OK, fine. You really think The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best movie based on A Christmas Carol?
Now that’s a little less cut and dry. It’s hard to begrudge those who give that title to the 1951 adaptation directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which has a delightful performance from Alastair Sim that has justifiably become the standard against which all Scrooges are judged, gothic atmosphere you could drown in, and spine-chilling effects by 1951 standards. That is an unquestionably great movie based on A Christmas Carol.
What that movie does not do is identify and synthesize the specific cocktail that makes Charles Dickens’ novel a universally1enduring work of fiction. The same is true of the 1935 version starring Seymour Hicks, the 1938 version starring Reginald Owens, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott, the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart—and, of course, the 2009 version starring Jim Carrey, though if anyone is tempted to make that case I can only hope the Ghosts of Good Movies Past, Present, and Yet to Come might save their soul.
No, only one work of cinema has ever managed to effectively recreate that uniquely Dickens magic, achieving it not so much through adaptation in the traditional sense as through the more precarious feat of transmutation.
What in the world does that mean?
We’ll get to it! I’m just saying it’s the one largely focused on a two-time Academy Award winner being quite rude to a frog.
Sounds like a stretch!
That’s what I’m counting on! If anyone doesn’t think it’s a stretch, we should probably grab a beer sometime. But presuming you do, strap in. I have been waiting decades to mount this argument, and I’m not stopping until you’re convinced.
But what about—
Good call, let’s set some parameters. We are talking exclusively about adaptations taking place in 19th century London. We all love Scrooged, but it doesn’t count. I’ve never known anyone who loves the Depression-era Henry Winkler vehicle An American Christmas Carol, but just to be clear, it doesn’t count either. If, however, a cranky old Victorian man named Ebenezer Scrooge unironically snarls that any poor people who would rather die than live in a workhouse should “do it, and decrease the surplus population,” then it’s in the running. To keep the playing field level, we will include feature musicals, which brings into the fold the excellent Scrooge with Albert Finney and the execrable Hallmark adaptation with Kelsey Grammer. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll limit it to feature-length adaptations, thus ruling out the few extant scraps of the 1901 silent production2, the many animated TV specials—including those starring Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo, as well as an Oscar-winning 1971 ABC production that brought to life the John Leech illustrations Dickens commissioned for the book’s first printing—plus any gimmicky sitcom episode you might like to mount some defense of. Sound fair?
Honestly, it sounds more like you’re setting very specific goalposts to make your point inarguable.
Well, that’s my prerogative, and you’re a rhetorical device, so I owe you nothing. Now give it a rest, we have to get going if we’re ever going to talk about the Muppets.
Stave Two What: the Dickens
A Christmas Carol is written in the first person. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the theory I am going to relate.
The narrative voice is one of the chief joys of this little novel. 3 Dickens’ prose isn’t so much lively as explosive, pausing constantly for linguistic flourishes, bizarre digressions, and corny jokes. Given how much of the story’s charm lies in that voice, it’s unsurprising that the majority of screen adaptations make some effort to include portions of Dickens’ language, if only those well-known scraps of the opening (“Marley was dead: to begin with”) and conclusion (“Scrooge was better than his word”). As the book’s perspective is so distinctly first-person, adaptors frequently assign narratorial duties to an onscreen character, with the most natural candidates being Scrooge’s put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit (as in Robert Zemeckis’ 2009 motion-capture atrocity in which Gary Oldman enacts the role) or jolly nephew Fred (as in the 1999 TNT adaptation in which a typically charismatic Dominic West does what he can with a generally thankless role).
Amidst the book’s many oddities, perhaps the most striking by 21st century standards is the fact that this narrator is not just obtrusive but non-diegetic, which is a terribly fancy way of saying: the story seems to be narrated by Charles Dickens.
This narratorial incarnation of the author is committed to giving you 110% at all times, not just willing but happy to let you see him sweat. Within the first two paragraphs, Dickens:
1) welcomes us into the story (“Marley was dead as a door-nail”)
2) pauses to acknowledge the reader’s presumed skepticism of his phrasing (“I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail”)
3) lectures the reader on the rationale behind that phrasing (“the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for”)
4) scolds the reader for sending him down that path in the first place (“You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was dead as a door-nail”)
5) starts the story in earnest, still unable to keep from rhetorically snapping at the reader (“Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?”)
Exhausting as it sounds, Dickens maintains this frantic voice throughout. Prickliness gives way to an unnerving neediness as he asks the reader to play matchmaker between himself and any potential friend of their own who might be as “blest in a laugh” as Scrooge’s nephew—“I should like to know him too. Introduce him to me.” Perhaps most startling of all is this beloved author’s extended bout of what I can only describe as horniness: in a scene omitted from virtually all adaptations, Scrooge is shown what became of his lost love, and the frequent omission might be chalked up to the difficulty of depicting the desperation with which Dickens longs “to have touched her lips…to have let loose waves of hair…to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.” Early on, Dickens informs the reader that he is “standing at your elbow,” and it’s an apt summation of this joyfully chaotic reading experience.
Given that the book often reads like the script for a one man show, it might seem counterintuitive that it took Dickens another decade to begin performing A Christmas Carol for paying audiences, whose overwhelming demand would become a defining element of his legacy. But in Victorian England, this sort of thing just wasn’t done by respectable authors, and so the pressures inherent to the novel’s voice could well be chalked up to the frustrations of a born performer4 chafing against the strictures of his role. When he finally began performing A Christmas Carol, he first did so only at charity functions to avoid the disapproval of the Victorian literati, who considered for-profit readings a great affront to the sanctity of the form. As quaint as this might seem in the literary landscape of the 21st century, it does create a vision of A Christmas Carol as the work of a flamboyant spirit doing what little it can to contain itself.5
I imagine you won’t be surprised if I tell you A Christmas Carol was an instant blockbuster. But, in a remarkable presaging of today’s iconoclastic clickbaiting,6 there was a wave of sneering reassessment three decades after the book’s release. One critic condescended to prior readers suckered in by the phenomenon, which “at this distance we find very difficult to account for” given that the book “is almost entirely forced and its power quite artificial.” Leaving aside my hope that today’s proud cultural heretics are pleased to repeat tricks their great-great-great-grandparents might have engaged in, the narrative thinness of A Christmas Carol is undeniable. The only point for debate is whether this should be considered a feature or a bug.
To anyone in search of psychological and emotional verisimilitude, A Christmas Carol may well chafe. But, as one Victorian critic put it, this is a novel “not to be talked or written of according to ordinary rules.” It’s a story in which a man spends roughly 30% of the page count conversing with the physical embodiment of a day.7 As such, though the righteous outrage at 19th-century income inequality may call to mind Dickens’ other works of crowd-pleasing agitprop, it’s more comparable to Renaissance morality plays—think Everyman, the 16th-century pageant in which the eponymous protagonist meets such characters as Beauty and Strength before dying with only Good Deeds at his side.
A Christmas Carol has obsessed me since childhood, when I would spend every year counting down to the week my father would finally pull it off the shelf for bedtime reading, so I hope you won’t accuse me of denigrating characters as beloved as the famously heartstring-tugging Cratchit family. If you won’t take my word on the story’s thinness, just listen to the youngest Cratchit, angelically ill Tiny Tim, who’s perfectly aware that he is more useful as a symbol than a person: in one of the many lines used in virtually every adaptation, the frail moppet tells his father he hopes people notice him in church because “it might be pleasant” to ponder the miracles Christ could have worked on him. Given such brazen unsubtlety, it would seem ridiculous to argue that Charles Dickens was not intentionally crafting the story as allegory first and human drama second—as 19th century Dickens biographer John Forster argued, the author was a great fan of “old nursery tales” and his primary goal was to lend them “a higher form.”
Tiny Tim’s purity, which would require a Herculean feat of prepubescent acting to portray as anything but unbearably saccharine, is perhaps the ultimate testament to the inherent difficulty of faithfully bringing such an unusual novel to the screen. You might even argue that only one movie has ever pulled it off.
That’s right, I didn’t forget you came here to read about the Muppets. I do believe the approximately 1,800 words we just spent on topics ranging from not the Muppets to extremely not the Muppets is essential to my grand theory making any sense, but for anyone who may have skimmed this entire section in a vain search for the name “Kermit,” I will repeat, emphatically, that:
A Christmas Carol is narrated by Charles Dickens, and he never lets you forget it.
None of the characters in A Christmas Carol are characters so much as the living embodiment of archetypal ideas.
Those are the important takeaways, and I have one more up my sleeve. Then, finally, I promise we can talk about the Muppets.
Stave Three A Tale of Two Spirits
Take a moment to envision the Ghost of Christmas Past. Choose your favorite cinematic incarnation or some amalgamation of the dozens that have appeared in Scrooge’s bedroom across the past century. I know I told you to forget Scrooged, but go ahead and envision the guy from the New York Dolls as a cigar-chomping cabbie if you want. It’ll work for my purposes.
What you can’t do is envision one of John Leech’s illustrations, because good luck trying to illustrate this:
The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.
And good luck trying to depict that monstrosity on screen, which probably explains why few adaptors have ever tried. The 1971 cartoon devoted to recreating Leech’s aesthetic ran with the common understanding that Dickens meant to evoke a candle without actually calling the spirit a candle; even in that case the “fluctuations” mainly come across as the spirit seeming to go in and out of focus. It’s easy enough to depict a spirit that looks like “a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.” But once you try to simultaneously show it as “a pair of legs without a head,” you’re liable to lose a significant segment of your audience, so adaptors tend to focus on the first part and ignore the second.
In essence, that means jettisoning uncanniness (in that the spirit seems simultaneously literal and figurative and so not quite either) in favor of ambiguity (in that the spirit seems simultaneously young and old and so plausibly both), and that latter lane does yield a fun mix-and-match quality between adaptations. To cite four examples representative of the spectrum that a Ghost of Christmas Past might fall along while remaining within a Victorian context (identified by year rather than title for hopefully self-evident reasons):
1938: an ethereally beautiful young woman
1951: an old man with luxuriant shoulder-length hair
1984: a middle-aged woman with an extravagantly anachronistic blonde mane
1999: famously elfin Joel Grey with the now customary long blonde hair playing distant third fiddle to white pancake makeup and guileless perpetually-raised eyebrows
Waiting to see what spin a director might put on the spirit is among the sole sources of curiosity in any adaptation given how calcific the other imagery has become,8 but the absence of uncanniness is an undeniable loss to the book’s spine-chilling effects. As Dickens describes it, the spirit sounds both grotesque and gorgeous in a way that draws the reader towards it in awe even as we understand Scrooge’s urge to violently snuff it out at the stave’s close, an attack provoked by the final uncanny glimpse Dickens offers:
It looked upon him with a face in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him
This, at least, is an image a director might work with, but the only director to try—as well as the only director to depict the spirit as a literal talking candle—was Robert Zemeckis. Thus 100% of available evidence suggests it’s a terrible idea, and that you might as well take the tack of 1970’s Scrooge and depict the spirit as a fussy old lady with a big fancy hat. If Charles Dickens doesn’t give a damn about filmmakers, why should filmmakers feel beholden to him?
It should hopefully go without saying why Charles Dickens wasn’t thinking about filmmakers, and that’s one of the most exciting elements in any novel written before the train arrived at La Ciotat. Where today so many popular books are clearly crafted for ease of adaptation, Dickens was free to create images that could live only in a reader’s mind, and take advantage of the gravity-defying leap between words and imagination to conjure images that work primarily as ideas. Envisioning what the spirit’s face might look like as it incorporates elements of both Scrooge’s sister Fan and mentor Fezziwig is far less important than empathizing with Scrooge’s agony. Some words just can’t be adapted.
But what if—and bear with me here—they could be transmuted?
This is the heart of my theory: In bringing a work to the screen, fidelity in the traditional sense can often be surprisingly antithetical to recreating the feelings conjured by the prose. To flatten Charles Dickens’ outrageously unconventional novel into a conventional movie will mean allowing significant magic to fall through the cracks. But by transmuting the book, discarding the original form in order to maintain its function, you can create something that honors what makes the work special far more effectively than any “faithful” effort.
Adaptation and transmutation don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the seemingly simpler case of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Dickens describes this spirit as being “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” This, as helpfully noted by Michael Patrick Hearn in The Annotated Christmas Carol, “is, of course, Death.” Simple enough, and extremely creepy, so adaptors are free to faithfully adapt that description while transmuting the frightening effects in whatever way they choose.
Going for the traditional Death angle, though, ignores the most interesting element of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Dickens doesn’t describe the spirit as humanoid in particular. Not only is the ghost’s face obscured, so is its form, and Dickens goes on to characterize it as “nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.” Forget about the Grim Reaper as depicted on so many theoretically funny birthday cards and just envision that. It’s a big ask, but get it right and you’ll raise goosebumps in a way I have to imagine would please Charles Dickens a great deal.
Look, you know what I’m going to say now: only one movie has pulled it off. And you’ve hung with me this long, so it’s only right I stop toying with you. It’s finally time.
It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to get things started on the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational—
Stave Four This is What We Call The Muppet Christmas Carol
Let’s start with the element that’s formed the core of my argument on this film’s superiority since long before I was pondering archetypes and transmutation: The Muppet Christmas Carol is the only adaptation to feature Charles Dickens as a character.
Yes, in this case, he’s portrayed by Gonzo, a blue creature traditionally classified as a Whatever, but I’m going to reach back almost 200 years to that early review and remind you: A Christmas Carol does not benefit from being “talked or written of according to ordinary rules.”
The Gonzo device is most useful in finally bringing more than just bookend scraps of Dickens’ language to the screen. As discussed in the making-of featurette “Frogs, Pigs and Humbug,” The Muppet Christmas Carol began as one in a brainstormed list of potential ways to reintroduce the Muppets after the eight years of cinematic dormancy since their taking of Manhattan. What moved this one to the top of the heap was Muppet scribe Jerry Juhl’s recognition of an issue seemingly ignored by Carol screenwriters from Noel Langley (of both the 1951 adaptation and The Wizard of Oz) to Peter Barnes (of both the 1999 adaptation and the gleefully ludicrous Peter O’Toole passion play The Ruling Class): “It’s just a shame,” Juhl recalls realizing upon picking up the book, to do an adaptation of A Christmas Carol “that doesn’t have narration, that loses [Dickens’ voice].”
To any fan who’s grown accustomed to a cursory “Marley was dead: to begin with” and then over an hour without Dickens’ prose, there’s a hair-raising thrill in hearing any voice, even Gonzo’s, solemnly whisper, “Scrooge liked the cold. He was hard, and sharp as a flint, secret and self-contained, as solitary as an oyster.”9 Thus, this version easily wins the prize for most representation of Dickens’ language. But as we’ve established, the book’s voice isn’t just about great turns of phrase; from the earliest persnickety digression on the Country-sustaining value of similes, the voice of A Christmas Carol is about winking over-the-topness.
Maybe you could imagine Gonzo and his narratorial foil Rizzo the Rat opening with their own argument over the relative deadness of various nails, a trick attempted by the 1999 adaptation via attendees at Marley’s funeral. The effect in that case is thoroughly doornail-esque, but perhaps the Henson brain trust could have made it work. But that, my friends, would mean adaptation. And, just as Dickens makes his unusual mission clear from his first textual breaths, so Juhl and director Brian Henson make clear from the jump that they are here to transmute that voice.
When we first encounter Gonzo and Rizzo in a Muppetized Victorian marketplace, Rizzo immediately takes issue with Gonzo’s claim that he’s equipped to embody Dickens. “I know the story of A Christmas Carol like the back of my hand!” Gonzo boasts, and when Rizzo demands he prove it, this most unusual Dickens proceeds to describe the back of his hand. The gag may be different, but the effect is the same: this story will be told by a fancifully obtrusive narrator committed to making himself as much the star of the show as Scrooge. If the book’s effects depend as much on groaners as insights, there could be no greater Dickens than Gonzo.
Even with such unassailable evidence, I fear I may be at risk of losing the skeptics, so let’s retreat to a less controversial claim: there is an inherent uncanniness to the art of puppetry. In his book Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, Kenneth Gross discusses the “basic wonder” of seeing one part of the human body dissociate and provide not just autonomy but personality to an inanimate object, an experience he defines as simultaneous madness and ecstasy. And it’s this quality that makes puppetry a perfect match for Dickens’ uncanny spirits.
The Henson Company’s Ghost of Christmas Past keeps virtually nothing from Dickens’ description save for the eerie melding of the grotesque and the gorgeous, experimenting with composited underwater photography10 to create an ethereal effect unlike anything attempted in prior Muppet works. The viscous fetal phantom may not precisely mimic the unknowability of Dickens’ description, but it maintains the maddening and ecstatic allure in a way no conventional representation has attempted. It’s such an overtly breathtaking effect that this spirit immediately and self-evidently stands out from the crowded field. But in the subtler transmutations of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the Henson approach shines primarily in its invisibility.
It takes a few moments’ analysis to gauge why this Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come puts such a pit in the viewer’s stomach.11 Much as Dickens describes it, the ghost looks like a moving heap of fabric with one outstretched hand, but the figure’s proportions seem to shift with every new angle, appearing stretched in some spots and squat in others with the only unifying quality being its overwhelming unnaturalness. Where in 1970’s Scrooge, the humanoid spirit’s hood falls back to reveal a skull so predictable it can’t be upsetting,12 the Henson iteration is uncannily unknowable—there are a multitude of imaginable forms for this spirit, and each is equally nauseating.
I hope the skeptics have been satisfied by my “puppets are uncanny” argument, because now I have to mount my third point and achieve the hat trick that will seal my grand yuletide theory: Kermit the Frog is the only performer to ever truly embody Bob Cratchit.
With even the most miserly skeptics now hopefully on the hook to see how I might stick this landing, let’s step back a moment. I would argue that, based purely on a vague description of its qualities, A Christmas Carol should be for nobody. This is a book with the form of a fairy tale but the content of the bleakest social realism; no adult should be able to accept the virtue of Tiny Tim, and no child should be able to stomach the horrors of Scrooge’s visit to the future. But for going on two centuries, they have. It’s a phenomenon that’s hard to account for beyond the fact that when an idea and its executor are good enough, conventional wisdom goes out the window.
For sheer logic-defying universality, I would challenge you to come up with a more analogous property than the Muppets. From the first moments of The Muppet Show’s pilot, with its kick-line of burlesque dancers, all of them felt and few of them humanoid, Jim Henson announces his intention to identify the razor thin line between the childlike and the adult, and he would proceed to sprint across that tightrope with barely a stumble for the 14 years between that episode and his still-raw premature death.
In the interest of science, we do have to rule out all possible variables in such an analogy, so let’s turn to a brief counter-argument concerning Mickey’s Christmas Carol: why should I elevate one set of beloved children’s characters as perfectly representative of Dickens’ effects while sidelining another? The most affecting example, as I’ll get to in a moment, is the Cratchits. The clearest example, though, is Marley—or, as the case may be, the Marleys.
In Disney’s 1983 short, which runs a brisk but surprisingly well-paced 26 minutes, Scrooge’s deceased (to the point of doornail-adjacence) partner is embodied by Goofy. Seeing this renowned lovable lunkhead draped in chains and howling of his cruelty and regret can prompt only cognitive dissonance—all we know about Goofy is in his name, and that characterization has nothing to do with Marley’s essential characteristics. Contrast this with the selection of iconic hecklers Statler and Waldorf to portray the Marley brothers—any argument against the value of doubling the role can hopefully be nullified by the perfect intersection between these ultimate embodiments of needless nastiness.
For as much shading as they may have accrued over the years, every Muppet represents a similarly intuitive archetype that allows them to match with these thin characters, lending additional dimension through no additional work. When we see Fozzie, we see the ultimate blissful fool, as much a factor in his appropriateness for the Fezziwig role as his name; when we see Sam the Eagle, we see stern righteousness that fits seamlessly into the role of young Scrooge’s schoolmaster. And when we see Kermit, we see decency.
It may seem like splitting hairs to suggest that Kermit’s decency is an order of magnitude more appropriate for the Cratchit role than Mickey’s famous niceness, but while niceness and decency are both archetypal virtues, one leaves substantially more room for nuance. Mickey’s definitional quality leaves him bland; Kermit’s decency, on the other hand, allows for bouts of vanity and pettiness without invalidating his core respect for the value of all life. Niceness can be faked, but decency must be proven, and this quality serves as a magnetic pole for anyone—be they human or frog—to find their way back to where surface-level niceness fails.
And, presuming The Muppet Christmas Carol is not their first exposure to Jim Henson’s creations, this is the metatextual association viewers bring into the movie, an effect the creative team uses not as a crutch but as a base to build far greater resonance than any other adaptation. The book may be brief, but viewers of a feature adaptation are still permitted a fraction the time with these characters that a reader is allowed, and so anyone that isn’t Scrooge often feels underdeveloped. This issue is nowhere more problematic than in the Cratchit dinner scene; to original Victorian audiences, the scene was so powerful that Dickens kept it as the centerpiece of his public readings while incrementally shaving off material to bring the performance down to his ideal 90 minutes. Plenty of Scrooge’s trials could be expended, but the Cratchits were crucial, and so their proportional weight grew thanks to the power of audience attachment.
As evidenced by the 1999 adaptation, even as formidable an actor as Richard E. Grant can’t make Bob Cratchit’s family a compelling screen presence. But thanks to the longtime understanding that Kermit can take on many roles, from variety show host to investigative journalist and beyond, Bob Cratchit here becomes another iteration of the Kermit soul, different in many ways but the same in the most important ones.
Thus the Cratchit scenes become not just engaging but, to anyone prone to thinking deeply about the Muppets, intensely poignant. Even as we’re watching Bob and Emily Cratchit lay the table, we’re also seeing Kermit and Miss Piggy having finally found peace in their ever-tumultuous love story13 only for that hard-won happiness to be rewarded with the pain of a child’s chronic illness. If the success or failure of any Christmas Carol relies on the audience feeling gutted by the death of Tiny Tim, then every prior adaptation must be considered a failure—and, as I hope you’ve by now gathered, I would know. Only once has the climactic scene of Bob and Emily’s stoic mourning been capable of hitting the audience with the brutal force demanded by the story, and it’s not despite the fact that they’re anthropomorphized animals but because of it.
I have barely scratched the surface of all the ways the Henson Company identified the minimum requirements of a functional Carol and vaulted them by an extra mile. I haven’t mentioned the name Michael Caine, nor discussed the fact that the outlandish presence of the Muppets enables him to underplay Scrooge to subtle effects no other actor has been allowed, yielding the first instance of Scrooge’s graveside repentance reading as genuine human tragedy rather than allegorical turning point. I haven’t mentioned Paul Williams—arguably (at least by me) the greatest songwriter of the second half of the 20th century—who returns to the Henson stable for the first time since The Muppet Movie andprovides a soundtrack that’s not just the best of any Christmas Carol but among the best of any Christmas film full-stop. And, if only for the sake of my own emotions, I have almost entirely elided the fact that the evident care put into even the most minor elements creates an overriding sense that the first Muppet feature produced after Jim Henson’s death must be an unimpeachable tribute to the legacy and values of a pioneering entertainer.
All of those touches contribute to making The Muppet Christmas Carol an extraordinary film. Without any of them, this Carol would still be a landmark in literary transmutation, but by leaping that extra mile, the filmmakers created a work of art that I would argue is just about perfect. And though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket,14 I believe it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.
Stave Five The End of It
There is a man whose name I would prefer not to use in close proximity to Jim Henson’s, and so I will only say that he is the 45th person to hold a particularly distinguished job, and that across the past three Decembers, a common refrain has emerged: Isn’t this guy due for his own visit from three spirits?
It’s a cute idea, and far be it from me to disabuse anyone of that comfort. But I would suggest there is a significant gulf in the crimes committed by this man and Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is a lawful neutral;15 the other guy is chaotic evil incarnate. To a fault, Scrooge feels beholden to his role in society—he pays taxes without complaint, thus supporting the ill and impoverished to the full requirement of the law, and to suggest he should give more is ridiculous; the other guy willingly enables the suffering and death of children to prove a point.
So the other guy is not an ideal point of discussion for the modern resonance of Dickens’ story. Instead, let’s turn our attention to a man whose name might seem positively innocuous after that last paragraph: Jeff Bezos, the richest human alive—a title he couldn’t lose even after a fortune-splitting divorce—and thus the man most ideally positioned as one overnight odyssey away from deciding to improve, and even save, the lives of countless people. Take a moment to relish the thought if you like. Because now I have to ask: even taking into account the Christmas spirit, how likely does it seem?
Perhaps even Bezos isn’t the most apt Scrooge analog; he’s really more of a true neutral, a man willing to commit whatever human rights violations society will allow in the interest of securing a profit. Scrooge, who provides his employees holiday time with only mild passive aggression, would never stoop to such active cruelty (though one has to imagine he would at least admire Amazon’s commitment to exploring the furthest reaches of the social contract). So replace Bezos with any low-profile billionaire, even a straw man you might conjure to represent the essential spirit of billionaires present and yet to come. How much more easily can you imagine any of them fundamentally changing their comfortable lifestyles after one night of uneasy sleep?
The astronomical unlikeliness of Scrooge’s decision gave rise to one of the more startling reads of the story, even to this Carol obsessive: Marxist critic T.A. Jackson’s 1937 argument that Dickens’ story is best seen as “propaganda in favour of pathetic resignation” encouraging the world’s Cratchits to toil with a smile and await the spiritual rebirths of their own Scrooges.
It’s a tough argument to refute on its own terms. But I’ll hearken back once more to the earliest and most significant read of this extraordinary story: it’s “not to be talked or written of according to ordinary rules,” and attempting to apply its childlike logic to realistic dynamics can only lead to cognitive dissonance even more mind-melting than hearing Goofy ah-hyuck his way through a discussion of his own atrocities.16 Typical modes of discussion would suggest a story’s power lies in its ability to impact those most apt to identify with the protagonist. But if it’s likely the Scrooges of the world are beyond help, all we’re left to wonder is what use this story might be to the rest of us Cratchits and Freds.
On that level, the story’s relevance might have been best distilled by Paul Williams in a song cut from The Muppet Christmas Carol but available on the soundtrack. In what was intended to accompany their fundraising visit to Scrooge’s offices, Bunsen Honeydew (with monosyllabic accompaniment from constant companion Beaker) posits that “when you’re ready to start, there’s room in your heart for love.” This message, at least, is universal: it’s never too late for any of us to break toxic cycles, give more freely of ourselves, and reap the spiritual rewards.
It’s a catchy way of making the point, and one resonant with a cornerstone of Christmas Carol legend: that the book’s sold-out first printing was accompanied by a skyrocket of charitable giving, most likely not in lump sums from Scrooges but in smaller donations from Freds. Even in lyrics that didn’t make the final cut, the Muppets provide the best shortcut to the deepest message. The uncanniness of Henson’s work isn’t limited to puppetry—even more inexplicable than the legendary image of a frog riding a bicycle is the emotional mechanism that makes us care about that frog. As Roger Ebert noted in his own incredulously warm review of The Muppet Christmas Carol, it’s a pretty unusual film that causes us to empathize with a legend of stage and screen as he weeps over the death of a felt frog. But by pleasurably overloading our uncanniness receptors, the Henson Company—like Charles Dickens and so many other creators of our most beloved works—skirts our typical modes of processing stories, sneaking up on us and going straight for the heart.
In the pilot of The Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf sit in their box and marvel at the baffling nonsense they’ve witnessed.
The question, one old crank17 suggests, is: what does it mean?
No, the other counters. The question is: who cares?
And they’re right, just not in the way they think. But we know something else they don’t: they’re just one quick shuffle off this mortal coil from realizing the folly of cantankerousness. May the rest of us get there before they do. Every one.18
The word may sound hyperbolic, but John Irving has described a trip to India in which he happened upon a group of children watching the 1951 adaptation on VHS. Irving claims the film was beloved of the group despite their knowing little of either Christmas or the English language, and that one, mistaking his astonishment for confusion, attempted to explain the story: “Scrooge. A ghost. More coming.”
As this version sees Marley escort Scrooge through the entirety of his odyssey, it was never really in the running for “most faithful adaptation” anyway.
And it is unusually little—A Christmas Carol clocks in at just over 28,000 words, roughly five times the length of this essay.
Dickens participated in amateur performance from a young age, at times serving as simultaneous writer, director, producer, stage manager, scenic designer, and accordionist just to provide a platform for acting that was apparently serviceable at best.
Though this theorizing is hardly enough to posit the book’s narrator as a soul in frenzy, we might put more stock in how the author himself described the now-legendary six-week writing process (a feat dramatized, with roughly equal care, in the feature film The Man Who Invented Christmas and a segment of Comedy Central’s Drunk History). In a letter to a friend, Dickens discusses having “wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited [myself] in a most extraordinary manner…[and] walked about the black streets of London…many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.” While this festive frenzy has attained mythic status, it would seem to lend credence to the now-common belief that Dickens likely had an untreated mood disorder; given, however, that for the remainder of this essay mental health is neither her nor there, we will leave it here rather than bring it with us there.
Rather than acquiesce to clickbait culture by hyperlinking, I will simply remind the reader of the agonized frenzy that greeted The Wrap’s April 2019 publication of a piece with the headline, “I’m 24 and Just Watched ‘Heathers’ For the First Time – Yikes”
The Ghost of Christmas Present mentions his “more than eighteen hundred” older brothers, and ages in proportion to the hour.
The lack of decades-spanning precedent is one of the more exciting elements of the otherwise unexceptional 1935 adaptation, in which—conceivably due to budget limitations if not simply a now-unimaginable tacit creative license—the spirit is rendered as an abstract blur alongside an invisible Marley and a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come depicted as Scrooge’s shadow made impossibly large.
Dickens’ original quote, one of many that Juhl gracefully streamlined into dialogue: “Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
In the behind-the-scenes featurette, Brian Henson discusses having first attempted to shoot the puppet in a vat of oil before deeming the solution unworkable for a desired result he describes as “gossamery.”
The choice to create new puppets for the three spirits is one of the film’s most significant masterstrokes, but it’s not one the filmmakers took for granted. According to the featurette, the original plan was to cast familiar Muppets as the spirits, with Gonzo intended to embody the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Rarely does one encounter such a blatant example of the perilous line between a great movie and a terrible one.
This revelation is immediately followed by one of the most shocking deviations in any Carol, with Scrooge tumbling into Hell to be reunited with Marley and fitted for his own chains, a psychedelic episode that feels not unlike a family-friendly Jigoku.
In one of the more eternally amusing elements of The Muppet Movie, Kermit’s weary “Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” number, his grand statement on this eternally fraught romance, comes in the midst of their first date.
Until my check for this essay clears.
Scholars tend to position Scrooge as the ultimate utilitarian; the fact that I would prefer to use D&D alignments is probably as good an illustration as any of why I am mounting this argument here and not as a dissertation.
There’s a reason the aggressively grim TV adaptation arriving the same week as this essay seems so laughably wrongheaded. Guy Pearce, the newest and certainly sexiest Scrooge, has boasted that this take is intended to dig “deeper” and “perhaps make audiences more uncomfortable” than previous adaptations, a perverse thing to suggest might be necessary with a story that falls to pieces under scrutiny (as those Victorian iconoclasts so bravely observed).
I would be remiss not to acknowledge my debt to Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran, whose invitation to discuss this movie on their podcast We Love to Watch served as the springboard for this essay. Should you want to hear me say all this again but more casually and with a lot more exuberant cursing, the episode was released November 28, 2019.