December 27 update: Our Christmas Carol advent blogging is now complete.
|Image: cover of the Bantam Classics edition of
A Christmas Carol
Pamela has a history of innovating reading/writing/viewing projects -- beginning with Year of Books in 2009 -- and of involving James in quite a few of them. Our other most successful (and cooperative) projects have included The Complete Noni: An Incongruous Diversion and Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana.
This season's *main idea has to do with the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, which has been produced in hundreds of formats and versions since its 1843 publication.
As a librarian, she has already managed to track down quite a few of them. James is updating this post as a record as we watch/read/listen to the various offerings.
Before we even started with versions of A Christmas Carol itself, we heard the backstory as part of an audiobook written and read by one of our favorite authors -- The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson. He puts the novella in the context of the broader ebbs and flows of Christmas celebrations in the United States and the United Kingdom. It turns out that 1843 was a turning point in the history of the Christmas season as we now know it. A Christmas Carol was published at just the right moment.
It is appropriate that we began our journey through the many versions of this story with a video mashup that is built from 400 of them. The full title of Heath Waterman's work is Twelve Hundred Ghosts - A Christmas Carol in Supercut (400 versions, plus extras), a labor of love that he makes freely available on YouTube.
The title raises a point of contention among fans of the work. Most of us (such as James and Mr. Waterman) tend to think of this as a story of three ghosts. Purists (such as Pamela and the creator of the meme below) recognize that Marley is the first of four ghosts in the story.
Plot twist: Pamela recalls that it had been a trivia game that first caused her to think of the story in terms of all four ghosts
Ron Oliver's 2005 film Chasing Christmas starts Tom Arnold, Andrea Roth, and the fabulous Leslie Jordan. Set in the United States of today, it is a metafictional version of the story that involves quirky plot devices around time travel and a very deliberate acknowledgement of the Dickens version by several key characters.
Pamela's fast take on the 2022 Netflix production Scrooge: A Christmas Carol was "it was worth watching for the trippiness." What begins as rather light and campy
musical theater becomes more complex (in a good way). It delves into certain aspects of the back story, gives Scrooge a nice dog (of all things), and builds increasingly complex entrance theatrics for the ghosts. Gremlins are somehow involved as well.
Careful viewers will notice than in his final scenes of redemption, Scrooge begins with much overdue notions of charity, but then continues to a critical examination of the ownership of the means of production. This version has expanded roles for characters of color and women, though it fails the Bechdel test, as any telling of this tale is likely to do.
Scrooge McDuck as Mister Scrooge is the predictable -- lazy, perhaps? -- typecasting at the center of Disney's 1983 Mickey's Christmas Carol. He has a contrived Scottish accent and relishes the role of mean-spirited bankster. The character named in the title is a perfectly nervous Bob Cratchit. Many other familiar Disney faces fill out the cast for this quick -- almost cursory -- telling of the tale. Viewers are rewarded with a few unique laugh lines and sight gags.
At 22 minutes, the 2011 opus The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol was the most extensive foray into the Smurf franchise that either of us has taken -- by a margin of at least 20 minutes. Early on, James was trying to figure out why they changed the words of "Deck the Halls" to refer to "white" apparel when Pamela pointed out that they seemed to be avoiding the word "gay."
The question of whether to count three ghosts or four is really muddied in this version, in which a spirit is concocted from a potion and quickly morphs into a spirit of the past. We counted three spirits and zero ghosts. There is also no Scrooge, just an ungrateful young Smurf named Grouchy (we assume he is just part of the usual ensemble). Many other liberties are taken with the usual plot, including a Christmas "future" that is just the day after Christmas Eve (a.k.a., Christmas of the current season).
Dickens is not mentioned in the credits, but if he were, there are enough departures from the original story to describe this as "inspired by" rather than "based upon" A Christmas Carol. We were surprised to find some rather big names in the credits, however, led by Fred Armisen and Hank Azaria.
Jim Carey starred in the animated 2009 Disney production A Christmas Carol. The illustrators showed off their attention to detail in costumes, architecture, and facial expressions, while the writers highlighted many examples of period-specific and even Dickens-specific vocabulary.
Shofar, So Good was a 1994 episode of Northern Exposure (s6, e3), in which our hero Dr. Joel Fleischman exhibits the ungrateful and arrogant attitude that was the hallmark of his character through the first several seasons, but which come to the attention of several ghosts of Yom Kippur. Although we used to watch this show regularly, it has been quite some while, so we don't remember if his repentance was a one-off change or a turning point in the series.
Kelsey Grammer starred in the 2004 musical A Christmas Carol. Our son is rather a fan of Grammer, but declined to watch with us, saying that he could picture exactly what that would be like, and just imagining it was enough. He might have been right; it has its moments, but mostly it finds a way to make the tale much longer in the telling, with songs that are mostly quite tangential to the story.
James sings, "On the 8th day of this advent, my true love sent to me: a listicle of fun facts about a few of the literally countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol."
On a day that we would not have much time for viewing, we chose to watch a brief version of The Christmas Carol that was made for television in 1949. This simple version is framed by the narration of our own Vincent Price.
After a long day of preparing and then having our annual latke feast for Hanukkah, decorating our tree, and then playing a somewhat raucous and lengthy game of Trivial Pursuit with our brilliant kid, we were ready for the shortest adaptation on the list Pamela has compiled for this project.
The "Speakaboos" production is a rather drab, illustrated narration of the Dickens Tale that tells the basics of the story in just under 16 minutes, all in one voice.
It's Christmas, Carol is a 2012 film in which Carol is a publishing executive in Chicago whose life -- and values -- parallel those of Scrooge in the original work. Her first act of stinginess is one I practice myself: walking past red-bucket bellringer, though I do so for different reasons.
Several scenes follow, in which she treats her employees shabbily and is eventually visited by the ghost of Eve, her former employer. It had been in Eve's bookstore that she developed a love of reading -- a passion for books that had gradually drifted into a passion for the money books could make. Played by Carrie Fisher, Eve combines the roles of Marley and all three spirits in the original story.
This version makes direct reference to Dickens (at one point called "Chuck" and includes a brief snippet from one of the earlier film adaptations playing on a television. As Eve and Carol explore many dimensions of Eve's past, present, and future, this movie achieves something rare in adaptations of A Christmas Carol: it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
As the most sentimental member of the family, James appreciated this film more than Pamela did -- it does take a few sappy turns.
Tiny Tim has agency in the opening scene of Edwin Marin's magnificent 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. He has much more dimension in this film than in any we have seen so far. Unlike most versions we have seen (except for our December 11 entry), this film passes the Bechdel Test -- in this case with a conversation between two living women. Hint: one of them is Bob Cratchit's daughter, Martha.
The scene with which most film versions begin is the one in which we meet both Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge. It is the second scene in Marin's production, and it took us only a minute to notice that Bob's hairdo resembles that of the head Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. As we started noticing more of these slick, swirly cuts, James took to IMDb and confirmed that Jack Dawn had been responsible for makeup in both films -- and in over 200 others.
|Hair and Makeup by Jack Dawn
His talents extended far beyond the use of Brylcreem on the men, however: Ann Rutheford as the Spirit of Christmas Past was so luminescent that we had to confirm she had not been Glenda in the aforementioned film. They have essentially the same hair.
For our viewing at the end of rather a long final day of the semester, we chose a relatively short (71 mins) adaptation that we correctly surmised would be on the light side. Messrs. Hanna and Barbera did not disappoint with their 1994 work, A Flintstones Christmas Carol. From the start, they get credit for naming it exactly what it is. As a search of IMDb reveals, most productions of this classic tale retain the original title Dickens applied.
This was a silly a production as one might imagine, but at the same time sophisticated in an unexpected way. This is metafiction, in that it makes direct reference to the Dickens novella, but it goes a step further tan most. The movie centers around a Bedrock community-theater production of A Christmas Carol, in which Fred plays Scrooge and Wilma is the stage manager.
A rapidly spreading virus knocks out one cast member after another, pushing Wilma onto the stage at the last minute in several different roles. Here is the brilliant twist, though: on the day leading up to the local production, Fred's usual selfishness is exaggerated and Wilma's frustration a bit closer to the surface than usual. Throughout preparations and in the play itself, Fred's continues to be tone deaf, until eventually Fred the actor learns -- alongside his character -- the value of being more considerate.
Incidentally, as Pamela noticed early on, this is a community theater with no limitations on special effects.
|Henry Corden as Fred Flintstone
as Ebenezer Scrooge
One fortnight into the project, we chose the 1999 A Christmas Carol, in which Patrick Stewart plays a grim, bald, and generally hatless Scrooge. His portrayal is more nuanced than most, and his relationship with Marley is more richly developed. Joel Grey plays the Ghost of Christmas Past as very much the nonbinary character described in the novella. This ghost is also more ghostly than most, appearing a bit out of focus and very brightly lit, but not translucent in the way that Marley is shown.
We had a bit of confusion about the 1935 Scrooge (In Color) from Amazon Prime, because we have a VHS version from the same era in black & white. This is indeed a colorized version of the same classic, starring Sir Seymour Hicks. The IMDb entry for this version of Scrooge mentions a Dutch colorized version, but not an English one.
The trivia section of the IMDb includes three items of note:
- Seymour Hicks first played Scrooge onstage in 1901 and it became his most popular role. Throughout his career he played it over a thousand times, often at fund-raising benefits.
- The failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film's copyright resulted in it falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (and usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film.
- This is the first full length version of the story with sound; there had been a short, Scrooge (1928), which was the first sound version.
The second of these might explain why Pamela noticed for the first time that Marley is invisible; we have watched such a murky version so many times that neither of us had noticed this before. And the third item explains why we have come to think of this as the default version.
Today we watched Bill Murray's highly irreverent (profane, even) 1988 Scrooged for the first time in quite some while. Similar to the Flintstones version we saw on December 13, this is an extremely meta version, in which the Frank Cross -- Murray's Scrooge-like character -- is involved in a production of the original tale. This is also a waking dream, in which the ghosts and visions are intermingled with Frank's real-time experience of Christmas Eve. This can be confusing at times.
This features a remarkable variety of A-list actors, including Carol Kane as a ghost with a kinky sense of humor.
Found online today, from artist John Atkinson:
Today's observance did not involve video screens. James finally started reading the book, and will continue doing so after this post. Since copyright expired long ago, this Google book is a handy version. Although clearly it was scanned from an old print version, it is also searchable, which is a help in resolving some questions about details.
Our main activity, however, was something a bit different -- to which we have been looking forward for a couple of months. Our neighbors at the nearby Central Square Congregational Church hosted a discussion of the book, led by Pam's friend the minister. We have visited the church on many occasions, but this was the first time we have visited the Fireplace Room, which is as cozy and inviting as it sounds.
We learned quite a few things from the discussion, including some that we figured out as a group. The book is divided into "staves" which we all understood to be something like an act or a chapter, but which none of us quite understood. The English teacher in the group -- who shared a lot of insights from her years of teaching the book to 8th graders -- looked up the word on her phone and found that it is related to the word "staff" as in a musical staff. Like the book itself, a musical staff comprises five parallel lines. Bearing in mind the parallel staves of his own life's story is what allows Scrooge to live "in the past, present, and future" -- a phrase that had puzzled all of us.
Book discussions are a good thing!
We also touched on three connections between me (James) and the book. When our host asked which of the characters we felt was most like ourselves, I said that I had recently felt I was like Fred, but could not put my finger on it. Pam poined out that I share his steadfast optimism about people and his compunction to ameliorate misunderstandings between people. We all agreed that physically, however, I most resemble the Spirit of Christmas Present as usually described. And I also wondered allowed whether my ancestor Ebenezer Kezar of Lovell, Maine might have been named for him. I have forgotten the timeline of my geneology, so the jury is still out on this.
Later in the day, we watched a non-Dickens Christmas romcom. The 2022 Your Christmas or Mine? is light and heartwarming, but not as vapid as a Hallmark Christmas romcom would be. It has some quirky characters as well. It bears mentioning here because it makes direct reference to the Muppets Christmas Carol (which we are saving for Christmas weekend) and because one of the Scroogish characters does eventually catch the Christmas spirit -- with no paranormal activity required. We have not seen the 2023 sequel.
We watched the 2021 Carol's Christmas so you don't have to. "I hated that," were Pam's first words when this gritty Las Vegas adaptation stopped. Not ended, by the way: stopped. Without resolving any of the issues it raises. Maybe the filmmakers simply ran out of money, or maybe director David Womack thought Scrooge was right in the first stave and did not need any redeeming.
The possibility that it just ran out of money cannot be dismissed. Some scenes reminded me (James) of a horror movie my friend Serge filmed on Super 8 in the creepy house I lived in as an undergraduate. Campy, but not Hollywood. IMDb estimates a $500,000 budget -- which is what some films spend on coffee breaks. IMDb also has only had 62 users bother to rate the film, giving it barely a 2 out of 10.
This title does have a couple of redeeming features. With Marley, Scrooge, and several of Scrooge's financial victims being women, there was plenty of woman-to-woman dialog. And although the production values were not polished, this film really make the spooky parts spooky. Finally, many of the financial abuses in the original were updated to the kind of legalized crimes against the poor that the financial industry perpetrates in today's America. In that sense, perhaps Womack is just not ready to let the banksters off the hook.
James, trying to pre-read the book before this evening's WBUR reading, notices the following opening line in Stave Three: "AWAKING in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, ..." and begins to wonder if he is Scrooge after all, rather than Fred, as mentioned above.
On this, the 180th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol, we enjoyed a very special reading in Boston, the city where it was introduced to America. Five stellar journalists from WBUR -- Tiziana Dearing, Sharon Brody, Ben Brock Johnson, Robin Young, and Darryl C. Murphy -- read a slightly abridged version of the story. Each brought great talent and a distinctive style to the telling of the familiar tale.
Bonus: the reading was an opportunity for Pamela to note that Dickens employed several synonyms for what we often simply call ghosts. These included: spector, spirit, and phantom; as well as: immortal creature, and strange figure.
Between each reading segment, we were treated to incredibly inventive arrangements of carols by the Mistletones a capella quartet.
Intermission featured a banquet of hot chocolate (with whipped cream!) and cookies!
This was the most anticipated part of our advent project. It was a perfect excuse for James to don his coachman hat, for both of us to enjoy an evening in the city, and for us to meet a few of our fellow WBUR supporters.
It is fitting that the event raised $15,000 to support the comprehensive programs of Rosie's Place, the oldest organization in the United States serving women in need of shelter.
This was a truly festive affair!
Tori Spelling is quite convincing in the 2003 television movie A Carol Christmas, in which she plays Carol Cartman, a television personality of moderate talent but great ambition fueled by an older relative in the business. In this case, the relative is her Aunt Marla, who is Marla's Ghost by the afternoon of the Christmas Eve in which our drama plays out.
|Pamela found a DVD of this somewhat elusive television movie in the library,
so we were able to avoid the inconvenient streaming options.
This campy version of our tale features a few good laughs and some fun casting choices, such as Dinah Manoff, Gary Coleman, and William Shatner. The characters acknowledge the Dickens tale directly but awkwardly and only very late in the proceedings. One clever part of this is Carol's very meta question as to whether the apparitions should be called ghosts or spirits, and whether there is any difference.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is silent, as it is in almost every adaptation. In this case, he is the driver of an absurdly stretched Hummer limo. Perhaps because he does not speak, James Cromwell is not credited in this role.
An interesting departure from the original is that our hero's disrupted sleep is during the daytime hours of 12 to 3 p.m. -- a diva needs her nap, after all.
This production is not, by the way, listed among her father's 233 production credits. He was still producing Charmed and 7th Heaven when this was made.
Today's schedule promises to leave little time for television during our usual evening viewing hours, so we decided to watch a short feature. Our to-watch list included only feature-length films, so we started searching and landed on a the 1910 silent film A Christmas Carol starring Marc McDermott. Running just 10 minutes, is probably was a feature film in its day. This was the first we had heard of this actor, who had 222 acting credits between 1909 and 1926.
We were fortunate to find this sepia-tone treasure on Public Domain Movies. It makes sparing use of titles, relying on the audience to be familiar with the story. Body language is emphasized and special effects are surprisingly advanced, rendering all ghosts and visions as transparent figures sharing the screen with a solidy opaque Scrooge.
December 21 Double-header
Our plans for the evening changed, giving us an evening to watch a feature-length film after all. This was the most meta of them all: 2017 The Man Who Invented Christmas. Both of us vaguely remembered having seen it, but neither of us remembered a single thing about it, so we might have been mistaken about that.
This is the story of a writer (Dickens) who is financially desperate for a success and under tremendous time pressure because it is October when he decides to put all of his eggs in the basket of producing a lavishly illustrated book for Christmas. With decidedly analog publishing tools. And while suffering from writer's block. But we all know how that ends, and the importance of this not only for him, not only for literature, but for the otherwise minor holiday itself (as described in the McKibben book mentioned at the top of this post).
Many familiar elements of the story are introduced as tidbits in the daily life of Dickens himself -- phrases he happened to hear or names of people he happened to meeet. We were left to wonder how many of these actually happened and how many were imagined after the fact for this biopic. Once a name was chosen for the main character, Scrooge materialized as the author's combative muse in the form of the late, great Christopher Plummer.
This story of the story is as thrilling as the story itself.
We saved the best almost for last. We watched The Muppet Christas Carol (1992) at a time we knew the whole family (including Crumpet the Christmas Dog) would be able to enjoy is. Our son the art-school graduate declares this the best movie of any kind and all time. And today librarian Pamela adds that she would almost never say that a movie is better than the book, but that this is the exception!
I get so caught up in the experience that more than once in recent years I have posted a photo of our viewing in progress, just to let my online friends know that we are enjoying this slice of Christmas. And as always, people are happy for us, with several folks chiming in with favorite lines.
One of those lines, of course, is "Come in, and know me better, man." As discussed above, I (James) bear some resemblance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. With this viewing, I got the idea that perhaps I should introduce my classes this way in the spring semester. While some of my online friends support this idea, our son thinks it would lead to murmuring among my students of my need to retire.
For Christmas Eve Eve, we watched the 1951 Scrooge starring Alastair Sim because so many of our friends have recommended it. As I write this introduction before we actually watch it, I see that Amazon Prime bestows four keywords:
International · Drama · Compelling · Dreamlike
We shall see ...
Yes, it is all of those things. The Amazon version begins with Patrick Macnee circa 1989 in an ascot in front of a tree and next to a fire. The hero of Pamela's old favorite The Avengers gives the proceedings a distinctly Masterpiece Theatre air and does mention people gathering "from all over the continent" for the holidays, validating the use of the "international" tag.
Of course almost every version of this story involves dreams, but this does seem to take the nightmare aspect of Scrooge's experience to unusually intense levels. And the Drama when he first encounters the ghost of his former business partner!
More than any version we have seen or read, this explores Scrooge's indifference on the night of his partner's death. It also makes more effective use of the allegorical characters Ignorance and Want. They are omitted entirely from many productions, but here they have quite an impact on the dreaming miser and the audience alike.
It is no wonder that several of our friends mentioned this as a favorite.
We had an extra reason to be grateful for our longstanding traditional lobster feast with friends this year. Not only was there great food and fellowship, but they also shared the use of their Apple TV subscription, allowing us to watch Spirited (2022), starring Will Farrell and Ryan Reynolds. For in a bit of irony not to be missed, we have noticed that this "Apple Original" is hoarded by the company in Scrooge-like fashion, allowing no way to view it without a subscription-not even available to purchase as a DVD.
This musical was super fun and in the spirit (pun intended) of Chasing Christmas (December 2) we get a glimpse “behind the curtain” of how the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come choose who will have a chance for redemption each year. With allusions to Elf, A Christmas Story, and other holiday favorites, this one looks to have staying power.
After the blessing of a good night's sleep, we had time for one more film before we all shared Christmas brunch. We very much enjoyed A Christmas Carol (2020) by Jacqui Morris. IMDb decribes this as "a radical animated retelling of the holiday classic that starts with a Victorian performance of the Charles Dickens tale before diving into the imagination of one of the children in the audience, taking the story to a darker fantasy realm."
To this I would add that it is in many ways a ballet, set in what looks like an ever-transforming model of the Globe Theater. Narrated by Siân Phillips, this is a visually luscious rendition -- and the only one we have seen in this Advent project that includes the stormy nautical scene that appears late in Stave 3 of the original novella.
Throughout this project, a very different version of the tale has come to mind every time I (James) heard nephew Fred exclaiming about Christmas, "And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
That version is the very unlikely 1989 Roger & Me, in which filmmaker Michael Moore doggedly pursues the then CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, seeking a conversation about what the company has done to its workers and to Moore's entire hometown of Flint, Michigan. Late in the film we see the annual Christmas message from Smith, in which he cites Dickens as an authority on Christmas and intones these very lines -- without any apparent sense of shame or irony. Moore intersperses this message with what his film crew was observing on Christmas Eve: a very disturbing scene of a family being evicted from their home, owing to the unrepentant Scrooginess of Smith and his corporation.
Lagniappe -- the other idea
We are pursuing two advents this year, the other one being an advent jigsaw puzzle -- a 1,000 piece puzzle comprising 25 smaller daily puzzles of 40 pieces each, each in its own tiny box. Several puzzles of this kind are available online.