Charles Dickens' ghosts of Christmas past

Chris Wasser takes a closer look at the enduring legacy and phenomenal impact on literature and film of Charles Dickens’ life-affirming classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’

Jim Carrey stars as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in Disney’s 2009 ‘A Christmas Carol’, one of the many adaptions of the enduringly popular novel written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, right.
Jim Carrey stars as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in Disney’s 2009 ‘A Christmas Carol’, one of the many adaptions of the enduringly popular novel written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, right.

In October 1843, Mr Charles John Huffam Dickens — one of the most influential writers that ever lived — began to accept the fact that he was in trouble.

The man who had given us Oliver Twist had begun to experience a decline in popularity and, indeed, sales, and his worrisome publishers, Chapman & Hall, started to fret.

Dickens, then a 31-year-old father-of-four (his wife Catherine was pregnant with the couple’s fifth child), was up to his eyeballs in debt, and everything rested on his next work, a Christmas-themed novella that Dickens would end up paying for with his own cash.

A financial risk, to say the least, Dickens literally put everything he had into A Christmas Carol In Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

For the uninitiated — of which there are few, I’m sure — A Christmas Carol concerns the yuletide redemption of one Ebenezer Scrooge, a ghastly skinflint who changes his wicked ways after one too many spectral interventions on Christmas Eve.

And, yet, one of the more extraordinary aspects of A Christmas Carol is its basis in real-life events. Dickens’ father was imprisoned over unpaid debts, and young Charlie was forced to sell everything he owned, working for nothing in a rodent-infested London shoe-blacking warehouse.

It was here that Dickens began to experience the social injustices of the world, and, after devoting much of his early adulthood to combatting poverty and encouraging educational reform, he thought the best way he could touch the public consciousness was with a life-affirming Christmas story, featuring a young, impoverished boy (Tiny Tim), who will literally die unless the horrible protagonist changes his ways.

Grim stuff, indeed.

Dickens sought inspiration in the works of Washington Irving and Douglas Jerrold. He loosely based the character of Scrooge on a notorious, miserly, member of parliament, named John Elwes.

He would also head out at night, on 20-mile walks of London, taking in distressing sights and assembling and editing the story in his head as he went along.

English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), circa 1860. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870), circa 1860. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On December 19, 1843, following a heated six-week writing burst, during which he’d practically driven himself mad, Dickens’ future classic went out into the world, just in time for Christmas. Back then, you could pick up a copy of A Christmas Carol for five shillings.

Within a week, all 6,000 copies had sold out. Chapman & Hall (with whom Dickens had reached an agreement, ensuring the writer would acquire a percentage of the profits) issued another run, and another. It kept on going.

The cruel irony of Dickens having just published one of the most commercially successful pieces of popular literature (A Christmas Carol would eventually sell 2m copies in America), is that those profits weren’t at all what they should have been. Exorbitant production costs were to blame.

A Christmas Carol, initially bound in red cloth and featuring gorgeous illustrations by John Leech, was as beautiful to look at as it was to read, and so cost a small fortune to print.

British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray described Dickens’ timeless, yuletide bedtime story as “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”

Dickens went on to write more Christmas stories and in 1852, in an attempt to expand the so-called ‘Carol Philosophy’, he gave a public reading of the book in Birmingham. The performance was so well received that he would do it another 127 times, up until his death in 1870.

Despite this, it’s easy to forget just how big an impact Dickens’ work had on the way we celebrate the holidays.

A Christmas Carol arrived at a time when Britain was beginning to experience a mid-Victorian revival of the festive season. The book went one further. It helped popularise the term ‘Merry Christmas’. It gave us Bah, Humbug!

It convinced an increasingly urbanised nation of cynical brow-furrowers and selfish twits to re-evaluate their ideas and ideals of basic human compassion and kindness, if not for the rest of their lives, then at least for one day of the year.

It also encouraged family feasts and communal game-playing. And isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas?

Meanwhile, the ‘Carol Philosophy’ found a new channel in which to reach the masses, with the introduction of film.

The first proper Scrooge flick arrived in 1901, with Walter Robert Booth’s Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, a black-and-white silent short, which somehow managed to condense Dickens’ entire novella into six minutes.

Fifty years later, Northern Irish director Brian Desmond Hurst gave us Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim as the eponymous miser, in a sophisticated adaptation that’s often regarded as the definitive Christmas Carol movie. There have been others.

In 1988, Richard Donner and Bill Murray presented audiences with a demented 80s-centric makeover, in the disorganised yet delightful Scrooged. Brian Henson’s 1992favourite, The Muppet Christmas Carol, with a straight-faced Michael Caine as the Ebenezer geezer, continues to make new fans.

Scrooge
Scrooge

Oh, and the less said about Robert Zemeckis and Jim Carrey’s hideous, dead-eyed, animated adaptation, the better.

Will the BBC’s forthcoming effort — a three-part mini-series, adapted by Steven Knight and starring Guy Pearce as Scrooge and Andy Serkis as the Ghost of Christmas Past — leave as big a dent on our annual holiday viewing schedule as others before it? We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, studios and screenwriters continue to turn to Dickens’ story for inspiration. I don’t just mean straight adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

In fact, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the cinematic ghosts of Christmas past, it’s that festive screen features tend to follow the same snow-covered path that Dickens originally mapped out, back in the winter of 1843.

Think about it, most Christmas movies take place over the course of just a few days.

Most of them feature a lone protagonist, who is forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror, eventually overcoming their prejudices, and changing the way they see the world.

Most of them are morality tales and redemption stories.

Take, for example, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it’s an adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story, ‘The Greatest Gift’.

But the fact remains that it’s a Christmas-themed picture about a desperate man whose spiritual buddy shows him what the world would look like if he wasn’t in it, thereby giving him a new appreciation of what life has to offer. Sound familiar?

You can clearly spot A Christmas Carol’s influence in everything from Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause (yes, the Tim Allen one) and Jingle All the Way (the Arnold Schwarzenegger one), to Elf, and even Lethal Weapon, which is essentially It’s a Wonderful Life with guns, car chases, and mullets.

But the king of them all is John Hughes and Chris Columbus’, Home Alone.

Here we have the story of a precocious eight-year-old named Kevin (Macaulay Culkin as our teeny, tiny Scrooge), who literally wishes his family away and, with a little help from a scary neighbour and a couple of scarier, halfwit burglars, comes to realise — on Christmas Eve, of all days — that he may not have beenliving his best life after all, and that deep down, Kevin is nothing without the people who love him most.

It’s funny, it’s horrible, and it’ll bring a tear to your eye, just like A Christmas Carol.

For anyone who’d like an up-to-date version, Jack Thorne’s retelling of this Christmas fable is transformed into a theatrical experience for the 21st Century in a reconfigured Gate auditorium in Dublin, until January 18, 2020.

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