Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption

scrooge

I posted a few days ago about holiday memories being the best gift you can give yourself.  One of mine that I didn’t get into in great detail was my annual required viewing of the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  This seminal tale, which has probably done more to shape how Christmas is celebrated worldwide than any other work of literature, has been adapted for stage, television and film hundreds of times, the earliest surviving movie being a 6-minute silent British version in 1901.  The version aired most often every 24th of December, and most beloved by both critics and families, is the 1951 remake, titled either Scrooge or A Christmas Carol depending on which print you happen to catch (avoid the colorized version at all costs), starring Alastair Sim as the pitiless miser who learns to change his ways following a 1:00 a.m. visit from three pesky spirits.  My father introduced me to it when I was very young; he and my uncle were fond of quoting it at length, badly imitated British accents and all, during family holiday gatherings.  Now, as a father myself, watching it is the last thing I do before turning out the light on Christmas Eve.  And while my son is not likely to understand why Dad’s making him watch this boring black and white thing that doesn’t feature Iron Man in any capacity, it’s important to me to carry this tradition forth for as many years as I’m able.

Consequently it’s difficult for me, as it is with most of the movies that I look upon fondly, to sequester my emotions and memories and evaluate the movie from a strictly critical standpoint.  Since it was the version I grew up with, I was surprised to find scenes and characters missing and/or altered in later remakes (like the 2009 Jim Carrey CGI version) that turned out to be upon further investigation inventions of screenwriter Noel Langley and not part of the original story.  It might be sacrilege to suggest that anyone could improve on Charles Dickens (or would even dare to try), but for once, we have an example where exploring deeper into the background of an ostensible villain enhances the stakes of his journey.  Langley’s script switches the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, making Ebenezer the younger brother who is estranged from his father after his mother dies giving birth to him, paralleling Scrooge’s later disenchantment with his nephew Fred who has cost him the life of his beloved elder sister Fan in the same way.  We also see Scrooge, after apprenticing with the jolly old Mr. Fezziwig, come under the influence of the corrupt Mr. Jorkin (a Langley creation) who seduces him to the dark side of capitalism and ultimately introduces him to Jacob Marley, the man who will become his equally covetous business partner.  (Gosh, could this sound any more like Star Wars?)  But it all works.  Ebenezer Scrooge was not born a bad man; like so many of us he made bad choices and reacted adversely to what a cruel world threw at him.  He hardened his heart to avoid feeling sad and eventually to avoid feeling anything at all.  Langley’s insightful adaptation shows us more of what Scrooge has lost, deepening our desire to see him reconnect with the meaning and importance of Christmas.

None of it would matter, however, if the performances weren’t there, and Alastair Sim’s is probably one of the best ever put to film.  His is without flaw, equally credible in full miser mode and giddily standing on his head upon achieving his catharsis, by turns terrifying and repulsive, then endearing and delightful.  And as I noted earlier, his inflections around choice lines are the stuff of impersonation fodder for both professionals and fathers and uncles decades onward.  He is matched perfectly by Kathleen Harrison, Cockney charm through and through, as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman (i.e. housekeeper), another role greatly expanded from the Dickens original.  In fact, there isn’t a poor performance in the lot.  It’s a treat as well to see Peter Bull, perhaps best known as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, as the film’s narrator and the business acquaintance of Scrooge’s who insists he won’t go to the funeral unless lunch is provided, and Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of British TV’s The Avengers, as the young Jacob Marley.  If you’re a detail-oriented James Bond fan as I am, you’ll also enjoy spotting Francis de Wolff, the leader of the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love, as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present.  The acting by the ensemble is so good that it remains fresh and surprising even after dozens of viewings – you really feel the sorrow of the Cratchit family on the loss of Tiny Tim and revel in the triumph of watching him run towards the reformed Scrooge at the finale.  You hate Scrooge’s guts for treating everyone so poorly and laugh with him as he tries to contain his glee in finally figuring out the truth that has lain dormant beneath the Christmas snow.

The possibility of redemption remains a powerful driver of human existence.  Most major religions, and the criminal justice system, are predicated on the concept that atonement and forgiveness are always within reach.  Even for the secular, Christmas can be a time where we can tally the events of the previous year, come to terms with them and resolve to make the necessary changes going forward, with a sense of renewal, optimism and hope.  No matter what kind of year I’ve had, whether it’s been a time of robust progress or of perceived stagnation, putting on A Christmas Carol and watching Alastair Sim’s Scrooge plead with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that he’s not the man he was, is an important reminder of possibility, that it is never too late.  The challenge, however, is in making enough of those changes so that you begin to live your life as robustly as the post-ghost Scrooge.  So that you become, as Peter Bull intones, “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.”  Perhaps that’s the lesson my father wanted me to learn by making me watch the movie every year.  It’s certainly one I want to pass on, and I’ll make my son watch it until he gets it too.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.

Of Dickens and dancing

One is known for penetrating insight into the human condition, the other for a sublime figure and captivating dance moves. If you think you know which is which, you obviously never saw Dickens do a tango.

February 7, 2012, is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  The best of times, or the worst of times?  One wonders if Dickens, who died thirty years before the turn of the 20th Century, would be pleased to know that his stories and characters are remembered well into an era he could not have conceived, yet arguably might have found a home in.  You don’t have to have read his entire catalogue, or even a single volume of his works to know names like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, and perhaps most notably, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.  As I’ve observed before, how we celebrate Christmas today is largely the result of how Dickens portrayed it.  Dickensian is a familiar adjective that conjures immediately an idealized image of the grand old city of London, his everlasting muse.  Stylistically, Dickens was a master of character, an expert wielder of the cliffhanger.  Socially, he was a champion of the poor, an advocate of justice and a relentless believer in the capability of good to triumph over evil.  Story was his sword, and with it he carved himself a legacy still seen in the most popular fiction of today – particularly that which celebrates the underdog and his fight against overwhelming odds.

The romanticism of the Dickensian tale resonates to this day, I believe, because he recognized that we all crave that same heightened sense of adventure in our own lives.  Edyta Śliwińska of Dancing with the Stars fame, in discussing the various failed relationships that had sprung up between celebrities and partners during the course of the show, cannily observed their failure to know the difference between intense attraction and a lasting emotional connection – the mistaking, as it were, of movie love for real love.  Fictional romances, whether on the screen or in printed pages, are a powerful narcotic because of their savvy manipulation of the universality of emotions.  We want to be swept off our feet in slow motion to the swell of orchestral strings and walk into the sunset of the happily ever after.  It is not that our real lives are less interesting – far from it when closely examined – but we are drawn in by the heightened and artificial reality of the story.  The natural ebbs and flows of relationships are compressed into 90 minutes, the sweet moments escalated into diabetic fits of ecstasy.  In the story you don’t see the sitting up at three a.m. worrying while your partner squats noisily on the toilet, and any screaming matches usually only happen in the last third of the second act; once the screen goes to black and the credits roll, all is right in the world forever and evermore.  Real love is messy, and angry, and hurtful, even hateful at times.  But it is real, and unlike the movie, it is lasting.

Why then, do we still want the storybook version?  It is perhaps a gut reaction to the madness of the world outside, an existential search for meaning in the face of suffering.  I choose to see it as a case for optimism about the nature of humanity.  Like all of nature’s creatures we are designed for survival at all costs, often by the cruellest methods available to us.  Yet paradoxically we are still drawn toward the positive, the sense of anticipation of the prosperous future.  We hunger for the reassurance of the triumph of good against evil no matter what the stakes, or the cost.  Charles Dickens knew it, and could translate that longing into characters and tales into which we could invest ourselves.  That, I think is the key to Dickens’ lasting appeal – the nurturing of that tiny flame which continues to burn in every human heart, no matter how downtrodden, how wracked with despair at seemingly unending misery.  The longing for the light.  The everlasting sense of hope.

And I’m told he had great legs too.

The evolution of Christmas

It seems every year, about this time, a select few on the right-leaning side of the punditocracy get their collective knickers in a knot over a supposed “War on Christmas” being perpetrated by their ideological opponents.  As wars go, this imagined assault has to be one of the least successful campaigns in history, ranking somewhere between Custer at Little Big Horn, and anytime anyone has ever tried to invade Russia in the winter.  We’re not seeing the burned corpses of shopping mall Santa Clauses rotting in the streets.  Bright lights and fake reindeer still color our streetscapes.  Many mainstream FM radio stations still switch their playlists to all Christmas on December 1st – including songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.  And December 25th itself is still a statutory holiday.  This is hardly the time for so-called defenders of Christmas to circle the toy wagons and rend the linings of their Santa suits in desperation.  Just knock back an egg nog and chill.  Please.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what it is they’re protesting.  It’s not a return to tradition, as it’s plain that Christmas as we celebrate it and have celebrated it for well over a century has little to do with Jesus.  Customs like the tree, Santa Claus, eating turkey, none of those come from the Bible.  Indeed, what we think of as a proper Christmas owes more to the writings of Charles Dickens and his Cratchit family than it does to Church doctrine.  The date itself was picked by Pope Julius I in the 4th Century, borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan Saturnalia festival.  Even the Bible doesn’t claim that Christ was born in December – Bethlehem around this time of year hits sub-zero temperatures during the night, and shepherds would not be out watching their flocks in the fields, as it says in Luke 2.  And amazingly, Jeremiah 10:2-4 prohibits Christmas trees entirely:

2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

As oppressed as those who lash out against this supposed shock and awe being perpetrated against the twenty-fifth of December by the evil liberal literati may feel nowadays, it used to be a lot worse.  In colonial America, celebrating Christmas would cost you a five-shilling fine – you could thank the humourless Puritans for that one.  The Founding Fathers didn’t think much of Christmas either, holding their first session of Congress on Christmas Day, 1789.  It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. government finally declared it a national holiday.

What probably sticks in their craw the most is that Christmas, like life itself, evolves.  Long gone, at least among the majority of those who observe the Yuletide holiday, is the absolute requirement to fast and attend a morose mass, replaced by the sound of little footsteps running down the stairs as soon as dawn breaks to see what Santa and the reindeer have brought.  From year to year, from generation to generation, Christmas is in motion as old traditions are modified, expounded upon, abandoned, as new carols are added to the canon, tastes in decoration (and food) change, new Christmas movies find their way into theaters.  But more importantly, Christmas changes as families themselves combine, separate, expand or contract.  Like a cosmic cornucopia of paint colors ebbing and flowing, blending together to produce new ways of celebrating the one day a year it remains a virtue to be nice to someone else just for the sake of being nice – in a world increasingly given to assigning a perplexing nobility to selfishness.

Santa Claus as we know him – the jolly fat guy in the red suit – was essentially a creation of the Coca-Cola company’s advertising department back at the turn of the 20th Century.  But we have applied that image to the legendary figure of St. Nicholas and crafted something entirely new, a character who now fires the imaginations of millions of children as they await his yearly arrival.  It evolved in our collective consciousness.  Much as Christmas itself will continue to evolve with the coming years and decades.  That isn’t a war on Christmas – it’s a perfectly natural next step.  Like the strongest in nature, Christmas will survive.  And to those trying to hold back the progress of nature, there’s truly only one reply:  Bah humbug.