As someone who has been reviewing films for the last decade you get used to people talking about the movies as 21st century parables. There’s a lot of discussion about what parables actually are. But by taking a moral issue and forging it into drama, parables help us to examine the ins and outs of that issue in ways that can be fresh, challenging and surprising. They give us fresh perspective and help us grapple with questions that may have ceased to grab us. And this is an ongoing process. Some scholars believe that in telling this parable Jesus himself was putting a fresh spin on an even older story. Dickens in turn made those issues more contemporary for his audiences and for more than 110 years different film directors have sought to take Dickens’ work and cast it in a new light for the people of their own day.
And ‘A Christmas Carol’ does seem to be particularly suitable to adapt. Of the 324 screen portrayals of Scrooge’s story on IMDB, at least 70 were based on ‘A Christmas Carol’, almost twice as many as adaptations of Oliver Twist and 3½ times as many as any of the others. Does I counted 7 playing on terrestrial TV over the Christmas period in the UK. The latest of which was made in 2009 starring Jim Carrey. It’s in 3D reflecting one of the ways this story adapts well to the fashions of its day.
Go back a few years and you’ll find Patrick Stewart starring in a version rich in CGI. In 1928 at the advent of sound the first Dickens talkie was "A Christmas Carol" and if you go back to the very first version of this story, from 1901 you’ll see how it uses very primitive special effects which were starting to be discovered. The BFI have made this film freely available on YouTube, and it's worth remembering that the film was made over a century ago in 1901, far closer to the publication of the original novel than to today.
The apparitions that fly past at around the 1m45s mark rely on people knowing the story, but essentially they show the events of the Christmases past that have shaped Scrooge. The first shows his return to his father’s house after years of spending Christmas at his decrepit school. His beloved sister welcomes him back. The second, with impressive economy shows the end of his relationship with Miss Fezziwick, who finds herself squeezed out by Scrooge’s pursuit of financial security.
It’s not something that is talked about often, but I think these two scenes are pivotal in the story of Scrooge’s life. Why else does the ghost, or if you prefer Dickens, choose to show us them? The villain we meet at the start of the story was not ever so. He was a rejected child even spending Christmas day at school, and a poor school at that - Dickens describes the decrepit school and classrooms at some length and noting that there was "not too much to eat". These early events seem to have shaped Scrooge quite significantly.
There’s sometimes a lot of talk about child poverty today in Britain. Government figures suggest that the number of children living in poverty is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3. And such poverty doesn’t just have an effect on their past deprivation, or their present hunger, it affects their future health and shapes their attitude to life. They all too often believe that poverty is their lot in life, and lacking hope and aspiration settle for life at the bottom of the pile. No wonder the UK has one of the worst records on social mobility in the western world. Despite the occasional heart warming rags to riches story, the reality is that for the vast, vast majority, those who are born poor will, in all likelihood, remain that way.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Scrooge is one of those success stories. A poor apprentice who rises to run a successful business and grow wealthy. But “how profits a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Seemingly hurt by his childhood rejection and poverty, Scrooge’s brief foray into the warmth of love of his family and colleagues is slowly smothered by his desperation to avoid the poverty that afflicted his childhood. It’s not apparently greed but a yearning for security that drives a wedge between him and his finance. It’s a pivotal point in the story of his life:
From here Scrooge is done for. Having grown up in isolation he has learned to cope with it and since the death of his sister also seems to have occurred around this time, he seems to have retreated into isolation once more consumed by a desire to avoid poverty. As he explains “there is nothing on which (the world) is so hard as poverty”.
It’s not long before the next apparition - the Ghost of Christmas Present - is taking him to the household of his employee Bob Cratchitt. It’s arguably the most famous scene in a story crammed with iconic moments, but it relevance to Scrooge is easily over-looked. Firstly, here is a child also in poverty, but whose father has taken a different path to that of Scrooge’s father. Instead of sending him away, Tiny Tim is kept in the bosom of his loving family. Secondly, Crachitt’s family live in poverty, but have found the happiness that so seems to have eluded Scrooge. Tim has flourished despite his apparent adversity. Thirdly, I suspect there’s something of a grudging admiration for the fact that Crachitt has never begged - Scrooge is amazed to find out about Crachitt’s sickly child. These, I think, are what underlie Scrooge’s turn around rather than simply Tim’s cute way of saying “God bless us every one”.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that this part of the novel is where the brunt of its scriptural allusions are found. Most significantly Tim’s hopes for his presence in church which I’ll quote here “he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
Given the course of the rest of this story this line is pretty significant. Prior to the haunting of Scrooge, Tim is on course for an early death, but as Dickens tell us in closing the book, Scrooge’s repentance and intervention means that Tim lives to a good age. And so there’s an interesting implication that whilst Jesus has apparently not healed Tim directly, Scrooge has been able to be a vessel for God’s purposes. By using his money to make a difference to Tim’s life he has stepped into the role of healer.
I don’t know what your views on God’s healing today are, but Dickens’ subtle suggestion is that by being more generous with what we have, we can actually change the life chances of those in poverty. It is as true in our own day as it was in his. On average, the 20% most deprived people in this country will die 7.5 years before earlier than the richest 20%, and in some places it’s even more extreme. In fact whilst we like to think our world has changed since Dickens’ day, it’s rather depressing to see just how relevant the book is to our world. Some films have sought to narrow that gap for us, such as the 1988 film Scrooged starring Bill Murray, or ITV’s modernisation on the story from the year 2000 starring Ross Kemp. Even the perennial Christmas Classic It’s a Wonderful Life is an inversion of the story. Yet so much of the original novel is relevant in its own right. Take for example an early scene where Scrooge is approached by two men seeking to help the poor. His arguments are not a million miles away from those that some offer today. (Here’s the scene as portrayed in the 1984 version starring George C Scott.)
There are no longer any workhouses or debtors prisons, but teachers still regularly encounter kids without beds at home or that come to school hungry - I’ve had reports of that from a teacher I know who works at a nearby school just a couple of miles away. Yet some people today when faced with the plight of those living in poverty still resort to these same tactics - denying the problem, convincing themselves that paying their taxes absolves them of any further responsibility, or claim that they are all idle. It’s disturbing how many newspapers and politicians are content to peddle the myth that the poor are idle, despite the fact that more than half of all children living in poverty in this country are from working households. And whilst the phrase "surplus population" is more in line with Thomas Malthus than any of our current populations there does seem to be a shift away from seeing children are a gift from God towards them being a burden on the tax payer.
The words Scrooge speaks here are repeated tauntingly by the Spirit of Christmas Present later on, as Scrooge’s heart begins to soften they remind him of how awful some of his attitudes have been. In fact it appears that Scrooge has been isolated from the realities of poverty in his own day. Faced with the image of the starving children "Ignorance" and "Want" he is horrified and gasps "have they no refuge or resource"?
"If you deny him, slander those who tell others about him, admit he exists but do nothing about him." The reality is that in our country it is scarily easy to become isolated from those living below the poverty line. Listen to any public debate about poverty and someone will cite poor houses with satellite dishes - as if they have done a properly sampled survey on the issue rather than just noticed them on houses in areas they wouldn’t care to live as they drive hastily by.
Scrooge’s about turn is radical, but the question that should haunt us is would it take such an extreme turn of events to soften our hearts to the very real suffering around us and amongst us? Poverty has a ghost of the past, and of the present, what are we prepared to do to ensure it has no future? Are we prepared to act at a cost to ourselves to alleviate the suffering around us?
I don’t know whether Dives and Lazarus were any more real than Scrooge and Crachitt. But Jesus, Dickens and the filmmakers that have followed in their footsteps have acted from the conviction that it’s in this world that we have to address the problems of poverty in our world. We can’t leave it until after we’re dead.
Labels: Other Films