Laying claim to more film adaptations than any other book in the English language – 26 and counting – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol rightly earns its place in our A-Z of adaptations. What’s more, the explosion of animated versions since the early 1980s means that, for many of us, our first contact with Dickens is made through the visual arts. No wonder that scholar and English professor, Thomas Leitch describes A Christmas Carol and its adaptations as “entry level Dickens,” – something that makes the latest film version from Jacqui and David Morris particularly fitting. Theirs is set within a toy theatre; A Christmas Carol as seen through the eyes of a child.
But even Leitch concedes that, “for many viewers, film adaptations are likely to substitute for Dickens, to become Dickens, rather than serving merely as the lowest rung on the Dickens ladder”. Today, adaptations of the Carol have eclipsed the popularity of the book itself. And while some Dickens purists may lament the changes made to Dickens’ text on screen, what its pervasiveness reveals is how such changes play out in the public consciousness.
When Dickens wrote the Carol in 1843, he gave shape to the classic Victorian Christmas in which family and festivities became just as important as religion. In Film Adaptation and its Discontents Leitch writes that, “Although commentators generally agree that in works like The Pickwick Papers and the five Christmas books, Dickens essentially invented Christmas as a family celebration, it is easy to forget what a radical step it was to characterise the holiday not as a religious observance… But as a family gathering already secularised in its piety”. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that as our interest in religion has waned, adapters have increasingly focussed on this aspect of the Carol, while grafting on visual tropes from a swelling Christmas sub-genre that early Carol adaptations helped to create. Today, it’s hard to imagine an adaptation of A Christmas Carol without snow. Yet Dickens’ novella takes place during the freezing fog far more characteristic of Dickens’ industrial London: “The fog came came pouring in at every chink and keyhole , and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms”.
As a physical manifestation of the cold, snow cannot be beaten on screen but it has also provided “a picturesque scene blanketing the city’s ugliness and creating a pastoral sense of preindustrial innocence,” since the MGM version in 1938 writes Leitch. Not until 2019, did Steven Knight (Locke, Peaky Blinders) reject this scenic interpretation of the novella, opting instead for a dark blue-grey palette and a cruel, icy snow that cuts though bonnets and heavy coats. As if sending up the tropes of modern Carol adapters, Knight’s Scrooge (Guy Pearce) rails against re-imaginings of the Bible that set the nativity scene in snow: “As for those images I see on church walls of three wise men on camels walking in the snow, there is no record of it being winter and no record of their ever being snow in Palestine. Indeed, riding camels in the snow is the very embodiment of the absurdity and the lies which have continued to beget more lies down the centuries during the days now marked 24 and 25.”
Nevertheless, the moral lessons of Dickens’ work continue to speak to us 177 years later. Earlier this year, the UK government’s reaction to Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign drew comparisons to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And in the era of austerity and individualism, Scrooge’s answer to charity collectors – “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [prisons, workhouses, poor laws] – they cost enough and those who are badly off must go there” – remains frustratingly relevant. The novella’s themes of social responsibility and wealth inequality ricochet through modern American cinema too, from the recent Hillbilly Elegy to Nomadland. Little wonder filmmakers feel compelled to re-make the Carol.
This, the first of Dickens’ five Christmas stories, has proved surprisingly flexible in critiquing contemporary habits. And the unprecedented number of Carol adaptations reveals the sheer variety of stylistic approaches filmmakers can use to deliver its moral lessons: from reverential re-tellings, to the anti-commercialism satire Scrooged, and the self-referential The Muppet Christmas Carol. But if the Carol shows just how broadly any work may be interpreted by its adapters, it also reveals how certain elements of a text can develop into ‘essential’ components. Take the appearance of Marley’s face on the knocker, or Scrooge’s transformation on Christmas morning, these parts of the novella are almost always included on screen. But a story’s essential components need not derive from the original text itself.
In 1938, “the tableau of Scrooge wearing a pointed white nightcap seated at screen right below the eye level of Marley and all three Christmas spirits,” is drawn not from Dickens’ prose but from the novella’s illustrations by John Leech, right down to the “costuming and blocking,” writes Leitch. Another illustration of the “Spirit of Christmas Present appearing to a shrunken, white capped, timidly smiling Scrooge perched gamely in the lower right-hand corner of the image, provides blocking and costuming cues for virtually all adapters of this scene”. Speaking to Indie London about his 3D animated A Christmas Carol, Robert Zemeckis said he “started” with Leech’s illustrations: “I think the one that’s closest is Fezziwig, where we drew his round body and huge backside. We figured that was the place to start. We wanted to be as true to those as we could without copying them exactly”.
But adaptations can serve to create new ‘essential’ components too. While ice skating gets a brief mention in Dickens’ novel, an invented skating scene in the 1938 version fastened it in the public consciousness. Since then, skating has appeared in numerous adaptations including The Muppet Christmas Carol and Steven Knight’s gritty three part TV version. Meanwhile, the invented ending in which Scrooge dines with the Cratchits on Christmas Day has become “irresistible” to adapters, writes Leitch. It’s a scene brimming with dramatic potential, but is perhaps evermore enticing given the place of the Cratchits in popular consciousness today. The Cratchits have come to obscure all other supporting characters, including Scrooge’s nephew, with whom Dickens has him dine on Christmas day. As each new screen version seeks to adapt not only the novella but previous adaptations too, the story’s ‘essential’ components shift and transform.
As each new adaptation confers more cultural significance on the Carol, so the pressure increases for potential adapters. “Even the ones that announce themselves as resolutely Dickensian have to deal with the contradictions of remaining faithful to a classic while insisting on its classic status,” writes Leitch, “an insistence Dickens never registers and one that separates their text ever more completely the more stridently they register it”. The Muppets prove most successful in overcoming this dilemma, inviting Charles Dickens into the drama itself where he narrates its events with sarcastic flair:
Gonzo: My name is Charles Dickens.
Rizzo the Rat: And my name is Rizzo the Rat… wait a second! You’re not Charles Dickens!
Gonzo: I am too!
Rizzo the Rat: No! A blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?
Rizzo the Rat: Charles Dickens was a 19th Century novelist! A genius!
Gonzo: Oh, you are too kind!
And so it goes that these “entry level” versions teach audiences, “the value of literary classics,” says Leitch. “Even if” that “is remote from whatever Dickens, or the cultural custodians of Dickens’ reputation, had in mind.”