What (Almost) Every Adaptation Gets Wrong About Ebenezer Scrooge

At the moment of writing this, I've seen around three dozen adaptations of A Christmas Carol this year, and while there are numerous aspects that vary from one to another, there's one mistake virtually every version I've come across shares. As you can probably guess from the title, the aspect in question relates to Scrooge himself, specifically in how he's presented at the beginning of the story. With few exceptions, he's depicted as comically mean, a cartoonishly greedy, self-centered man who cares nothing for others. He isn't merely a bad person, but rather he's presented as the worst human being, the absolute epitome of materialistic excess.

And, as odd as it may sound, I think that depiction is a mistake. I don't believe that's at all an accurate representation of the character as he behaves in Dickens's novel.

If you're familiar with the book, you're probably confused right now - or perhaps you think I'm confused. You're likely thinking of passages such as, "But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" Dickens all but tells us Scrooge is the worst man in London.

Here's the thing, though: while Dickens tells us Scrooge is an absolutely abysmal human who makes the worst people in our lives seem like saints, that's not actually how Scrooge behaves. In essence, there's a schism between what Dickens tells us and what he shows us. Adaptations tend to reconcile this by having Scrooge's tone and demeanor hew closer to Dickens' descriptions, even when retaining the dialogue.

Consider the latter for a moment. Scrooge is a bad boss, but he's not exactly the worst boss. He pays Bob Cratchit fifteen shillings a week, a sum that - while not exactly generous - would have been a relatively fair wage. Likewise, while he complains about giving Bob the day off with pay, he still does so.

This isn't to say he's a humanitarian: he creates a hostile and unnecessarily difficult work environment, he threatens some carolers with a ruler, and he's extremely unpleasant to those around him. But, to put this in modern terms, he doesn't start out the book as a sociopath: he starts out as a garden-variety conservative (or arguably libertarian). A Christmas Carol is essentially the story of him becoming progressive.

Basically, I'm suggesting that Dickens's narration in A Christmas Carol should be read as an unreliable narrator. So why is it written this way? Why are we told one thing about Scrooge and shown something different?

For one thing, this has the effect of subtly shaming readers who behave like Scrooge, or in some cases worse. It wasn't a given that employers would treat Christmas as a paid holiday when the book was published: by showing that Scrooge considered it obligatory, Dickens put readers on the spot. Either they could embrace the idea or risk being seen as worse than someone who "[edged] his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance." In effect, by describing relatively common behavior as awful, he had more leeway to criticize that behavior and the ideology behind it. 

It's worth noting that Scrooge's sins are entirely those of omission. He doesn't actively do anything particularly wrong in the book. He's not corrupt, he commits no crimes, and he's not violent. He's simply a businessman who believes, "It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s."

The point of the book is that this philosophy is grossly insufficient. Not acting against others isn't enough in a world filled with suffering and injustice. Scrooge has an obligation to others. Passively allowing evil to occur makes him culpable.

I think this matters for a couple reasons. First, transforming Scrooge into a cliche villain weakens his arc by making him unbelievable. He should be a deeply flawed character, but often we're shown versions of Scrooge who come off as irredeemable or downright ridiculous. We also lose some of the character Dickens's dialogue builds up. Scrooge makes a number of jokes in the opening section: he's amusing himself by playing with others' words and mocking them. Trying to make these exchanges overly serious removes some of Scrooge's most interesting characteristics, many of which he retains through the end, where that same humor is weaponized for benevolent tricks. If you miss the humor in Scrooge's debate with the charity collectors at the beginning, you're also missing the setup for him tricking Cratchit at the end with the anonymous turkey and surprising him with a raise.

But even more important is that I think we're losing Dickens's lesson. I've never known someone who constantly spoke in a manner as blatantly evil as most adaptations depict Scrooge. But I've absolutely known people who act - and think - like he does if you strip out the excess added in movies. Again, his ideology is virtually indistinguishable from those of mainstream Republicans today (arguably, Scrooge's might be a little less intense).

A Christmas Carol is a political work, and the majority of what it's saying remains relevant. But the story's applicability is dependent on readers (or viewers, in the case of adaptations) seeing their own shortcomings in Scrooge. When we turn Scrooge into something resembling a Saturday morning cartoon villain, it's easy to dismiss him as such. But that's not who he is in the text. He's not the sort of guy who ties puppies to railroad tracks: he's the guy on Facebook insisting immigrants and refugees should go back where they came from or die and decrease the surplus population.

In a book, you have the ability to frame dialogue and behavior with description. We can be shown and told different things, and - if the writer's good enough - we can reconcile two ideas. That's what Dickens accomplished: he showed his readers relatively common behavior and convinced them it wasn't acceptable. But he did such a good job, adaptations lost sight of the sleight of hand he used to pull off the trick. And because film is less conducive to simultaneously showing and telling the audience different ideas, adaptations have shifted to an amalgamation that loses the most important part.

As a caveat to all this, I should specify that I've seen a few adaptations adapt Scrooge as something other than a cartoon villain, most notably the 1935 version starring Seymour Hicks. I still think they could have done more to capture his humor, but overall he comes off far more human than any subsequent live-action adaptation I can think of. He's unlikeable, but not unbelievable, and it's not difficult to compare him to actual people.

I also appreciate his depiction at the start of this year's Scrooge: A Christmas Carol. I have many issues with this movie, but Scrooge is presented as a complex person who already thinks about the consequences of his actions but rationalizes them anyway.

I'd really like to see more adaptations get this right. We should recognize Scrooge in the world around us, and that would be far easier if he was depicted less like the sniveling, sadistic sociopath most versions use and more like, well, the guy in Dickens's book.