Bah, Humbug: Pondering a Poor Cinematic Adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL
23 December 2012
Successfully adapting a piece of literature for cinema is deceptively complex, particularly when celebrated, well-written pieces of classic literature are adapted. Take, for example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, written in 1843. Cinema latched on to this holiday-themed allegory as soon as it could, and since 1901 countless versions of the story have been scripted for the silver screen (and small screen); currently, cinema has had its teeth in A Christmas Carol for over 100 years.
Yet, no two cinematic version of Dickens’ novella are the same; every adaptation of the classic tale spins the story its own way, refining the details of Ebenezer Scrooge life-changing Christmas to suit the historical moment, place, and society the adaptation is created for. For example, in 1938, the ninth time A Christmas Carol was adapted to film, filmmakers felt audiences needed a family friendly movie for the holiday season. That said, the Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 film of A Christmas Carol stays upbeat, consistently skirting as many of Dickens’ grim details as possible. One of the ways Hugo Butler, the screenwriter for the 1938 version, accomplished this was to simply omit many of the darkest parts of Dickens’ tale. Yet, and very unfortunately for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, cutting out these dark moments in the narrative damages the film as a whole because some of these dark moments reveal details about Scrooge essential to his character development, and therefore the audience’s connection to the film’s evolving anti-hero is interrupted.
But, to begin, A Christmas Carol tells of one fateful Christmas when Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) learns the true meaning of Christmas and gains an overall appreciation for life and love. Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly business person who only responds with “humbug” at the mere mention of Christmas. However, very early one Christmas morning, when Scrooge’s heart is at the peak of its frigidity, the spirit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll), visits him. Marley warns Scrooge if he does not change his ways and learn to treat people kindly Scrooge will be doomed, in death, to walk the Earth as a spirit, wearing heavy chains, just like Marley. Marley also tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits, and the spirits will help stubborn Scrooge learn his lesson before it is too late. At the stroke of one the Spirit of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) visits Scrooge. The spirit appears as a beautiful woman who whisks Scrooge of his bedroom window and into the Christmases of his past. There Scrooge sees his childhood, his sister, and a former boss, and witnessing these memories begins to remind Scrooge of the love he once held in his heart. In a flash Scrooge is once again alone in his room and the clock chimes two. This time Scrooge steps out of bed and sees the Spirit of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham), a large, burly, bearded man in a robe and crown of holly. The Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to current Christmas celebrations; first to Scrooge’s nephew, Fred’s (Barry McKay), home, and then to the home of Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), an employee of Scrooge’s whom the miser recently fired. At Fred’s, Scrooge sees that his nephew and Bess (Lynne Carver), Fred’s fiancée, love Scrooge, despite Scrooge’s “humbug” mentality. At the Cratchit’s Scrooge sees Bob Cratchit has several children, including a boy, Tim (Terry Kilburn), who is sickly. Even though they are poor and struggling through Tim’s illness, the Cratchits are happy people and full of good cheer on this Christmas holiday. This too helps warm the heart of Scrooge, but just as he vows to change his ways, Scrooge the third spirit, the one of Christmases yet to come, visits Scrooge. The black-cloaked figure shows Scrooge his own death, and how little people actually care for him in the future because of his relentless “humbug” philosophy. Also, the Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come reveals Tim Cratchit dies because his father lost his job and henceforth was unable to pay for Tim’s medical expenses. Struck by the tragedy of it all, Scrooge vows to change so Christmases yet to come will be different than what the third spirit showed. Scrooge wakes up again in his own bed, this time on present-day Christmas morning. He springs out of bed a new man, buying food and presents for the Cratchits, and embracing Fred and Bess. The films ends with everyone at the Cratchit home as Scrooge and Tim celebrate the holiday with a Christmas toast.
Even though Dickens’ novella seems to end happily, with all tragedy and sorrow averted, the text’s exploration into dark subject matter must have seemed too depressing to 1930s filmmakers, which is why Hugo Butler infused his A Christmas Carol screenplay with upbeat lighthearted moments. For example, the film’s exposition starts off quite optimistic. First, when Fred visits his Uncle Scrooge at the office Scrooge is nasty, biting, and outright offensive to his nephew. Yet, this does not affect Fred at all; Fred even tells Scrooge, no matter how bleak Scrooge chooses to be, nothing will ruin his Christmas spirit (a pun, as it foreshadows the spirits who will later visit Scrooge). With that Fred wishes Scrooge the merriest of all Christmases and departs with a smile on his face and his cheerful Christmas spirit intact. Although Scrooge is already rather snarly, his grumpiness is obviously not contagious, and so the film begins rather upbeat.
Next, just after Cratchit accidentally ruins Scrooges hat in a snowball fight gone wrong, Scrooge fires Cratchit and refuses to pay him any more wages because of the damage to his hat. One might think a man fired on Christmas Eve, particularly one with a large family that includes a sick child, would get depressed, but that is not the case with Bob Cratchit. Initially feeling rather somber, Cratchit begins walking home; he walks behind a man carrying a dead goose. Suddenly the swinging head of the long-necked goose cracks Cratchit up and he become hysterical with laughter in the street. Instead of remaining in his depression, Cratchit spends all his pocket-money on food and trimmings for his family’s Christmas celebration. Cratchit’s unforeseen shift from sorrow to celebration echoes Fred’s lively and hopeful Christmas spirit, and further suggests the upbeat tone set by Bulter. This is the second time within the opening scenes of the film that A Christmas Carol skirts sadness and loss, instead choosing to look at the bright side and remain optimistic in the spirit of Christmas.
While it is uplifting that the film emphasizes the positive, this emphasis has a negative effect on Scrooge’s ethical and emotional metamorphosis. Somehow the journey Scrooge embarks on that fateful Christmas seems less pertinent if the people in his life are not affected by him. Fred seems like a confident, upstanding man whose life is full of friends and joy; he is not devastated by his uncle’s rejection and “humbug.” Moreover, Cratchit is in a tight spot when Scrooge fires him, but his obviously strong character is resilient and unfazed by the miserable Ebenezer Scrooge. Again, positivity is always pleasant for audiences, but the film’s stress on optimism undercuts Scrooge’s negativity and therefore undercuts the necessity for Scrooge’s change that Christmas.
Additionally, significant plot details from Dickens’ novella are cut out of the 1938 version, and the most damaging are the omissions made when Scrooge is with the Spirit of Christmas Past. This beautiful spirit shows Scrooge his childhood, which is full of warm memories, most notably with his sister, Fan (Elvira Stevens), and his former boss, Old Fezzwig (Forrester Harvey). However, in Dickens’ novella Scrooge also sees sorrowful Christmases when grief and misfortune occurred in his young life. These details help explain why Scrooge became a miserable miser; true, these details are difficult to see and hear, but they are key to understanding who Ebenezer Scrooge is. Omitting these details confuses the narrative. The audience watches Scrooge’s wonderful childhood Christmases and then dramatically jumps to his miserable Christmas present. It doesn’t make any sense. The only explanation offered is when the Spirit of Christmas Past hastily reveals she has not even shown Scrooge his terrible Christmases. That one-off line is not enough for audiences to understand Scrooge and how he transformed from happy boy to a nasty old man.
Plainly, omitting plot details can damage an overall narrative, and, in the case of A Christmas Carol, missing plot details create an unstable script full of gaps. Yes, this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is very upbeat, so the filmmakers’ objective was achieved; however, the film would have had a more satisfying, heartwarming resolution for audiences if Fred and Cratchit did not begin as such optimistic characters, and if the audience understood more of Scrooge’s past, and therefore more of what he needed to overcome during his Christmas transformation. Adaptations of literature do not need to follow the literature exactly, in fact, they should not; literature and film are two very different mediums of storytelling, with different tools, audiences, and expectations. However, changing details of a story when it is adapted from one medium to another does require a close examination of the details to be sure changes and omissions are not damaging to the story in its new medium. In the case of Marin’s 1938 version of A Christmas Carol the adaptation was botched, therefore leaving the film unimpressive.