Christmas Present

What a year. For us, it's been a journey into the swirling vortex of A Christmas Carol. I posted a new review for an adaptation every day since Thanksgiving this year, which - as you might expect - has adjusted my perspective a bit. I actually didn't quite get to everything I wanted to see. The 1947 Spanish film, Leyenda de Navidad, continues to elude me - I believe it's the only surviving theatrically released version I haven't been able to track down. If anyone knows a way this can be legally watched, please let me know. There are of course plenty other versions I haven't gotten to, but that's the only one I lost sleep over. I'm sure I'll cover more in future years, but don't expect another Carol-a-day thing in this lifetime.

But here at least we've come to the domain of the second ghost, so you know what that means. Actually, do you know what that means? Because there might be some confusion.

We haven't talked about it much, but there's this one detail of A Christmas Carol just about everyone gets wrong (or at least everyone in America). Hell, we got it wrong ourselves while discussing it in the first episode of our podcast in 2017. And that's the duration of Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Present. I don't think I'm alone in having sort of absorbed the idea that the spirit lives for one day before dying, but that's not what the book says. Dickens writes, "the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together." But the operative word here is "holidays." Plural. Because the Ghost exists for the full duration of Christmas, which is twelve days (or possibly even thirteen, depending on the tradition, but let's save that discussion for another time), not one. A few sentences later, they leave a Twelfth Night party, cementing the point. The Christmas Holidays last until January 5th, as does the lifespan of the ghost. There's an interesting bit of trivia for you.

But it's funny, because if you look back to my introductory post, I used the same phrase. Specifically, I promised, "a review of an adaptation of A Christmas Carol every day from now through the Christmas holidays." And I am a man of my word.

Because we're not done here: we've got eleven more adaptations to go. So reheat those leftovers and put that Bing Crosby album on repeat, because the Ghost of Christmas Carols Yet to Come just showed up with a fruitcake.

I don't... I'm not actually naive enough to expect anyone to keep up with these. But, hey, we're going to follow through with this madness, so these will be in the archives if you're ever trying to parse out which version has Fred March narrating, which one has him playing Scrooge, and how exactly Basil Rathbone fits into all of it. A lot of these don't have Wikipedia pages, so this actually might be useful to someone someday.

But since approximately 100% of you are checking out today (if not sooner), I wanted to throw together some sort of wrap-up article covering my takeaways from this whole exercise, with the caveat I really haven't had enough time to digest everything I watched over the last year. I've already given you some thoughts on Scrooge's character and what I think are the best and worst ways to approach future adaptations elsewhere, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much.

I'll start with an observation that didn't really bother me at first but became extremely grating over time. American adaptations of A Christmas Carol have a tendency of falling short when it comes to the story's political message. It would be anachronistic to call Dickens or his work socialist, but the ideas he was playing with in A Christmas Carol point in that direction. It's a story about what we owe those around us and how our lives are connected. Scrooge's ideology at the start is, at least implicitly, libertarian: he dismisses the lives of others as not part of his business and expresses shock at Marley's fate due to him having been a good "man of business." But humanity as a whole was supposed to be both their business: in failing to recognize this, they were failures as human beings. The solution Dickens offers is charity and generosity, but - on a larger scale - these imply the need for structural reform. He even tiptoes around this when criticizing workhouses and debtors' prisons.

I'm not saying adaptations need to outright endorse democratic socialism, but I found myself uncomfortable when they undermined the political themes Dickens included. American cinema tends to default to libertarian ideals: I'll leave the reasons behind that for another day. Unfortunately, that often seems to extend to adaptations of this story, where they don't belong.

I wish I'd done a better job tracking this trend. It didn't occur to me to pay attention to it until I was already well underway, so I don't have a count of just how many versions mess this up. And I doubt it will surprise you to hear I'm not in a hurry to rewatch all these just to collect that data.

While I didn't think to track that, I did take notes on some other weird details. As soon as these started being adapted with sound, it became customary to start by opening the book it's based on. This was basically the norm for adaptations made for movies and TV until around 1960, when the practice seems to have all but disappeared. I'm assuming this is less a Christmas Carol thing than the convention for anything adapted from a book, but I thought I'd mention it.

A couple anomalies in this trend: the silent 1913 "Scrooge" actually starts with an actor playing Charles Dickens writing the story, and the 1938 MGM production doesn't bother with the convention (it's the only one I watched between 1935 and 1959 that doesn't, though it's worth noting "The Stingiest Man in Town" uses that title instead of "A Christmas Carol").

Another trend that seems to have shifted is the use of traditional Christmas music for the movie's opening. This was never a given - several televised versions wrote original songs in the '50s - but Hark! The Heralds, Deck the Halls, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen all appear at the start of multiple adaptations from the '30s through the '70s. After that, the use of original music took over as the default.

In terms of tone, the earliest silent versions embraced the ghost story aspects of the tale, as did the 1935 version starring Seymour Hicks I won't shut up about. The American TV and movie versions through the '90s were more comedy or drama, with a few outliers from other countries retaining a darker vibe (usually animated versions, oddly enough). Comedy then seems to have become the default tone in adaptations made over the first decade of the 2000s, with the main exception being the 2009 Jim Carrey version that tried for something scarier (the results are mixed at best, but that was clearly the goal). Since then, it's been a mix of tones and styles, which is promising.

I could probably write entire articles about the growth of the quasi-sequel (e.g.: Scrooged, Spirited, Ghosts of Christmas Always, It's Christmas Carol, etc.), and perhaps I will some day. Suffice to say for the time being, these have long existed in the form of homages, and they've become more serious over time, perhaps in response to audience awareness and investment in franchise continuity, legacy sequels, and the like bleeding over from genre entertainment like Marvel and Star Wars. For now, let's leave it at that.

Likewise, Lindsay already offered a more thoughtful and in-depth look at musical trends than I could hope to match, so I'll point anyone interested in that aspect in her direction.

This has certainly been a wild experience. I'll close by saying I was surprised to find I didn't grow bored of these over time. I mean, I did early on (around the seventh or eighth adaptation I briefly considered calling it a day), but after a few more something kind of shifted in my brain and the variations began to fascinate me, even in versions I didn't much care for. That, more than anything, is the reason you're getting reviews of more than fifty adaptations this year, and why you can expect to see more reviews and articles in years to come.

But not one a day. I think I've hit most of the really important ones, anyway, so in the future we'll just sprinkle them in with normal posts.