He did it for the money. An indebted Charles Dickens dashed off A Christmas Carol in six weeks and saw it published, with opportune timing, six days before Christmas, in 1843. The first 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and the book has never been out of print. With his blockbuster novella, Dickens founded a franchise and reinvented the Christmas spirit, making a plea for joy and generosity in dour industrial England. But had he been visited by the Ghost of Xmas 2009, he would be shocked to see what’s become of his creation—a monstrous, half-human Ebenezer Scrooge who glowers from 3-D movie screens, heralding a Yuletide blitz of getting and spending more than six weeks before Christmas Day. And in Jim Carrey, the star of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, he’d see an actor who out-Scrooges Scrooge by hoarding five of the story’s roles—Ebenezer as an old man and a young boy, plus all three Christmas ghosts.
Tis the season to be tight-fisted, and Scrooge has never been bigger. Tailor-made for these penny-pinching times, he’s the original bipolar capitalist—the boss from hell who turns into a bailout benefactor. Everyone wants a piece of him. As Margaret Atwood writes in her introduction to a new Dickens anthology, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, “Scrooge is one of those characters—like Hamlet—who has become detached from the story in which he had his birth, and has become instantly recognizable, even by those who have never read the book.” Recalling her childhood affection for Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, who splashed in a giant vault of coins, Atwood calls him “a sort of anti-Santa Claus—Santa Claus’s dark twin.”
Like Santa, Scrooge is infinitely adaptable. His name pops up in the title of Scroogenomics, a cute little cash-register book that argues Christmas shopping is counterproductive. A Christian publisher has put out a biblically annotated version of A Christmas Carol. And in Payback, last year’s prescient tome about how the human condition ended up in hock, Atwood concocted her own fractured Christmas Carol, with Scrooge being taken on a whirlwind tour of environmental ruin by various Ghosts of Earth Day. Scrooge has become the Ghost of Christmas Purgatory, damned to live out endless mutations of his story, while Tiny Tim’s faux demise is replayed like a classic conjuring trick. Balloon Boy was the latest incarnation—he’s dead! he’s alive!
Actual adaptations of A Christmas Carol include plays, operas, and at least 30 film and TV productions. Those who have played Scrooge, or some variation of him, include: George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Rich Little, Simon Cowell, Vanessa Williams, Fred Flintstone, Mr. Magoo, Yosemite Sam—and of course Alastair Sim, whose 1951 black-and-white TV movie remains the definitive version. Scrooge’s time-travel rite of redemption has also served as a template for countless Hollywood fables, from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Back to the Future trilogy—whose director, Robert Zemeckis, made Disney’s new Christmas Carol.
There was some controversy when the Alistair Sim version was colourized for rebroadcast in in 1971. But that’s nothing compared to the voodoo performed on Dickens by Zemeckis. As with Polar Express and Beowulf, he employs the so-called motion-capture technology, which I prefer to call emotion-snatcher technology: the actors are wired with elaborate sensors so their performances can be transformed into computer-animated avatars. We end up with characters who are neither fish nor fowl, zombie-like humanoids incapable of expressing real feeling, although Carrey’s manic smirk keeps finding its way through his digital disguises.
Zemeckis remains largely faithful to the Dickens text, which he fetishizes with shots of the original book. But he kicks off the story with a grabby embellishment—a macabre flashback of Scrooge snatching the coins covering the eyes of Marley’s corpse. That sets the tone for reconfiguring A Christmas Carol as a soulless mix of horror and action, plundering pop culture with the blithe abandon of Forrest Gump (another Zemeckis opus). As Scrooge takes flight, there’s a nod to Peter Pan, then to E.T. as his silhouette sails by the full moon. And with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he’s inexplicably shrunk, like a refugee from Ratatouille. In the end, the only emotion generated is anger—that this is how a whole generation of kids will get their first taste of A Christmas Carol.