When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the industrial revolution – and its exploitation of humans – was in full swing. The book is very much a political piece about the obscenity of extreme wealth and the sacrifices of human empathy required to obtain it. The story is so well constructed, it practically invented the idea of a “traditional” Christmas in the UK and US.
But Dickens was, perhaps, too good a writer. While the basics of the story are beloved and have an enduring popularity, over the next 180 or so years, others have taken his book and watered it down in adaptation after adaptation. The resulting cheap, digestible tropes give people an easy feeling of superiority to Scrooge from the very start. The horror of a person’s soul unraveling – this is a ghost story after all – wanes into overly-abridged scenes that are restitched into a cheesecloth of a plot that has been denuded of any deeper thematic and nuanced meaning.
In truth, Dickens wrote Scrooge as a supremely intelligent man, highly witty and cutting in his observations. This trait, too, was required to amass his fortune. That’s the tragedy of Scrooge: he lost his way despite being the smartest person in the room. His literal overnight redemption is only possible when someone has that level of wisdom – how many times have you seen anyone change their core behavior for the better, to truly grow, over the course of a year let alone overnight?
This is what makes the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol so special. Produced in 1984, at the height of the Reagan-era greedfest, it draws back very closely to the original and its commentary on wealth. Scott plays Scrooge as Dickens wrote him. Scott’s Scrooge is not as a caricature for us to pity – that’s too easy for the audience – but rather as a fallen human full of the basest traits that also define our species. Far from being a withered old man, Scott’s Scrooge is an energetic and highly rational one, a powerful force of nature with a sharp, stinging tongue. That’s why – of all the adaptations and retellings I’ve seen on stage and screen – his is the only redemption I have found believable. And in this age where the wealthy deludedly believe they are the ones guiding humans forward in the sciences and arts, it’s worthwhile to revisit this retelling which is full of the same societal commentary of the original.