Bantam Classics, 1999
ISBN 0553212443

Christmastime is here again. Time once again to put aside the pettiness of everyday life, to look kindly upon one another and see the world with the eyes of the children we once were. Another year over, as a great man once said, and a new one just begun.
        But as this season begins, I feel I must make a confession, one that may go down hard at this time of year:
        I really don't like It's a Wonderful Life.
        It is not the sentimentality that puts me off. It's the ending. It's simply too easy. After finding out from an angel that his life is worth living in spite of the trials he faces, George Bailey is miraculously bailed out by his friends, who we are told earlier in the story did not have the wherewithal to help him. The story's moral--every life is worthwhile--is an admirable one. But it’s a little too easy to think your life is worthwhile when you're surrounded by people showering you with love and loot.
        Instead, I would have George Bailey, still firm in his newly found conviction that life is worthwhile, take the rap for losing the eight grand to protect Uncle Billy and be dragged off to the hoosegow on Christmas Day to the sobs of his wife and children. I guess that explains why I'll never make it as a Hollywood screenwriter.
        So why can't I buy the feel-goodness of It's a Wonderful Life while I can buy the even thicker cream of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? There is a reason why A Christmas Carol succeeds in a way that It's a Wonderful Life does not. For all its sentimentality, A Christmas Carol is an exceptionally well crafted story. Dickens draws us into the events and makes us care about the characters.
       There have been many fine film, stage and radio adaptations of this story. The 1951 film version starring Reginald Owen remains a classic. The Campbell Playhouse produced several excellent versions for radio starring Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago mounts an annual production that has become a tradition. But the written word retains its special power. Consider some of the details that are present in the original story that are often lost in film and stage versions.
        First, there is the Dickens' overall depiction of London. Even at Christmastime, London is a dark, cold and dirty place peopled with those left behind by the rise of industrial Britain. The fog is so thick that it creeps into buildings through keyholes and chinks in the doorways. It is so heavy that church steeples disappear into it. And this is not fog created by weather conditions. It is the industrial revolution at its most oppressive. The forces of power and industry are pressing the life out of the city.
        It is interesting that the illustrations that accompany the story often depict a cozy London with frosty, candlelit shop windows, ruddy-cheeked men in top hats and petite women in bonnets. But Dickens' actual description of the city has more in common with Mad Max than with these illustrations.
        Also note that everyone, everywhere in this city is cold. The businessmen who solicit Scrooge for a donation wish to provide the poor with a "means of warmth" in addition to food. Even Bob Cratchit wraps himself in a comforter because he cannot afford a great coat. But Scrooge seems quite comfortable and untroubled in this environment. As for the fog and the gloom, "Darkness was cheap," we are told "and Scrooge liked it."
        Consider also Scrooge's home. His is the only occupied flat in the building. Most people would find such a place lonely and desolate, but Scrooge feels at home there. And then there's the fact that it was once occupied by Jacob Marley. We are never told how Scrooge came to move in. We can't help but wonder.
       Also consider some details about the appearance of Marley's ghost. Marley appears to Scrooge with a bandage tied around his head, holding his jaw in place. But at one point, Marley unties the bandage, allowing his jaw to freefall all the way to his breastbone. Before he leaves Scrooge, he ties the bandage again, snapping his teeth shut with an audible click. The effect is as chilling for the reader as it was for Scrooge.
        But there is a far more fundamental reason why A Christmas Carol succeeds. And that reason lies in the journey that Scrooge takes from his old self to his new self. George Bailey is a fine, decent man at the beginning of It's a Wonderful Life and he remains one at the end. Likewise, at the beginning of that film, Mr. Potter is a cruel old man with deeply seated control issues. He remains one at the end, although we are told little about how he got that way in the first place. But most of A Christmas Carol is the story of how Scrooge became a callous, bitter old man.
       Though this story uses spirits and the supernatural as a drawing card, they only serve as the agents of Scrooge's change. His real transformation comes from within and is a result of a long and painful look at his life. At the end of his journey Scrooge is, as he says, not the man he was. Readers recognize that there is good in everyone and that even the worst people are capable of change. Scrooge asks the spirits a question as old as the Bible: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And the spirits' resounding answer is "Yes, you are. Deal with it."
        That remains a question for all of us, one we are confronted with every time we see a homeless person begging for spare change on the street or a family living in squalor in an urban housing project. The poor are with us today just as they were with Scrooge. The question of the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor is as current today as it was in 1843.
       So, as you go about your holiday errands and plans, don't forget this story. Remember the people you might otherwise forget. Okay, okay, go ahead and watch It's a Wonderful Life if you must and if you get the chance to take in a good film or stage version of A Christmas Carol, please do. But also set aside some time to take the book down from the shelf and read the story as Dickens wrote it. If you haven't done so in a while, or if you've never done so, you might find a story you only thought you knew.
        And so, to all of you, wherever you are, I wish you a joyous holiday season, whatever yours might be. And God bless us…
        Aaaa, never mind.