Tag Archives: Jacob Marley

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption


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.

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.

Decision points

Yes, I’m aware of the irony of titling my first post of 2012 after George W. Bush’s autobiography.  Decisiveness is one of those traits highly valued in leaders, that they are firm and resolute in their convictions.  Strangely enough it seems immaterial what those convictions are, as long as they are unwavering – someone who takes the time to examine an issue thoroughly before committing to a course of action is dismissed as a ditherer.  It’s assigning total vindication to the concept of leaping before you look, inasmuch as it matters less that the leap will actually kill you than it does that you were certain about leaping in the first place.  I’ve chosen this topic for my 2012 leadoff slot because it relates to my sole New Year’s Resolution:  to be more decisive.  Which is not to imply that I’m advocating the abandonment of sound judgment; it is certainly not to suggest substituting recklessness for reason.  Rather, it is the idea of committing fully to a course of action instead of hemming and hawing and gaming out all possible failing scenarios first.  Acting the latter is the equivalent of standing on the side of a busy roadway watching cars race by, when you really should be in that race.  You should have been in it eighty-three laps ago, but you’re waiting for an elusive “perfect moment” to jump in.  Truthfully, you’re not waiting for a perfect moment.  It’s a fable you’ve conjured to rationalize your unwillingness to shift into gear and step on the gas.  It is the eternal lament of the coward who has resigned himself to never trying.

We can sit back on our couches and slam the politician with the redneck opinions, the auto-tuned singer of dubious talents but ample cleavage, the latest hack vampire novelist, the hopelessly wooden thespian, the football team that never wins.  But every single one of those people chose to stand up and try.  It doesn’t matter that they may have succeeded because of how they look or who they knew or just plain dumb luck.  They could have stayed home and kept to themselves, settled for a less than ordinary life.  Something compelled them to take that fateful step into traffic.  Ambition is not a vice; indeed, it is the driving force at the heart of all human progress since the beginning of time.  I’m writing this on a computer and sharing it with the world because someone long ago decided they wanted something other than pen and paper.  And before that someone decided they wanted something other than chisels and stone tablets, or charcoal and cave walls upon which to record their thoughts and stories.  Star Trek was never about going timidly where thousands had gone already, if, you know, it was perfectly safe to do so and no one else would be upset by it.  Hard to imagine getting excited about a television series like that, isn’t it.  As it is hard to imagine getting excited about a life of hesitation and half-heartedness.  Those who make a mark on the world use their whole heart.  One shudders, like Ebenezer Scrooge confronted by the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, at the prospect of looking back from the tail end of life at endless opportunities forsaken and dreams that never got off the ground.  That beautiful girl you never had the courage to ask out.  The trip you never took.  The jobs you didn’t apply for, the promotions you didn’t chase after.  The novel you never submitted to a publisher.  The treasures locked inside your soul that you never chose to share with anyone else.  What then are you taking with you as you shuffle off this mortal coil?  What are you leaving behind?  Someone, I think it was Mark Twain, had a great quote about being more disappointed twenty years from now by the things you didn’t do, than by the things you did – regardless of whether you succeeded at them or not.  Regret is the most burdensome of Jacob Marley’s chains.

My promise to myself for this year, then, is to charge at life.  If I am to fail, then I want to fail with a huge Graham-shaped hole left in the wall I just ploughed into at full speed.  (Full credit to Aaron Sorkin for that delightful metaphor.)  Moreover, I hope to never again answer the question, “What do you want to do?” with “I dunno, what do you wanna do?”  That is giving up one of your most precious freedoms as a human being – the freedom to decide the course of your own life.  Even in matters as seemingly nonchalant as what to have for dinner.  2012 for me, is to be a year with no regrets, and no chances passed up.  That is the stuff of living itself.

Oh yes.  And I also promise to blog more.