Thursday, December 01, 2011

Old Sinner: Dickens

Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson

The first time I did this, I just summarized the opening paragraphs. This time, I'm borrowing Siskoid's strategy and presenting Dickens' original text in italics while I interrupt occasionally to make comments. Mostly I'll be figuring out what I want to look out for in the adaptations.

STAVE I: Marley's Ghost

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

According to my copy of The Annotated Christmas Carol, the "'Change" is the Royal Exchange, London's financial center. Scrooge's exact occupation is a source of some confusion between adaptations (is he in real estate? a loan shark? some sort of manufacturer or distributor?). Apparently, the April 1924 issue of The Dickensian declared Scrooge to be a "financier." In other words: a moneylender. That's the approach that most of the adaptations take, but we'll keep an eye on it as we go.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

One of the movies (Albert Finney's Scrooge, maybe?) actually substitutes the term "dead as a coffin-nail." I thought they were trying to be clever until I remembered that Dickens already made that joke.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

Dickens makes it really, really clear that Marley is dead. One of the things I love about him is that he's hilarious, thinking of about eighty different ways to drive home the point that Marley should not be up and walking around, all of them clever and funny.

We'll also want to pay attention to Scrooge's attitude about Marley's death and their relationship when Marley was alive. That's another point on which adaptations sometimes differ.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot - say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance - literally to astonish his son's weak mind.

I especially love this bit about Hamlet (hi, Siskoid!). Dickens apparently edited out a longer digression in which he goes off about Hamlet and what a weakling he was. He originally wrote:
Perhaps you think that Hamlet’s intellects were strong. I doubt it. If you could have such a son tomorrow, depend on it, you would find him a poser. He would be a most impracticable fellow to deal with; and however credible he might be to the family, after his decease, he would prove a special incumbrance in his lifetime, trust me.
Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him.

I imagine that the mention of the warehouse is why some folks think he must have been involved in producing some kind of goods. Unfortunately, The Annotated Christmas Carol is no help there.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

The first mention of Christmas. In the next section (Coming 2012!), Dickens explicitly states that his story takes place at Christmastime, but one of the things I want to watch out for in adaptations is how they announce that setting before we ever meet Scrooge. Dickens can spend paragraphs talking about Dead Marley and Miserable Scrooge before starting the story, but other media don't have that luxury.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call "nuts" to Scrooge.

"Nuts" deserves some explanation, though it never comes up in the adaptations. Today, we say "nuts" as an exclamation of distaste. In Dickens' day, it meant something agreeable.

So, there are a few things we'll look out for in the adaptations' opening scenes.
  • How do they drive home Marley's existential state?
  • What does Scrooge do for a living?
  • How does Scrooge feel about Marley's death?
  • How is Christmas introduced as a character (because Dickens certainly treats it like one)?
  • How do the adaptations communicate Scrooge's personality?


TitusL said...

Thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol

Wings1295 said...

Why have I never gone back to the beginning of your project? I do not know. But I am going to go through, post by post. I enjoy it and it will make the wait until next year that much shorter.

As for the opening scene, Dickens surely gets across the point that Scrooge is a miser and anti-social and pretty much okay with being seen as such. Or at least resigned to it.


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