Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dickens'...uh, Disney's...A Christmas Carol

It says something about the imagination of Charles Dickens that only in 2009 could technology finally give an adequate expression of the artistic vision encompassed in a story he wrote in 1843. The Disney movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Beowulf) is only the latest cinematic expression of "A Christmas Carol," but it also shows technology can only do so much to compete against the ghosts of Scrooges past.

First of all, Zemeckis' movie is slavishly faithful to the Dickens original. Moments that are sometimes excised from the narrative - for example, the twin children Want and Ignorance hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present - live in this version. Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay, uses Dickens' dialogue almost totally, and when the text does stray, it still manages to remain faithful. For example, Gary Oldman's Bob Cratchit pronounces the verdict of the book's narrator, that Scrooge in the end was "better than his word." This is a sensible artistic choice, given that Dickens' narrative is not only perfectly suited to the constrains of a two-hour movie but that the dialogue still crackles with life and a familiarity that can only be compared to Shakespeare.

Jim Carrey's Scrooge is surprisingly restrained. I expected it to veer into broad comedy and pratfalls but the old miser keeps his dignity much longer than I would have guessed, even as the three spirits strip the last vestiges of his pride away from him. I wasn't sure if it was the computer animation, or the quality of his performance, but I found myself wanting some of the nuance I remembered from previous performances by George C. Scott, or Albert Finney, or the great Alastair Sim. By giving such an understated, and faithful, interpretation, it allows the more sentimental aspects of Dickens story to show themselves. Scrooge is revealed as a surprisingly easy touch - his brutishness, so clearly displayed to the charity men who accost him in his office early on - wilts depressingly easy once he is carried through the events of his early life.

The movie also reminds us of why "A Christmas Carol" continues to grip our imagination - much like its American cousin, "It's a Wonderful Life." That's because it has the ability to scare the Scrooge out of us. When Marley's ghost appears in all his morbid glory, he is there to remind Scrooge - and us - that life is not an endless proposition. When the Ghost of Christmas Past bids Scrooge return to the still-familiar corners of his forgotten life, we see the choices he has made and the life he unconsciously created in the pursuit of wealth. But Marley's epitaph for himself - "Mankind should have been my business!" - rings in the air.

Even the relatively saccharine scares of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present have teeth - Past is unafraid of showing Scrooge the great failures of his personal life until Scrooge forcibly ends the journey. Present, with a booming laugh and an image of endless gluttony, propels Scrooge to every stop where his name is cursed and ridiculed. Both ghosts seem to exist to remind him of the terrors of life; of failure and waste, want and cruelty, the sorts of things that make the joys of Christmas ring hollow in our hearts.

All three ghosts are not at all inviting - which gives us a contradiction at the heart of the celebrated Christmas story. Christmas can be a terrible thing, as Scrooge himself observes at the beginning, a time "for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself another year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?" One presumes that if the ghosts appeared to another, they might take on other forms, but they seem to exist with the idea of torment in order to remind a twisted heart of the season's - and life's - meaning. At Christmas, we look around and measure it against its previous incarnations - who is alive, who is dead, are we better off than the previous year, did we get everything we wanted, were we able to provide what others wanted. The ghosts serve almost the same function as Christmas, with its mental balancing of life's books at the year's very end - both for good and ill.

Only Tiny Tim, the object of so much of the audience's fear, can inspire hope. Tim Cratchit's presence, so appallingly sentimental - a lame, brave, good-hearted child ("good as gold") who hopes to inspire church-goers to remember "who made lame beggars walk and blind men see" - points the way to the hinted-at end of the story. Tiny Tim, whom the narrator assures us "did NOT die," gives Scrooge a tangible life for his money and newfound benevolence to save. And Dickens, who leaves the figure of Christ carefully off-stage in this Christmas pageant, indicates that perhaps this lame beggar did walk because a blind man - Scrooge - finally was able to see something besides the coins he had striven his whole life to hold.

One of the strengths of Dickens incredible art is that no technology can adequately show the change wrought in a life by hope - even terrifying hope.

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