In Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser of a boss ("Bah! Humbug!"), Dickens created one of fiction's most enduring characters. In the opening scene, Scrooge scolds, "Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding."AT THE MOVIES: God bless these 'Carol' film versions, every one! VOTE: What's your favorite movie version of 'A Christmas Carol'?
Now Dickens and his little holiday ghost story are getting a fresh examination in a new book, The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, $19.95). Les Standiford says his title is "a bit of an exaggeration — but not much."
Scrooge lives on in more than 250 film, TV and stage adaptations. (Jim Carrey will play Scrooge, as well as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, in a 3-D version to be released in November 2009.)
He's in dictionaries ("a skinflint") and has grown into a verb: "Scrooged at Time Inc.," blared a recent New York Post headline about layoffs and a canceled staff Christmas party. Scrooged, a 1988 movie, starred Bill Murray as a cynical TV executive adapting Dickens' tale.
Whether from Dickens himself or versions such as Disney's 1983 animation, Mickey's Christmas Carol (with Scrooge McDuck), the story is a familiar one: Scrooge — think investment banker — dismisses the Christmas spirit. He abuses his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, until the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, offers Scrooge a second chance.
A succession of visions ends up making Scrooge a better, more charitable man. He becomes an adopted uncle to Cratchit's sweet but sickly son, Tiny Tim — based on a invalid son of a friend of Dickens' — who delivers the story's final line: "God Bless Us, Every One!"
Dickens hoped to strike a "sledge-hammer blow" on behalf of the poor, especially children. And today, in the midst of the worst economy in more than 50 years, his story gains new resonance.
"It perfectly embodies the everlasting riddle at the heart of our society: how to allow any individual to succeed and yet ensure that no one goes without," Standiford says. "The day this conundrum is solved is the day that A Christmas Carol becomes a quaint relic."
Its message remains, says William Palmer, a Dickens scholar at Purdue University: "It's not just good enough to donate money, but individuals need to get involved, as Scrooge learns in the end."
In his 2008 book, The Joy of Reading (Sourcebooks, $24.95), Charles Van Doren (yes, the former Columbia University scholar caught up in the 1950s quiz shows scandals) writes: "A reader would have to struggle not to cry at several points in the narrative, and the struggle would be misspent effort.
"Why not cry? Why not allow the change in Scrooge, and the picture of Bob Cratchit and his little crippled son, Tiny Tim, to enter your heart and change you, too?"
The story grew out of Dickens' own childhood. At 12, with his father jailed for unpaid debts, he worked 10 hours a day, filling pots with shoe blacking.
"All art grows out of its maker's loss, it has been said," Standiford notes, "and if that is so, Dickens' loss of his childhood was to become the world's great gain."
Dickens got the idea for the story on a late-night walk after a speaking engagement in Manchester, where he and future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli discussed the sorry state of the British economy.
But Dickens' publisher had no interest in his holiday story. So despite financial problems caused by poor sales of his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens decided to design, print and publish Carol himself.
There had been nothing quite like it: "Dickens invented a new genre: holiday books," says Jock Elliott, author of Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be (2002).
Given all the adaptations of Carol, "it would be hard to name any other work of fiction that has become so ubiquitous a part of Western popular culture," says Standiford, director of creative writing at Florida International University.
There seems no end to new versions. An animated Barbie in a Christmas Carol was released last month. (Barbie tells the story of a theater diva who orders everyone to work on Christmas until she is visited by three spirits.)
Dickens was "an overwhelmingly visual writer," says Palmer, who's written four mysteries that use Dickens as a character. "A Christmas Carol is built on a very film or TV script structure of scene-by-scene construction. And it's the best thing ever written about the ephemeral 'Christmas spirit' that everyone is always hoping to catch."
In 1843, however, Christmas was a somber holiday. Church authorities had cracked down on excesses left over from pagan rituals. For a time, Christmas celebrations were illegal in Puritan Massachusetts and Cromwell's England.
The instant popularity of Dickens' story inspired more festive celebrations and family gatherings like the one the Cratchits enjoy with a huge turkey — "twice the size of Tiny Tim," — secretly sent by Scrooge. (Until then, goose, not turkey, was the traditional Christmas meal.)
Dickens, a critic of organized religion, created what Standiford calls "a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity."
That's also stirred a backlash. Bill McKibben's Hundred Dollar Holiday (1998) advocates a less materialistic Christmas and touts a group called SCROOGE, the Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges.
But don't blame Dickens for the annual orgy of gift-giving, "something that is not in the book," Standiford says. He thinks Dickens would be appalled at the commercialization of Christmas but would accept the adaptations of his work, which was widely pirated during the writer's lifetime.
"I think he would say to Chapman and Hall (the publishers who rejected A Christmas Carol): 'See, I told you so.' "
The book, like all of Dickens' 20 novels, has never gone out of print. It keeps being reissued, including a new Penguin edition this fall, illustrated by Robert Ingpen. It has inspired dozens of parodies and sequels.
In Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy (2003), Tiny Tim is no longer tiny. At 23, he's thrown away his crutch, is living in a London brothel and struggling to cut his financial ties to "Uncle" Ebenezer.
Bayard says he didn't try to rewrite Dickens ("a fool's errand") but considers Tiny Tim one of Dickens' least successful characters: "He's too much of a saint, and saints are not as interesting as people. They don't have the same quirks and flaws."
So Bayard made him somewhat surly and anti-heroic — "the cost of being Tiny Tim." He calls his novel "both an inversion and homage to Dickens," whose original story is "darker and grimmer" than the modern-day cartoon and musical versions.
It's also one of those classics that may be more known than read. "I think very few people read A Christmas Carol anymore," Palmer says, "but everyone thinks they have."
Despite Van Doren's praise, the book doesn't get a lot of literary respect. It's not included in The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them (2006) or in The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classic Guide to World Literature (1998).
Standiford says A Christmas Carol is "still a lot of fun to read" and "one of the most influential novels," but it is overlooked in literary circles because it's so short (fewer than 30,000 words), popular and familiar.
Its message endures, he adds: "When you walk out of a store at Christmastime this year and see someone standing there beside an iron pot and clanging a bell, make no mistake about it. That is really Charles Dickens standing there, reminding you of the right thing to do."Posted Updated E-mail | Print | To report corrections and clarifications, contact Reader Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to [email protected]. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com. Guidelines: You share in the USA TODAY community, so please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Use the "Report Abuse" button to make a difference. Read more. Newspaper Home Delivery - Subscribe Today Home • News • Travel • Money • Sports • Life • Tech • Weather About USATODAY.com: Site Map | FAQ | Contact Us | Jobs with Us | Terms of Service