We added a new tradition to our Christmas routine last night. Usually our literary Christmas Eve consists of of my husband reading O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” to me (while I weep) and me reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Christ Climbed Down” to him (while he patiently tries to appreciate the Beats). But seeing on Twitter that Neil Gaiman had done a reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was too delicious to resist.
I had a moment of pause when I saw that the reading was nearly an hour and a half long, but this fantastic performance made time fly past and I knew I had to share it with you. What made the reading extra special is that Gaiman is reading from a performance copy of the work that Dickens himself had annotated. So stop right here for now and go enjoy this classic with your family. We can talk about the writing part after the holiday…
The Last Time I Read Dickens
My husband and I were discussing last night that neither one of us has earnestly read anything by Charles Dickens. There were the usual high school tortures of reading excerpted versions of Great Expectations as fast as I could to get the right information to pass the test (we had a teacher who was famous for asking what Pip had for breakfast on his way to London – never did find the damned answer but I know it was symbolic). I think my dad (who is a fabulous reader) also read me Oliver Twist (and maybe more), but my adult experience with Dickens really consists of film adaptations (I watch the Alfonso Cuaron version of Great Expectations at least once a year because it’s so beautiful and so un-Dickens).
How Does the Text Compare with the Films?
What started to emerge last night from listening to Gaiman read A Christmas Carol is a close look at how close (and how different) the text is to the films. So that’s what I’m going to share with you here. Please forgive (and feel free to correct) any inaccurate memories I have of the films. It’s been awhile since I watched either the iconic George C. Scott version or the Scrooge McDuck version of this story.
Three Nights of Visitation
We all remember that there are three ghosts who visit Scrooge, but I was surprised to hear Gaiman read that those ghosts are meant to visit on three separate nights. In the films it’s always compressed to one, which makes total sense from a narrative point of view, because three nights is a long time and you don’t really get to see Scrooge in the day between them (what would be the point?). In fact, and forgive me if I misheard this, but it seems like Dickens himself fudged a bit by having the third night in fact happen after midnight of the second. Regardless, an interesting inconsistency.
Jacob Marley as Character
In the films I feel like we barely get to know Marley. Evil partner, just who Scrooge became in life, has a bandage around his head when he announces (in ghostly form) his regrets to Scrooge, etc. But in the text, there’s a really poignant moment when Scrooge first enters his home after work and before any visitation where we learn that it was Marley’s home and who Marley really was. This allows us to see better what Scrooge’s origins are and it also takes some of the weight of direct meanness off of Scrooge. This becomes important later.
You get to know other characters, too. Especially charming is “watching” the young people chase each other around Fred’s party. Tiny Tim is just as annoying. Sorry about that. Some things never change.
One of my favorite moments in the animated version of the film is watching Scrooge’s doorknocker turn into the face of Marley. I had no idea that was actually in the book – and so well described, too. I suppose that’s always the way when going from a text medium to a visual one – that you turn that luscious description into actual pictures – but listen closely for some pretty great descriptive moments (like when he compares the smell of pudding to the smell of laundry – favorably).
Perhaps one of the saddest moments for me in the George C. Scott interpretation of this tale is when the young Scrooge is left at school over Christmastime. In the reading I heard, this never happens. Now I’m not sure if that moment actually doesn’t happen in the story or if Dickens decided to cut bits to keep his reading manageable, but without that vignette, Scrooge turns into someone who is a humbug by choice not by circumstance, which is a very important difference.
And later, when Scrooge gets the Christmas spirit, in the text he actually sends the prize turkey to the Cratchit family in secret (am I wrong that George C. Scott made a grand entrance with that bird?), which makes his later torture of Bob over his lateness even more excruciating.
Perhaps the most important distinction between the text and any of the films is that in the text Scrooge is really and truly ready to change after being visited by the second ghost. He’s seen what everyone else is doing and doesn’t need to see his death – that’s just twisting the knife.
My Christmas and New Year
In a few minutes I’ll snuggle back up with my husband and try to sleep until it’s time for stockings and presents and crepes. But first I wanted to do two things. The first is that I want to wish you a very happy holiday season and new year. Whatever you celebrate, I am so glad to share this literary space with you and I hope we can do so for a good long time.
Which brings us to the second thing. You might have noticed that I’ve been a very erratic blogger lately. First it was India, but now I have a much better (and longer-standing excuse). Sometime around the beginning of August, Clayton and I are going to have our first child. That means we’ll finally have someone else to torture with my literary Christmas traditions. It also means that between morning sickness and general exhaustion I’ve been a poor reader and an even poorer blogger lately. I miss you and I miss writing here, but many days I just can’t.
So count on this blog to be sporadic in the next year or so, but know that I will write when I can.
Thank you again for sharing the world of words with me. Writing this for you and reading your responses enriches my writing and my life. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night (morning).