|Ebenezer Scrooge—The real spirit of Christmas
December 24, 2007
Few traditions at this time of year are as enduring as watching the 1951 movie A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. I cite the movie, not Charles Dickens’s original story, for two reasons. First, we live in a post-literate age where reading as a pastime now comes a distant fourth to movies, TV and video games.
Second, unlike most book-to-film adaptations, the film is widely acknowledged to be better than the book despite some arbitrary rewriting, like changing Scrooge's fiancée from “Belle” to “Alice” and giving her a less happy future.
Dickens threw the story together in a few weeks in late 1843 to make some quick cash, and as such it feels hurried. It’s short—only five chapters—and follows a simple template: Prologue (“Marley's Ghost”); Body (“The First of the Three Spirits, “The Second of the Three Spirits,’ and “The Last of the Spirits”); and Conclusion (“The End of It”).
The story is so familiar that only the briefest sketch is needed. One Christmas Eve, a miserly moneylender named Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the damned ghost of his business partner Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge that he still has time to save his soul by changing his miserly ways. To help with his redemption, Marley foretells the coming of three spirit guides.
We then follow Scrooge as he is led systematically through Christmases past, present and future, and forced to see himself as others see him, as well as witness the consequences of unbridled selfishness. After these nightmarish peregrinations, Scrooge wakes up the next morning “born again” as a fully functioning moral being, the apotheosis of the man he was.
Unfortunately, the redemption of Scrooge comes across as artificial and pat. Why should Dickens create a powerful amoral character only to destroy him, literally overnight? Granted, there is nothing estimable in miserliness or contempt for the less fortunate, but if the redemption is to have any value, Scrooge the miser must be treated with some measure of respect, not as a craven, quivering, weenie who caves in at the least provocation.
Despite its renown and popularity, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is trite and predictable, because Scrooge is less a character than he is a plot device designed to get us to the treacly ending. The 1951 movie retains this ending but Noel Langley’s screen adaptation surpasses Dickens’ story by giving Scrooge needed dimension:
“The 1951 film is held as one of the most faithful to Dickens’ story, yet it is actually one with the most changes! This is because the changes serve to illustrate something that Dickens only related about the character, without showing a scene that spelled it out. Whereas when most adaptations vary from the text they stumble in so doing, the extra scenes in Sim’s version only enhance the story. So integral to the film are the extra scenes, that many, when reading the book for the first time, are surprised to find that they are not in the book! Others swear they have read it before, but are only remembering the film.”
Only after seeing the movie do we see, perhaps, a more meaningful story about Scrooge than the one Dickens chose to tell.
The Corruption of Ebenezer Scrooge
The movie makes clear that Scrooge undergoes not one but two transformations, and it is the first one—the one Dickens does not develop—that makes the movie version more meaningful, both literarily and politically.
The key is the interpolated character of Mr. Jorkin, who makes his appearance just past the 28-minute mark. We meet him as he is cajoling Mr, Fezziwig to sell his business:
Jorkin: “Come, come, Mr. Fezziwig, we’re good friends besides good men of business. We’re men of vision and progress. Why don’t you sell out while the going’s good? You’ll never get a better offer. It’s the age of the machine, and the factory, and the vested interests. We small traders are ancient history, Mr. Fezziwig.”
Jorkin is the voice of unenlightened self-interest and unregulated corporate power, and as such is a most familiar figure. Today, he would be praised as a neo-conservative and be able to claim many political leaders and media whores as his allies. For him greed and progress are interchangeable.
In response, Fezziwig gives us the view of the principled businessman.
Fezziwig: “It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business, Mr. Jorkin…. It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved. No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.”
After failing to tempt Fezziwig, Jorkin turns his blandishments on Scrooge, who has overheard everything from his desk:
Scrooge: “I think I know what Mr. Fezziwig means, sir.”
Jorkin: “Oh, you hate progress and money, too, do you?”
Scrooge: “ I don't hate them, sir, but perhaps the machines aren’t such a good thing for mankind, after all.”
Scrooge can at least admit to himself and others that rampant automation has inhumane consequences, a fact that Jorkin also understands but has learned to suppress. After mocking Scrooge’s scruples, Jorkin tempts him with double the salary and chances of promotion, all of which leads to this exchange:
Scrooge: “Money isn’t everything, sir.”
Jorkin: “Well, if it ain’t I don’t know what is!”
Jorkin leaves, but not before appealing to Scrooge’s vanity and inviting him to come ’round for a visit, which of course he does. Scrooge eventually moves to Jorkin’s company, meets and befriends another youg clerk, Jacob Marley, and abandons any sense of business ethics. He becomes Jorkin.
To be sure, Scrooge had much reason to resent the world. As both the book and movie show, his father sent him off to boarding school where he grew up lonely and unloved, and his beloved sister Fan died giving birth to his nephew, Fred. These two events, though painful and important, do not in themselves explain the degeneration of Scrooge into a neo-con… er, miser. Only the addition of Mr. Jorkin and the discussion of the new economic order of the vested interests make it intelligible.
We now see Scrooge not as a bad man, but as a good man who succumbed to temptation, all of which gives the movie a strongly Christian overtone.
At the end, the man who declared Christmas to be a humbug now revels in its spirit of generosity and compassion. As viewers, we are supposed to partake in the joy of Scrooge’s epiphany and in the knowledge that the poor, long-suffering Cratchet family will now enjoy a life a few steps up from miserable.
Yet, if asked to describe the ending in the context of the real world, I would have to say “Humbug!” In a culture that relies on an orgy of consumer overspending in the six weeks leading up to Giftmas, who better to embody the true spirit of the season than Scrooge the Miser and his mentor Mr. Jorkin?
The vested interests who dominate our corporate culture, such as the plutocrats who run Jorkin-Mart, care nothing for the growing numbers of Cratchet-like families. U.S. CongressJorkins deny medical care to children, but think nothing of wasting 100s of billions of dollars on a gratuitous war of extermination against Muslims, or looting the treasury on behalf of robber barons like The Carlyle Group, KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root), Halliburton or Israel.
Christmas is a time for greed, farcical religiosity, and artificial bonhommie. What right do we have to celebrate anything, including the redemption of Scrooge, when the spirit of Scrooge is still celebrated, as Mr. Jorkin would say, as money and progress?
Pagans celebrate this time of year in honour of the returning Sun, and even gift-giving dates to pagan times. If we are to have a December celebration let’s at least acknowledge Ebenezer Scrooge as the real spirit of Christmas, if not the Western World.