Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book vs Film: A Christmas Carol

I've seen at least one film version of A Christmas Carol every year since birth, but it's taken me 32 years to read the story for myself. In so doing, discovered things. That's what happens when you read most any book after watching a movie based on the story, because words on the page can hold much more than images on the screen, for better or worse. Some of the following scenes and lines are probably in adaptations I've not seen, while others simply don't translate from the page.

(Note: Most anyone who's read the story has probably already thought of everything I'm about to say. These aren't meant to come across as new discoveries. They're regular old discoveries anyone might find by opening the book.)

1.) I've heard the words A Christmas Carol strung together so often, I never questioned their significance as a title. A quick googling tells me everyone knows a carol is a joyful song, particularly a Christmasy one, so on a basic level, the title is about Scrooge's life becoming something to sing about. The following scene, as it happens and when it happens, is critical to the title being what it is, because first epiphanies are hugely important (a tiny crack and the integrity of the entire structure is threatened). Scrooge has just started his journey to the past and has been crying at the sight of his pitiful, lonely boyhood self, when he says this:

"I wish," Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: "but it's too late now."
"What is the matter?" asked the Spirit.
"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."

The reason this matters is because it's the first time Scrooge regrets one of the actions of his current self, and it's very early in the process of the hauntings. This tells me he wasn't terribly far from hope after all, which continues to be evident throughout (in fact, a bit more resistance would have been more consistent with the character setup). It also tells me he's not yet regretting being an ass to the rest of the people he saw before the haunting (regrets for them will come as the story goes on, encouraging the theory of the whole thing being an Oz-like, drunken dream).
 Scrooge's first big let down in life was childhood loneliness and neglect. Both experiences make one learn to cope without the help of others. So it's no surprise when a personal connection to another lone creature is the first crack in the ice of his personality. In fact, the only time the words 'Christmas' and 'carol' are used together in the story are in reference to this boy. So as far as title significance goes, this scene is revealing. It's the first major chord in a long string of minors.

2.) Another thing is the narrator's voice, which makes me love my favorite adaptation, The Muppet Christmas Carol, even more for having Gonzo narrate as Dickens. The introduction (by Katharine Wiley) in the front of my copy says this tale is one in a long line of Christmasy ghost stories, a tradition in Dickens' day. Like any good ghost story, it's perfect for telling aloud. I'm guessing that's why Dickens made the narrator's voice like a live storyteller. Third person point of view implies a storyteller tone, but the live storyteller feel comes in when the narrator gets personally involved, in a first person kind of way. Most striking is this instance, where the narrator not only acts as storyteller, but plays with the ghostly theme as well:

"The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

3.) I'd forgotten Scrooge saw his ex with the family she ended up with. The fantastic thing about this scene is the layering; Scrooge not only sees the past, but what his future might have been. He sees how the past affected the present, and therefore how the present affects the future. In a scene requiring the spirit to physically hold Scrooge to make him watch, Scrooge sees his lost love with her kids and husband. He doesn't really cry about the loss of her, or isn't said to be crying for her. What hits him hardest is the loss of a chance at fatherhood.

"And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed."

Another curious detail is the ex's response to something her husband says, then Scrooge's response to both of them:

"I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon."
"Who was it?"
"How can I? Tut, don't I know," she added, in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. "Mr. Scrooge."
"Mr. Scrooge it was. I passed his office-window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe."

It's bad enough to have lost the girl, lost the family, lost the comfort that companionship might have brought him in old age. But to see the two of them aware and discussing the little bit he did have (self, pride, livelihood and position) was too much. Now Scrooge was seeing his past, what his future could have been, and what his present was, which wasn't much. Scrooge becomes so upset, he attempts to put the candle-like ghost out with the candle-snuffer hat it's carrying.

It's a beautifully subtle and suggestive scene between man and wife. Why, after all those years, is her husband looking in on Scrooge (and making sure to note he couldn't help seeing him for the candle)? Why is he even a part of their conversation, their lives? Sure, she laughs along, but laughter comes in many forms. If you've ever been in love, even with a shortsighted idiot, you know there's always something remaining, or at least a little piece forever gone. Think about it: when she dumped Scrooge, she was "in a mourning-dress." A mourning-dress! She was grieving as if the man had died. This wasn't a quick facebook relationship status change. It was a broken heart, a severed contract, and in her mind, a death to be mourned.

4.) When Scrooge is haunting his nephew's Christmas party, his nephew's wife starts playing a song on the harp. Scrooge connects the song to the sister he was so fond of. Then there's this:

"When this strain of music sounded, all the things [the Ghost of Christmas Past] had shown him came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley."

There's a lot in the passage about what could have happened to change the course of things and stuff about his profession and probably something about why the title is the title. What never occurred to me while watching the movies was that at this point in his transformation, Scrooge was making a connection as deep as this, and by way of music. Still applying a strong logic (alongside his emotions), he begins to reshape his ideas of worth in response to "a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes," a nothing mixed with perspectives on life and love and what matters. It's a beautiful moment. It shows him evolving from self-pity and the beginnings of empathy to an appreciation of existential worth and beauty which will, in the end, take the vital step further into action and atonement, both made urgent in light of time (or the lack thereof).

5.) "The kind hand trembled."

Scrooge has just walked through the future like an idiot, not realizing the whole time he's hearing/seeing the world's response to him dying. (A bit contrived, but who am I to question Dickens.) The line above comes from the graveyard scene at the end when Scrooge has finally realized he's the dead one. The whole time the narrator has been describing the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come as the embodiment of cold reality. Yet here, as the haunting is about to come to an end, instead of seeming to actually be the Ghost of Cold Dark and Unavoidable Death and Torment, the shrouded spirit is revealed to be Just One Dark Possibility. The thing to note is that what you can't see in a film is whether or not the hand is kind. You can see it shake, give, begin to disappear. But you can't know it's kind. It's one word in the text, a single detail, and it carries all sorts of wonderful implications. Maybe it's just part of a drunken dream crumbling away into a bed post. Maybe it's part of what happens when a possibly dark future (or dark man) transforms into a possibly bright one. Or maybe there is some little kindness even in a dark Death that carries a dark soul to a dark, lonely grave.

6.) There's got to be more irony and wordplay in the story than I'm picking up on, but the last line of the last paragraph didn't get past me. In fact, it almost convinces me that Scrooge did more than just eat at the tavern before going home to such a strange night of nights, on the anniversary of his partner's death, to sleep in his dead partner's chambers...

"He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards..."