Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Every Movie About A Christmas Carol Gets Wrong:

A Christmas Carol is a beloved novella written by 31-year-old Charles Dickens in 1843. A Christmas Carol was published at a time when the British poor engaged in extreme drinking, public riots, and sexual abandon at Christmas. A Christmas Carol was written to promote the idea of the "old-fashioned Christmas" -- a family-centric (not public) holiday that focused on genteel activities like cooking and games. Ribaldry, boozing, and rioting were out.

The novella opens on Christmas Eve, and that's about all that movies have in common with Dickens' opening pages. What do they leave out?
(1) Dickens depicted London as bitterly cold and locked in a deep "black fog". (Look at this image of the 1952 "Black Fog" that hit London. This is what Dickens had in mind.) None of the films get this right. "Black fogs" were incredibly thick fogs mingled with soot from the millions of coal-burning fireplaces that were used in Victorian London. Hundreds of people died during these events, most of them elderly, infants, and those with respiratory illnesses. Anyone reading A Christmas Carol in 1843 would have understood immediately that Dickens was portraying a catastropic event, during which many people are dying. Dying on Christmas Eve! Scrooge, however, seems not to care. Dickens depicts the black fog as so bad that it seeps through the cracks around the door and the windows of Scrooge's counting house. By 3 PM, it is also bitterly cold, with ice hanging in the air. The fog is so thick, it is pitch-dark outside and people with torches have to run in front of the horse-drawn carriages to guide them. Scrooge has dinner in a local tavern (which was common at the time, even for upper-middle-class people) and then spends his evening reading his bank and accounting books at the pub. By the time he goes home, around 10 PM, the black fog is so bad that Scrooge is forced to grope his way along the street, touching the sides of the houses and businesses he passes in order not to get lost.

(2)There is more than one spooky apparition before Marley appears. Most films (not all) depict the door knocker of Scrooge's home turning into the face of the long-dead Jacob Marley. Scrooge is shocked. But the apparition disappears after just a second or two. Scrooge then enters his very large, very old house. It's set at the end of a cul-de-sac, behind a somewhat deep front yard. We're told that Scrooge occupies very little of the house: The basement, which should be a laundry, kitchen, and sleeping quarters for a housekeeper and cook, is actually occupied by a wine merchant and used for storage. The parlor and dining room on the main floor are rented out as office space. A massively wide staircase leads up to the second floor (what the British would call the first floor), which is also rented out as office space. Scrooge lives on the third floor (British second floor), where he has converted one bedroom into a sitting room, another into a "lumber room" (storage space for excess furniture), and uses the master bedroom for his own purposes. As he enters his huge home, Scrooge lights a single candle. Several large gas lights would be needed to adequately light the area, so once more Scrooge is moving through deep darkness. That's when the second apparition appears -- a horse-drawn hearse. It shoots up the stairs in the gloom, and Scrooge gasps. But it's gone as soon as it appears, and Scrooge goes up the stairs to his living space. Almost every film omits the hearse, while a few show the third apparition: As Scrooge sits before his fireplace, he notices the tiles around the mantel which are imprinted with Biblical themes. The faces on each tile seem to turn into Marley's face for a split-second.
It's important to show the black fog and the cold and the hearse. Dickens wants us to understand that Scrooge's world is one of darkness and bitter cold. He wants us to see that Scrooge's soul mirrors that of the terrible world of death, fog, blackness, and cold that surrounds him.

By the end of the novel, after Scrooge has had a change of heart, so has Scrooge's world. The fog is gone. It's a bright, beautiful day out. Everything is warmer, more vibrant. It's a snowy December day, but one that isn't so bitterly cold any more.

Every movie gets this wrong. The films try to depict London as a happy, wonderful, Christmassy space where Bob Crachit has a lot of fun and Scrooge is out of place. In fact, Dickens wanted just the opposite effect: It's Crachit (who slides down a hill 20 times before running two miles home to Camden Town) who is out of place in Scrooge's world of blackness and ice.

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