Engaging With the Text

‘Tis the season, and because it is, I saw three different versions of A Christmas Carol last week (and completed my annual re-read of the book as well). The first was a stage production done by San Francisco’s A.C.T. Conservatory. It was lovely–not ground breaking, but rather precisely what I expected: a straight theatrical retelling of a well-loved story. Then there was my annual rewatching of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol–still my favorite version ever, and despite the fact that it’s a musical, I think it’s one of the truest renditions of Mr. Dickens’s story.  And then I saw a new BBC-produced version with Guy Pearce as Scrooge that is not, as the advertisements might have it, your father’s Christmas Carol.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I am trying to figure out what the correct term for this film is. “Reimagining?” “Revision?” The look of the thing is lushly downtrodden 19th century, the costumes are handsome, and there are, as usual, great swaths of Dickens’s dialogue on parade. It also starts with someone pissing on Marley’s grave, an immediate signal that that this is not the uplifting story you remember. There’s a lot of modern grim on display; the original does not stint on grim–Dickens is writing about the poorest of the poor in a city that could be profoundly cruel. But this version adds–largely sexual content–to the original.  The boy Scrooge was not just miserable because his father had left him at school over the holidays; he’s miserable because his father has cut a deal with the headmaster, who will waive school fees if the boy stays over break as his sexual toy, This is definitely not textual. Later, Scrooge has an interaction with Bob Cratchit’s wife Mary which is not only outside the parameters of the original book, but turns the whole story on its axis. I found, by the end of the film, that I liked the way it was tied together. But it wandered pretty far afield from Dickens’s original intent, and in the end Scrooge himself says that he cannot be forgiven for his past behavior, but will spend the rest of his life attempting to atone. This in contrast to Dickens’s Scrooge, about whom “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

I find myself wondering what the reasons were for making the significant changes to the story. Is adding sexual brutality the only thing that reads as cruel behavior these days? Were the makers afraid that without it no one would watch? Were the screenwriter and director part of that cult of people who believe that sexual cruelty is just another “cool” story beat? Or were the screenwriter and director interested in a different message entirely from Dickens’s? The original is about redemption (and the notion that none of us is beyond redeeming); the remake suggests that redemption is something you have to strive for and may never obtain. Interesting, but not Dickens.

I am thinking about this still, not least because I also got to see the new film version of Little Women. I had mixed feelings about the new Christmas Carol, but I have no reservations about the new Little Women, despite the fact that it shuffles things around, adds some material, and leans heavily into the women’s issues in all of Alcott’s work, and in her life (at one point the film has Jo quote Alcott herself, saying she’d “rather be a spinster and paddle her own canoe”).

Like Dickens, Alcott wrote for money. The work she thought of as her best (her novel Moods) was a preachy, Transcendentalism-inflected failure–but writing the things she dismissed as “pap for the young” allowed her real voice, vigorous, humorous, and generous, to show through, especially in Little Women (which is essentially the “good parts” version of her own history, and don’t let me get sidetracked onto why I loathe Bronson Alcott). This new version of Little Women is true to what Alcott was telling her readers in the book: that women’s lives are diverse (Meg has to explain to Jo that her own dreams are different from Jo’s ambitions for her), that women with ambition pay a price in the world, and that while love is a crucial part of life, it is not the only thing a woman is made for. I think Louisa Alcott would recognize her story in this movie, not just because it hits all the plot points, but because the characters and meaning are right there.

I recommend Little Women wholeheartedly. After considerable thought, I recommend the new Christmas Carol as well–although I think it would have been better with a different title, so that you don’t go with expectations set for sentimental redemption.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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