From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Christmas Carol Redux

We all know the plot. It’s Victorian London, somewhere in the early 1840s. Mean, old Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser of the worst kind. You couldn’t get a ha’penny out of him no matter how much you begged. Somebody up there gets tired of Scrooge’s meanness. The ghost of Scrooge’s long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears to him on Christmas Eve to get Scrooge to mend his ways. Scrooge is predictably obstinate, so Marley tells him he will be visited by three more spirits. These ghosts are special, though–one is the sad and nostalgic Ghost of Christmas Past, one the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present and the third the terrifyingly skeletal Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. We get a retrospective of Scrooge’s life, which starts out happy and hopeful in the past, and eventually turns into the grim spectacle of his present, ending with his projected lonely death in the future.

A terrified Scrooge wakes up thoroughly reformed and immediately orders a Christmas goose. He also swears to treat others much better than in the past, especially his much-abused assistant, Bob Cratchit, Cratchit’s wife, and Cratchit’s ecologically alarming number of children, including the now-famous Tiny Tim.

As the above synopsis shows, A Christmas Carol is a dark, supernatural fantasy, not really the usual genre of its author, Charles Dickens, who published the novella in 1843 to pay off debts. But it does reflect Dickens’ passion for social justice. At one point, Scrooge compares the Ghost of Christmas Present to religious reformers who were trying to get the bakeries closed on Christmas and Sundays. On these days, bakeries were open, but not allowed to bake bread. So, poor families who had no ovens were taking their meat to the bakeries to get them cooked for Sundays and holidays. Closing the bakeries on these days would have lost them a hot meal at Christmas.

A Christmas Carol ultimately reflects the hard-luck circumstances of the author, as well as some truly surrealistic fantasy, not unlike a winter version of The Wizard of Oz. This combination (not to mention the convenience that the novella is well out of copyright now) has resulted in many adaptations into all sorts of media. The Wikipedia page for these different versions lists over seventy.

Despite the fact that the novella is a ghost story, adaptations of A Christmas Carol are not common in actual genre fare. You see this especially in genre television. Christmas genre episodes tend to be about other things, usually the birth of Christ or a general meditation on the season’s message of peace and goodwill. In Xena: Warrior Princess, for example, Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle find themselves protecting the baby Jesus during the winter solstice in “A Solstice Carol” (1996).

In The X-Files episode, “Christmas Carol” (1997), FBI Agent Dana Scully discovers that the experiments on her during her bout with cancer have produced a daughter (a sort of scientific virgin birth). Meanwhile, episodes from Space: Above and Beyond and Babylon 5 deal with the season (both Christmas and Hanukkah), but as a brief moment of peace either during or immediately before a war.

Most adaptations of A Christmas Carol are therefore, strangely enough, mainstream, only grudgingly edging into magical realism. The Scrooge character’s experiences are usually highly subjective and visible to no one else.

Such adaptations also tend to fall into four different categories. First, you get straightforward versions of the story, set in Victorian England around the time that the novella was written (usually called either “A Christmas Carol” or “Scrooge”).

Second, you get modernizations where the Scrooge character is updated to the time period of the adaptation (Ross Kemp as a loan shark in a British television production from 2000). Sometimes, Scrooge is even changed to a woman (Ebbie, Ms. Scrooge).

Third, you get humorous adaptations or parodies. These can reflect either the original time period (The Muppet Christmas Carol) or the time of the adaptation (Scrooged). Sometimes, you even get adaptations set in that version’s past, but not in Victorian England (An American Christmas Carol).

Fourth, you get stories that deviate from the storyline, but have a similar premise (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Supernatural episode “A Very Supernatural Christmas”).

The last two categories are often animated and pitched to children, though Scrooged and the Supernatural episode are definite exceptions. They also tend to be the most unashamedly genre. My personal favorites tend to come from the last two categories.

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