By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 12/19/2013 1:00 pm EST
Ask people to name their favorite Christmas movie and you’re likely to get a wide variety of responses. It’s a Wonderful Life. Miracle on 34th Street. The 1980s alone gave us A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Die Hard (truly, something for every member of the family). In the last decade, Elf and Love Actually have become early favorites that could stand the test of the generations. On television, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas are perennial favorites, but there are plenty of others that turn up on various channels during the holiday season. Music is no different. While Elvis released the greatest Christmas album of all time (and anyone who denies that has obviously just never heard it before), there have been other albums and singles throughout the decades that have managed to carve a little spot in our holidays (1996’s Christmas on Death Row comes to mind. Seriously!). When it comes to Christmas movies, music, and television, everyone has a favorite, and every decade brings with it new “modern classics.”
And yet, as far as print goes, there are a staggeringly few stories that have become legitimate holiday standards. There are books out there that are fun to read to the kids (or to yourself), but when was the last truly classic Christmas story published? Was it 1985, the year The Polar Express debuted? Why, when memorable Christmas standards seem to trickle out of every other medium over the years, is it so hard to think of more than four or five real literary classics? I would argue that, unlike film, television, and music, there is an undisputed “best” Christmas novel of all time—a book that predates the mass consumption of other mediums by decades.
Jim Carrey was the latest in a long line of actors to portray Ebenezer Scrooge in a major big screen adaptation.
Ask anyone to name the best Christmas story of all time, and most will probably answer with A Christmas Carol. Sure, you might find a few stragglers who stand by How the Grinch Stole Christmas (and these folks are close), but nothing beats Charles Dickens’ tale of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge as he is forced to come to terms with his wretchedness by three ghosts led by his dead business partner. As morbid as it sounds, what it leaves us with is the ultimate holiday tale of optimism and redemption.
As a testament to its popularity, A Christmas Carol may be one of the most influential written works since Shakespeare invented the modern English language. Dickens added “Scrooge” to the lexicon, both as a character and an adjective, as well as his chipper catchphrase “Bah! Humbug!”, and gave us the widespread use of “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting. The book has also been adapted for stage and screen not just more than any other Christmas story, but more than most written works period. Something about A Christmas Carol is legitimately timeless.
So why does this story endure? What makes the story appeal to generation after generation? Dickens wasn’t particularly known for happy endings, but he was known for depicting the oppressive plight of the working class. With A Christmas Carol, he managed to indulge his social agenda while also conceding that maybe, at Christmas, his readers deserved that happy ending. And it’s this combination of cautionary social parable and uplifting moral befitting the season that has kept Scrooge’s story so consistently relevant.
It doesn’t matter what era you live in, one idea never leaves the minds of the less fortunate members of society—the wealthy never understand the working class, and their empathy is always perceived to be at an annual low during the holidays, which cater to self-indulgence. It’s no coincidence that the “grumpy miser” archetype is present in almost any Christmas story, from It’s a Wonderful Life‘s antagonist, Mr. Potter, to the aforementioned fellow once characterized by Thurl Ravenscroft as a “bad banana with a greasy black peel.”
But unlike Potter, Scrooge is a character who learns from his mistakes and reaches a new understanding of both himself and the people around him. And unlike the Grinch, Scrooge is a complex character. The Grinch embodies general holiday contempt, but Scrooge feels, truly, like someone we know. He’s haunted by his past, using it as an excuse to make the lives of those around him miserable in the present.
Mr. Potter certainly has the “Scrooge scowl” down, even if he doesn’t learn any of the same lessons.
Featuring such an unlikable character as a protagonist feels strange at first, as we are (hopefully) not inclined to sympathize with Scrooge very much at all. And yet, A Christmas Carol is more optimistic than even It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey is always a guy we’re rooting for; he’s a genuinely nice person. He is Bob Cratchit. By the end of the film, Bailey is saved, but Potter remains the cold, bitter old man he’s always been. A Christmas Carol tells us that, maybe, even that heartless old bastard could find redemption at Christmas time. Scrooge’s lesson isn’t one all of us necessarily need to learn, but it is one we enjoy seeing doled out, no matter what time period we live in.
We read A Christmas Carol because it’s a story we desperately want to see in real life. We want to turn on our televisions and see it on the news. We want to believe that the greedy, corrupt people in our society can see their errors and make amends. Dickens touched on a striking theme that will, in all likelihood, remain relevant to mankind forever. As bad as things seem in the real world, we turn to our fiction to give us hope. Despite the cold callousness in Scrooge’s heart, there is the potential for warmth. It’s a reminder that, however cold it might be in December, springtime is right around the corner.
So what’s the best way to enjoy the story this holiday season? There’s a bounty of adaptations available, starring actors from George C. Scott to Michael Caine to Jean-Luc Picard, but I’m going to make a crazy suggestion. Don’t watch any of them. Instead, curl up near the fireplace (or space heater, whichever is available), gather the family, pick up a copy of the book, and lose yourself in Dickens’ prose.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.