Bantam Classics, 1999
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
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
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
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.