The enduring appeal of A Christmas Carol

David Eide – Opinions Columnist

A couple weekends ago I had the privilege of attending the opening night of “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.  The show itself was great and I’d recommend seeing it if you have the opportunity.  However, seeing the familiar story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts play out once again got me really thinking about the core concepts of the story and its role within our general culture.  I’m fairly certain that A Christmas Carol is the single most adapted work in the entirety of the English language. It feels like every holiday season we see several new spins on the tale.  I think there’s several reasons for that, and I want to use this opinion piece to explore a couple of them.

Let’s start at the beginning with the original story by Charles Dickens.  A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843 and was written during a period in English history when the Christmas traditions we are familiar with were becoming popular.  It is during this period that Christmas trees and Christmas cards were first popularized and traditions like Christmas carols were repopularized after a period of dormancy.  The story was an immediate hit and served to popularize the now commonplace “Merry Christmas” as the default Christmas greeting.  Immediately after the immense success of A Christmas Carol, several adaptations of the work entered production including several plays, the main form of live entertainment at the time.  Indeed, only a year after the release of the story, there were already 8 different productions of A Christmas Carol in theaters across London.  There have been hundreds of adaptations following in the footsteps of these theater productions, from live action films to animated movies and even a couple of podcasts.  Based on this, it seems like there is something uniquely adaptable about the story and themes of A Christmas Carol which I hope to be able to identify.

I think an underrated reason for the adaptability of the story is how easy it is to cut several elements without losing the key message of the tale.  If you want to do a 45-minute television adaptation of the story, it is relatively easy to remove scenes such as the coal miners celebrating Christmas or Scrooge being robbed following his death in the future.  These scenes merely serve to expand on points that have already been made by the core story beats, and as such they can be cut without losing the overall themes.  You could do the most barebones telling of the story only featuring the most important scenes from each of the ghost encounters and you would still be able to get the main point of the story across.  

Of course, the main point of the story is an important reason why it continues to hold such resonance even today, nearly 200 years after it was first published.  I think the idea of a bad person changing for the better is a timeless story and that A Christmas Carol pulls off such a story incredibly well.  Furthermore, the idea of using one’s wealth for the general welfare of society rather than hoarding it for yourself was a somewhat radical idea at the time and unfortunately it remains so even today.  I think every good story has some element that challenges the values society presents as normal and A Christmas Carol is no exception.  I still sometimes come back and read the original story because I think its message and themes are very important to capturing my conceptualization of “the spirit of Christmas.”

Of course, an exploration of the ways in which A Christmas Carol resonates with our society would be incomplete without mentioning the wealth of parodies and derivative works that make use of the general outline of the story while transplanting it into some other setting.  I remember as a kid it seemed almost mandatory that any show I would watch would have some kind of holiday episode which used the general outline of A Christmas Carol.  In part, I think this is because the story is particularly versatile. You can apply the three Christmas ghosts to practically any situation you want and it still kind of works.  At this point, I think the story is self-sustaining: new works that adapt, or feature elements of A Christmas Carol, aren’t so much referencing back to the original as the adaptations that have come before.  In essence, the work has entered popular culture and has become a kind of general tale, unconnected to any source material.

I’ve always enjoyed A Christmas Carol. I enjoyed reading the original story, I loved watching A Muppet’s Christmas Carol (it’s actually my favorite adaptation), and I loved seeing it at the Guthrie.  I think each new adaptation brings something unique to the story and it’s so cool seeing how different people adapt each individual element of the story.  If there’s any takeaway from this, it’s that sometimes the simplest of stories can be the most meaningful.  In spite of its short length and relatively simple plot, A Christmas Carol has endured and become a touchstone for how our culture interacts with Christmas and the holidays.