On this day, December the nineteenth, in 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (full title: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.) One could debate whether he took advantage of the entire Christmas shopping season by releasing the book only six days before Christmas, but since the first printing of 6000 was completely sold out by Christmas Eve, one must admit that it was a smash hit. And since its debut it has become even more popular, rivaling only, you know, The Bible, as the most known Christmas story.
The origins of A Christmas Carol are, of course, Dickens’s life-long concern for the plight of poor children, especially their working conditions and lack of formal education, which partially was colored by his own experience working in a boot blacking factory while his father served time in a debtor’s prison. His direct inspiration was the publication of a parliamentary report in 1843 outlining the effects of the great cultural upheaval accompanying the Industrial Revolution on poor children in Britain. Dickens had planned on writing a political pamphlet entitled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child”, but came up with another idea, writing to one of the authors of the report of his new plans:
I am not at liberty to explain them any further, just now; but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea.
That new plan, of course, became A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the story in six weeks in the autumn of 1843, delivering the last pages to the publisher only days before printing. The book was an immediate popular and critical success. It continued to sell well after the Christmas season, and has never been out-of-print since.
Dickens often toured giving public readings of his works, and with A Christmas Carol, his performances became more acting than reading. A decade after the publication of A Christmas Carol, he set out upon a series of charity readings of the work, requiring that cheaper seats be set aside for the poor–once he realized that the poor would not be able to afford the book, if indeed they could read. Abiding by the same sentiment, he refused a request from Queen Victoria for a private reading, politely explaining that readings required “a mixed audience”.
When the new technology of moving pictures arrived, it took little time before A Christmas Carol was adapted to this new art form. The earliest silent movie version, “Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost” was filmed in 1901. Since then almost twenty feature film adaptations as well as numerous versions for television have spread the story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, so much so that watching one version or another has become a Christmas tradition in its own right.
Some popular versions (and my opinion thereof):
Scrooge (1970): The musical version with Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley. I remember seeing this version in the theater as a boy and being amazed by the Ghost of Christmas Present’s sumptuous spread. Catchy songs too!
A Christmas Carol (1951): My wife’s favorite with Alastair Sim as Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol (1984): The George C. Scott version. Many like this version, but not one of my favorites.
A Christmas Carol (1999): My absolute favorite! Based on Patrick Stewart’s one-man play of the story, it is the adaptation that is most faithful to the book. One of the few that includes the “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.” scene, which is the whole point of the story.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): Michael Caine plays Scrooge. As much as I love the Muppets, I remember finding this version kind of slow. Maybe I need to watch it again.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962): The first animated Christmas special in the US. It likely introduced the word “razzleberry” into the English language.
A Christmas Carol (2009): This 3-D Jim Carrey vehicle features a cast of talented actors who should have known better. Of this abomination, no more will be spoken.
Two honorable mentions. While not adaptations of the Dickens story, they are obviously inspired by it:
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988): While the events of the story have the opposite effect on Ebenezer as in Dickens’ original, the cast makes it a most entertaining Christmas diversion that will definitely cut through the treacle.
Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010): The Doctor, Rory and Amy in a Christmas adventure. Featuring the acting chops of Michael Gambon and the beautiful voice of Katherine Jenkins.
So what explains the unceasing popularity of A Christmas Carol? Could it be that we fear we see too much of ourselves in Ebenezer Scrooge, while simultaneously hoping that we can attain the heights of his good will and charity after the visits of the three spirits?
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!