemption, of throwing off miserly ways, of embracing human kindness and charity, was one that the reading public readily embraced.

    It is more elusive, perhaps, to explain the amazing staying power of A Christmas Carol.  It has proven itself, beyond all debate, to be a story not just for the Victorian age, but for all ages.

Alistair Simms -- perhaps the finest
portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge
    Not only is the book universally read, it is equally universally performed.  Think of the actors who have played Scrooge over the years – Reginald Owen, Alistair Sims, Basil Rathbone several times (he also played Marley at least once), Frederic March, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Richard, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart.  The story even resonates when Scrooge is played in a stretch – by Mickey Mouse, Mr. Magoo, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, or by Kelsey Grammar (in an operatic version, nonetheless), or by Henry Winkler (in a western version), or by Marcel Maceau in a mime version, or by Bill Murray (in a jaded Hollywood setting), or by Michael Caine (performing opposite the Muppets),  All of them, and others, have looked out at us and expounded on burying revelers with a stake of holly through their hearts.  All of them have muttered about blots of mustard, crumbs of cheese, and underdone potatoes.  All of them have snarled “humbug,” a word that did not exist until Dickens penned it.  And each of them, every one, has been blessed and redeemed in the end. 

    I read Dickens A Christmas Carol every year, and (at least for me) it always works.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!