Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Carols

I've watched a half dozen or more different versions of A Christmas Carol this week, from Mr Magoo to George C Scott, through Reginald Owen, Seymour Hicks, Alistair Sim, and Vincent Price.

I have to say that Magoo and Sim are the best - Sim probably the most faithful - and Scott the most visually attractive. But I saw so many, and noticed so many little differences - added stuff and reordered episodes - that I figured I'd better reread the book! It's so short, it's a quick and pleasurable read, and the author's voice, generally missing totally from the movies except for the very beginning and very end, is delightful. For instance, this when Scrooge awakens to the first Spirit:
"Why, it isn't possible," said Scrooge, "that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn't possible that anything has happened to the sun, and this is twelve at noon."

The idea being an alarming one, he scrambled out of bed, and groped his way to the window. He was obliged to rub the frost off with the sleeve of his dressing-gown before he could see anything; and could see very little then. All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and that there was no noise of people running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day, and taken possession of the world. This was a great relief, because "three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or his order," and so forth, would have become a mere United States' security if there were no days to count by.
Virtually every one of the film versions spends much more time on the Cratchits than Dickens did. This is especially true of the Reginald Owen one, which has Bob fired for throwing a snowball and hitting Scrooge, but in quite a few Scrooge drops by their house on Christmas and several spend a lot of time introducing us to Tim in the lead-up scenes. For Dickens Cratchit was part of what was wrong with Scrooge, not a main character in his own (their own) right.

I said the Scott was the most visually appealing, but Scott's Scrooge has too much humor; he says with a laugh what Dickens' Scrooge says "indignantly". Also, the Scott one in particular messes up several things by insisting on preserving some of Dickens' dialog, but not all of it. Of course, it's not just the Scott. Virtually every one has Marley's ghost tell Scrooge to expect the ghosts in the same night. This makes Scrooge's
"I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can."
rather meaningless. In Dickens, the visits are foretold for three nights:
"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one."

"Couldn't I take `em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?" hinted Scrooge.

"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!"
If you're going to change the one, you really ought to change the other! Also, the
situation in [Bob Cratchit's] eye for Master Peter, which would bring in, if obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly
is, in the Scott version, with Fred! Which might just work if he didn't talk about Fred in the usual 'I barely know the man, and he doesn't know us at all' way in the Future...

Another thing is that several of them (Scott's among them) make Scrooge younger than his sister Fan, and even go so far as to tell us that their mother died when he was born. Dickens has no justification for that: he explicitly describes her, in the episode where she comes to the school, as
a little girl, much younger than the boy
Another thing the Scott version makes a bit of a muck of is the undertaker, charwoman, and laundress scene. In Scott, there's only the charwoman, and she stole everything. Plus, like almost all of them, it rearranges the placement of that episode. In the films, it generally comes after this:
"If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man's death," said Scrooge quite agonised, "show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you."
In the book, it comes before and causes that, and then the Spirit shows him what only one film version keeps - the debtors who are saved by his death:
She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart. ... Soften it as they would, their hearts were lighter. The children's faces hushed, and clustered round to hear what they so little understood, were brighter; and it was a happier house for this man's death. The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure.
That's the scene that makes Scrooge plead,
"Let me see some tenderness connected with a death,"
which takes him to the Cratchits' house...

And then there's this line from Christmas Present:
You have never seen the like of me? Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family, meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?
In the Scott version, that line becomes
Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family nor any of my elder brothers?
That plainly means that Christmas Present's younger brothers - the Christmas Presents of Next Year and Next Decade - must be around for Scrooge to have had a chance to walk forth with!

And then there's this from Fan, at the school:
Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you.
In the Scott version she says those words, yet their father has come in the coach with her. "Sent me in a coach to bring you" really cannot mean "came with in a coach to fetch you". It just can't.

Oh, one more thing - I'd forgotten that Tiny Tim's body was still in the Cratchit's house in that Christmas Future episode. Nobody shows us that in a movie! Dickens tells us this:
He broke down all at once. He couldn't help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.
Quite happy... and that rather maudlin "I'm sure we'll all remember Tim no matter what" speech? That's not media vita in morte morbidness, it's occasioned by the girls teasing Peter about making enough money to be "be keeping company with some one, and setting up for himself." In short, the Cratchits are a tough bunch. They're not the heroes of this story, and most movies spend far too much time on them, but they are everything Scrooge isn't - and he needs them for his "reclamation".

In short, I guess, the Alistair Sim version is the best one out there (the Magoo is close, but the Cratchits are too poor in it).

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At 6:24 AM, December 27, 2011 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

When I read the book, years ago, what struck me was the abruptness of Scrooge's change of heart, as compared to the gradual character development seen in modern adaptations. Personally I think the modern adaptations are an improvement in this particular respect, but that's because I am a modern audience.


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