Shadows of Things That Might Be

Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come

Go turn on the TV right now, and some crappy sitcom is probably doing its own version of A Christmas Carol. We've all seen Charles Dickens' 1843 tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption played out so many times, in so many media—from slick spectaculars up on the big screen down to school plays put on by graceless, gap-toothed children—that it's easy to forget that this story is essentially a very artful and persuasive work of leftist propaganda. Dickens was a brilliant storyteller, sure, but he was also a liberal social crusader who dreamed that his work would move society's haves to behave with greater charity toward its have-nots.

A Christmas Carol, let us remember, is a morality tale about a rich, callous old bastard who is forced to take a hard look at his own sorry existence: money is all he has, and unless he learns to care for his fellow humans, particularly those he once dismissed as the "excess population," he will die a wretched, lonely death. The last season of M*A*S*H wasn't this preachy. It's a testament to the pig-headedness of conservatives that they never seem to realize A Christmas Carol is aimed squarely at their dusty, hardened little hearts.

Thanks to Dickens' great craft and conviction, his tale never loses its hold on us, no matter how familiar it becomes. We sit down to watch yet another adaptation, and we think, Oh, Christ, here's pathetic ol' Bob Cratchit shivering by the stove, here's Scrooge's speech about roasting the idiot carolers in their own holiday pudding . . . I can't possibly watch this story one more time. But then Scrooge encounters that damn doorknocker with Jacob Marley's face, and the next thing we know we're hooked yet again.

We can't resist sticking around to find out what the ghosts will look like in this version and if the Ghost of Christmas Present has those freaky kids hiding in his robe. When Scrooge finally encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and desperately pleads for another chance, we still feel a shiver of genuine fright, as if we don't know perfectly well that within two minutes Scrooge will be happily hollering out of his bedroom window, telling that passing street urchin to scamper off to the butcher and buy the giant Christmas goose. Perhaps we'll even chuckle, for like the 9,000th time, when the little smart-ass shoots back, "What, the one as big as me?"

It is tempting to imagine what Dickens would have made of these endless adaptations of his work. I don't suppose he would have had any problems with Alistair Sim as Scrooge, or George C. Scott, or Patrick Stewart, for all played the part much as Dickens described. But what about Scrooge portrayed by a woman? Say, dethroned Miss America-turned-singer-turned-actress-turned-infomercial-spokesperson Vanessa Williams? Or soap opera diva Susan Lucci? Or perennial showbiz also-ran Tori Spelling? Would Dickens enjoy the Muppet version? Would he object to the action being re-set in 1930s America, as it was in 1982's An American Christmas Carol (starring Henry "Arthur Fonzarelli" Winkler)? Would he have been as befuddled as I am by Rich Little's TV special, in which the famous impressionist played all the parts himself, as various celebrities?

What in heaven's name would Dickens think of the Mister Magoo version? It was the very first animated holiday TV special, and was followed by equally perplexing cartoon versions starring Scrooge McDuck, Fred Flintstone, Walter Matthau (The Stingiest Man in Town) and more besides. The Looney Tunes characters had a go at the story in a 1979 holiday special, and they have a new, straight-to-DVD remake out this year. Would Dickens object to Tweety Bird as Tiny Tim ("God bwess us, ev'wy one!")? It seems likely Dickens would not have approved of Beavis and Butt-head's take on the story, in which the three ghosts visit an increasingly annoyed Beavis as he's trying to watch porn. But, hey, you never know. Despite his reputation for sentimentality, Dickens always had a soft spot for low comedy and the grotesque, so maybe he would've thought Beavis' Cornholio routine was hilarious.

Through all of these adaptations, I suspect Dickens would have cared more about the faithfulness to his intent than the particulars of his narrative. Thus, I imagine he would have approved of Scrooged, the bilious 1985 satire starring Bill Murray as a snarky TV network exec who gets the Ebenezer treatment. It's among the least faithful to the details of Dickens' story, but it captures Dickens' outrage at the human capacity for callousness in the face of dire need, and it captures this element more effectively than some of the more literal adaptations do.

It's rather bitterly ironic that A Christmas Carol, a story about a wealthy scoundrel's Christmastime comeuppance, has become something of a staple for stage companies looking for a holiday spectacular sure to please their wealthiest patrons. In Scrooge's nightmare vision of the future, he witnesses a family rejoicing that he is dead and that all their debts to him are thus resolved. Here's hoping that, during this year's run of A Christmas Carolat South Coast Repertory, at least a few of the fancy folk in that audience will hear a little of what Dickens was actually saying, and pause to consider whether it's worth collecting on all your debts if it means your debtors will be glad to dance on your grave.

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