From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Christmas Carol Redux

Sometimes, the story is set in a time period that is neither the present of the original nor of the adaptation. An American Christmas Carol (1978) casts Henry Winkler as a mean-spirited landlord named Benedict Slade in New England during the Great Depression. Winkler, still popular due to playing the Fonz on “Happy Days” at the time, wore age makeup for the role. The bleak New England winters give a particularly harsh backdrop to the story, more so than bustling Victorian London.

In Ebbie (1995), Ebenezer Scrooge becomes “Elizabeth”, played by soap queen Susan Lucci. Other characters get a gender change, as well–Bob Cratchit, for example, becomes single mom Roberta Cratchit. This sounds bad, I know, but it actually works pretty well. In this version, Lucci plays Scrooge as a departmental store manager. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman, but this Scrooge comes off as warmer and more pitiable, even when she is a grump at the beginning. It’s an interesting spin on the old tale.

Cicely Tyson does a similar turn as mean-spirited loan officer “Ebenita Scrooge” in Ms. Scrooge (1997), but there are no comparable changes in the surrounding characters to either women or African-Americans to match the change in the Scrooge character. Scrooge as a woman is a rare phenomenon. And of course, both of these versions are modernizations. Such a version set in Victorian England wouldn’t be entirely impossible, but it would be difficult to do.

Then there are the tales that are obviously inspired by A Christmas Carol, but whose worlds are too different for them to be considered adaptations. The classic (and probably best) of these would be How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). I mean the original voiced by Boris Karloff, not the Jim Carrey version from 2000 which was just…odd. The Jim Carrey version gives us entirely too much backstory to the Grinch, diminishing him in a lot of ways by downgrading him from scary to simply misunderstood.

The Karloff version sticks to its source material (Dr. Seuss, of course), and gives us a Grinch who is as forbidding and mysterious as Beowulf‘s Grendel, even after his tiny, shriveled heart expands and he brings everything that he’s stolen back. This Grinch lives, Grendel-like, in a cave on a mountain overlooking Whoville. In the 2000 version, this is because the Whos drove him out. In the ’66 version, he chooses to be up there because he’s just plain mean.

The ’66 version works better. The original Grinch is a monster who is changed by the Whos’ unconditional acceptance of him. Making him an involuntary outcast from Whoville really doesn’t work. It also ignores the fact that the Grinch is a Scrooge and therefore chose to be the way he was.

In TV horror series, Supernatural, the Scrooge character in the show’s Christmas episode “A Very Supernatural Christmas” (2007) is ghosthunter Sam Winchester. Sam’s older brother, Dean, wants to celebrate Christmas, but Sam is, as Dean puts it, “the boy who hates Christmas.” Sam’s motivations are almost identical to the original Scrooge’s. Scrooge was embittered by a miserable childhood and the death of his beloved sister. Sam hates Christmas because he and Dean spent the holidays growing up in a series of ugly motel rooms, neglected by their obsessed, demonhunting father.

Also, this is Dean’s last Christmas. He has made a deal with a crossroads demon to save Sam’s life and has only a year left to live. This is why Dean wants to celebrate Christmas for once. But Sam hates the idea that next Christmas, he will be completely alone, and can find nothing to celebrate.

At this point, the story goes way off on a tangent. The brothers think that they’re after a bad version of Santa, at first (yes, this show is twisted), but soon realize they’re on the trail of a couple of Grendel-like monster gods. No spirits and no visits to other time periods. However, things go back to the basic storyline at the end, when Sam comes around and surprises Dean with a last Christmas, complete with tacky gifts bought at the local quickie-mart.

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that will keep being told over and over again. It’s a dark story, but one with a happy and satisfying ending. It supplies those who read or watch it with a lot of catharsis. The large cast of characters also provides adapters with many elements to change and make their own version, copyright-free. And there are plenty of chills or opportunities for humor, depending on what you want to do. It’s the perfect story for Christmas.

Paula R. Stiles is a forty-one-year-old American who has sold SF, fantasy and horror stories to Strange Horizons, the Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, Writers of the Future and other markets. She also has co-written a mystery/SF novel, “Fraterfamilias”.

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