I’ve seen four different versions of the filmThe Christmas Carol. I’ve gone at least three times to the ACT Theater annual production of the play. I wrote and put on four different versions of the play for 3rd through 5th graders throughout my years at The San Francisco School. Yet strangely, though I’ve read everything Charles Dickens wrote some three or four times over, I had never read the story.
Until now. Reading it to my seven-year old grandson Malik. Granted, some of the language is over his head. Like in the opening paragraphs:
“Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.”
My simple solution is to skip parts like that and cut to the action and the conversation. But sometimes I don’t, wanting Malik to feel what it’s like to be immersed in the expressive language of a master and just feel the rhythm and the lilt of it without explaining each word. For example, in describing Scrooge:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, 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. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blues; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
Now Dickens was a masterful storyteller with an extraordinary capacity to create memorable characters. Both the character of Scrooge and the story of redemption from his greedy, hard-hearted self make this tale one of the highpoints of all of literature. Both of which can come through magnificently in the mediums of live theater and film.
But what is missing is Dicken’s expressive language. Those muscular verbs above, gathering power in the rhythm of the sentence and the evocative imagery of flint, steel, oysters, paints a portrait as vivid, if not more so, than an actor on the stage or screen. We can feel the cold down to our bones as it freezes, nips, shrivels, stiffens and ices. This is a large part of what makes Dickens different from John Grisham, elevates him from mere fiction to literature.
Equally, and perhaps more so, is Dickens’ humanity shining through in his stories, his horror at the workhouse conditions of his Industrial Age, the greed, ignorance and malevolence of his fellow human beings, always balanced by his hope of redemption, the pure-hearted amongst us, the kind and generous. As in this little exchange between the Ghost of Christmas Past as they visit a dance party put on by Old Fezziwig for his apprentices Dick Wilkins and a young Ebenezer Scrooge. Revisiting the scene, Scrooge’s closed heart bursts open and the Spirit plays Devil’s advocate to drive home the point that generosity of spirit exceeds coveting money in the scale of human values.
“The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig and when he had done so, said:
‘ … Fezziwig has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money…Is that so much that he deserves this praise?’
‘ It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self; ‘It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’
Bam! Dicken hits the nail straight on the head and not the dead one in the doorway, but the one that pieces together the parts of ourselves that we can use to construct a decent human being. We all have the power to render ourselves—and others—happy or unhappy, to feel our work as light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. We all can daily choose the words and the looks that lift other's spirits and comforts their sorrows.
While Hollywood continues to churn out the wham! Bam! superhero crap or the macabre, image haunting violence in films like The Menu, we also have the power to choose or refuse what we read and watch. These tales of redemption— It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, You Can’t Take It With You, just about all of Dickens— are worthy to share with our grandchildren and to visit (or revisit) ourselves. Malik and I are about halfway through, but he’s 100% with me and I hope he’ll remember snuggling up on the couch with the tree lights sparkling, immersed in this wonderful tale of considering what’s important in this life.
Thank you, Charles Dickens.