Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Careful What You Wish For... [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I was recently ruminating with my cousin about how our kids, now all in their twenties, don't want the legacies we have gathered. Legacies? Millions of dollars? No, but millions of words. I'm talking about "The Collection," a mass of speculative fiction and comics going back to the 1970s. Sure, you can eBay it, but what we always thought we'd do with it was pass it along to our kids.

Only thing is... they don't want it.

It's hard to believe. They don't want boxes and boxes of treasures: gems like copies of Crypt of Cthulhu, complete runs of Dragon magazine, Erbdom, Doctor Who videos (the early stuff before Christopher Eccleston), Gold Key Star Trek comics, paperbacks by Silverberg, Goulart, Chalker, and on and on.

First, this raises the question: why are these treasures? Well, despite the '70s being pretty good for Science Fiction and Fantasy (think Space 1999, Kolchak the Night Stalker, Joe Kubert's Tarzan, Barry Smith's Conan the Barbarian, and those wonderful Hildebrandt LotR calendars!), most of the time it was still a desert, with small oases of delight. The rest: dull. Watergate, Viet Nam, the Energy Crisis. Well, if not dull, at least terrestrial. We had the Moon Landing, but we wanted the stars...

And so we hoarded with a possessiveness that only Gollum could match. Dragon-like, we kept all our Uncanny X-Men comics in a pile and slept on them (including that precious #94). Despite the addiction to the Fantastic, we were willing to share, because there just weren't enough of us out there. Folks who could discuss why Star Trek was better than Star Wars while a third muscled in that Doctor Who was better than either.

But if you were born in 1990, you entered an entirely different world. My kids grew up in a world where Sword and Sorcery was a click away on a game console. They didn't have to watch The Man from Atlantis religiously or write letters to networks to rerun Hawk the Slayer. Their dinosaurs were CGI, not the rubber ones of At the Earth's Core. So when you guide them through the labyrinth of boxes to the center of that great SF/F/H trove, they look at it and say, "Meh."

Tears well up. You want to disown them. And this raises the question: where did we go wrong? We thought we were raising them right. Magic the Gathering cards instead of hockey cards. Hobbits, not hobby horses. Velociraptor instead of bunnies. Damn it, we did our duty as fan-parents (I think I just coined a new word!) and yet...

Meh. An expression so bland and disengaged you want to punch it in the face. Meh. Did I not give you Edgar Rice Burroughs? I would have died without old ERB. He was the gateway drug that lead to Leiber, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Stephen King, all of it. Eddie Burroughs made me a reader first, and a writer second. Without that first Neal Adams-adorned copy of The Jungle Tales of Tarzan in the black Ballantine wrapper I'd be... much more ordinary. And my treasure trove would be... I can't imagine it as I shudder with George Bailey-like terror down the street this way and that. "Mother, don't you know me?" "My son died when he was eight years old, crushed by a stack of Weird Tales." (Slam!)

So be careful what you wish for. Because I can remember in 1973, that second issue of Thongor in Creatures on the Loose #23 clutched in my sweaty ten-year-old hands and thinking, "Why can't this stuff be everywhere?" I can remember dreaming back in 1979 about a world in which Star Wars could be available to you at the push of a button (that was when an 8-minute super 8 highlight reel sold for a whopping $100.)

And I think we got the dream. Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are everywhere, from The Walking Dead to Spider-Man movies to the Lord of the Rings franchises to video games that let you run whole armies to (orgasmic delight) a John Carter of Mars film. We are living in world that has embraced SF/F/H. It's all gone mainstream.

And I should be delighted, but instead I'm looking at this stack of Burroughs' Venus novels (with their superb Frank Frazetta covers) and thinking my kids don't care. Amtor, with its winged klangaan warriors, its bug-eyed monsters, its maze of seven deaths. What's that compared to FallOut 3 or World of Warcraft or Skyrim?

But I take what I can get. A little 1st edition D&D with the boys when I can. Arkham Horror is a nice middle ground between the old Call of Cthulhu box set and the latest multi-million selling X-box game. One kid likes Eragon, the other Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I didn't fail completely. Or perhaps at all. It's not like they call me up and say "Hey, what did you think of that Oilers game, eh?" Maybe, just maybe, we all need to gather our own treasure trove, only to cast it away when we die. Or better yet, to have it piled around us and set on fire, Viking-style. Yes, that's what I want. To go up in smoke along with my Turoks, and my Lancer paperbacks, my old D&D character sheets, my Doc Savage, Man of Bronze books and a complete set of Arak, Son of Thunder. Up I'll go. And my boys can look on. Who's "Meh" now?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

Who's In It: Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer) and June Thorburn (Tom Thumb).

What It's About: A doctor (Mathews) goes to sea against the wishes of his fiancée (Thorburn) and winds up stranded on two fantastical islands where he learns important lessons about dreams and control.

How It Is: Jonathan Swift's novel is famous as a piece of social satire, so I wasn't sure how well it would translate into an adventure film. Having Ray Harryhausen on the visual effects convinced me to give it a shot though and I'm glad I did. Except for an impressive man vs. crocodile fight towards the end, most of the effects are about making Gulliver either huge or tiny in relation to the islanders he encounters, but there's a lot more to the film than just that. It works as an adventure film, but it works as social commentary, too.

The three worlds in the title refer to Gulliver's native England and the two major islands he visits: Lilliput (where he's much larger than everyone else) and Brobdingnag (where he's much tinier). In England, he has a serious argument with his fiancée Elizabeth. She just wants to get married and settle down at all costs, even if it means buying a dilapidated cottage and Gulliver's continuing to get paid for his medical services in livestock and produce. Gulliver has bigger dreams though. He wants to go to sea and earn his fortune so that he can Be Somebody. Only then will he feel prepared to marry Elizabeth and start his life.

What I like about the movie is that neither side is presented as absolutely correct. In fact, the islands Gulliver visits each teach him (and Elizabeth, who stows away on his ship) something about their desires. On Lilliput, Gulliver is treated as a god, but that doesn't prevent the people from trying to manipulate him into doing what they want. All that prestige and power he craved comes with a cost.

By the time he gets to Brobdingnag, he's sick of the responsibility and at first welcomes the way the giants there treat him and Elizabeth as sort of pets. But though the couple's needs are all taken care of, it's at the cost of their freedom. Lack of responsibility is both blessing and curse.

I mentioned in some of my Christmas Carol discussion that I've been thinking about control a lot lately. It's just something I'm mulling over in my personal life: how much control do we ever really have and how much should I try to maintain. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver adds some important thoughts to that conversation. Too much control/power/responsibility doesn't make you happy (not if we've learned anything from Spider-Man), but too little is just as bad. That's a theme I remember struggling with in another of my favorite movies, Finding Neverland, and it's about time I revisit that one too. There's a lot to be said for retaining a sense of childlike wonder about the world, but it shouldn't keep us from living up to our responsibilities. I don't know that I'll ever find the right balance, but until I do movies like Finding Neverland and 3 Worlds of Gulliver will continue to fascinate me and make me think.

And it doesn't hurt for them to have fights with giant crocodiles at the end either.

Rating: Four out of five enormous osteolaemi.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Not my tree topper (sadly), but check out my Tumblr for a monstrous helping of similar Christmasy goodness. I went kind of nuts this year.

Hope you're all having a happy, peaceful holiday season.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Adventures of Santa Claus [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Pere Noel. Whatever you call him, he is a busy guy. Every year he has to make billions of toys and deliver them all in one night. When would Santa have time to have any adventures? Well, he gets around more than you'd think.

In 1901, L Frank Baum who had recently seen his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz sell well was looking around for another idea. Why not the story of Santa Claus? What child could resist a tale of Old St. Nick? What Baum produced was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), a minor Fantasy classic in its own right, though it wasn't followed by multiple sequels like Dorothy's adventures in Oz.

Santa begins life as a foundling in the mythical forest of Burzee, home to Fairies, Knooks, Ryls and Nymphs. There, Ak the Master Woodsman rules and he allows the baby to be raised by the nymph Necile. He is given the name Claus, which means "little one", and "Ne" is added when he is adopted, "Ne-Claus" or Nicholas. In this way, Baum explains Christmas tradition after tradition, making up new and intriguing ways to explain everything from toys to mistletoe.

Now the plot could be pretty dull if Claus didn't have enemies to face. These are the Awgwas, creatures halfway between the fairy immortals and humans. They are giant in size and able to go from one place to another with magical speed. Their only agenda is to cause pain and suffering wherever they can. So, of course, they plan to steal Claus's toys that he makes to please the suffering masses of humanity.

This leads to a fantastic battle between Good and Evil (that Santa misses) with fire-breathing dragons, Goozle-Goblins, the Giants of Tartary, and many other fantastic monsters against Ak and his amazing ax. Baum doesn't give us Robert E Howard style blow-by-blow (the pity), but Good wins and Claus can go about his business of making toys.

The rest of the novel falls short of that great battle scene but Santa slowly figures out how to deliver the toys all in one night. When he reaches old age, Ak gives him immortality so he can go on lightening the hearts of humankind forever. The episodic tale does a good job of blending a new myth with an old holiday.

Baum had one last chance with Santa when the Jolly Old Elf made an appearance, accompanied by his friends, in The Road to Oz (1909). In this odd volume, Baum ties all of his series together in a multiverse worthy of Michael Moorcock. Children's books would now feature Santa on a more regular basis, since Baum had opened the door, but CS Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1951) is probably the most memorable. His Father Christmas gives out swords and bows, not just tea cakes. Lewis's battle scene between Good and Evil is much more detailed, though St. Nick doesn't take part.

But the kids weren't having all the fun. In January 1938, Weird Tales' popular author who usually wrote of the occult detective Jules de Grandin, presented what many consider his masterpiece, "Roads." Seabury Quinn builds his story slowly, beginning at the birth of Christ and ends in the 16th century. The story was illustrated by Virgil Finlay, and these drawings were used in the 1948 Arkham House edition.

Quinn tells the story of Claus in three parts. In the first section, "The Road to Bethlehem," we meet Claudius, a gladiator in the time of King Herod, a blond giant of a warrior. He wins his freedom in the ring and then wishes to return home. Before he can do this, he saves a baby from the purge that Herod's men are making. This is the baby Jesus, who makes Klaus immortal and sets him on a road to a great destiny.

In the second section, "The Road to Calvary," Claus, now a Roman Centurian, witnesses the death of the baby, now grown to a man. At the passing of Christ there is an earthquake, and Claus rescues the love interest of the tale, a girl named Unna. Quinn's action sequences take a page from Robert E Howard's prose style and spirit. Howard had been dead just eighteen months when Quinn wrote "Roads" and his red-dipped pen was sorely missed.

In the last part of the tale, "The Long, Long Road," we follow Claus and Unna, both immortal, as they move through history. Fleeing humanity's ills, Claus finds the elves and begins the last transition to becoming Santa Claus. As the baby Jesus tells him, his fate is not to die in battle but to become a person whom all children love and adore. Like Baum before him, Quinn peppers his tale with explanations on how certain Christmas traditions came about. Sam Moskowitz said that "Roads" was  “the greatest adult Christmas story written by an American.” Quinn had achieved for adults what Baum had done for children.

The idea of an heroic Santa, sword-swinging and powerful, a Hyborian Claus if you will, appeals to me on so many levels. And I'm not alone. Sony Studios is producing a new version of Baum's novel (now in the public domain) called Winter's Knight, featuring an ax-wielding Santa like you've never seen. This isn't the quiet Rankin-Bass adaptation from 1985, nor the less interesting Robbie Benson cartoon of 2000. It's not even the boisterous Santa of William Joyces's Rise of the Guardians (which borrows the spirit of Baum). It's a Roadsian version, a Howardian version, filled with violence and magic and blood. I can't wait.

Viking Santa art above is by Caio Monteiro. Art below is by Jakob Eirich.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Patrick Stewart (1999)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

As the charitable solicitors leave Scrooge's office, they pass a small group of carollers serenading next door. TNT's Christmas Carol often makes an effort to present the story in a new way, so their carol isn't "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but the more obscure "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks."

The group gets a donation from their audience and the youngest member mischievously announces, "I'm gonna try Scrooge's!" The others warn him against it, reinforcing the idea from earlier that Scrooge has a reputation in this part of town. The boy's determined though, so off he goes and starts up "Good King Wenceslas" as a solo act at Scrooge's door.

Cratchit is the first to hear him and his look is pure shock, like he can't believe his ears that anyone would have the gall. Scrooge tries to ignore it at first, but the film's score introduces chilling strings that grow in intensity and become more unsettling, letting the audience feel Scrooge's irritation at the song. When Scrooge finally grabs a ruler from his desk and gets up, it's actually a relief. The strings continue though until Scrooge opens the door and rears back the ruler with a growl. He looks like he's truly going to beat the kid, though he stays his hand and lets the whippersnapper run off, pursued by his shrieking friends. I get the feeling that the kid never thought he'd get a donation from Scrooge, but was simply testing his own bravery.

When Scrooge goes back inside, the clock is chiming 7:00. He verifies against his own watch and silently starts to put on his coat. In the background, Cratchit is up and doing the same thing. These are men who work together, but communicate as little as possible.

Still, there's a matter to attend to and Scrooge brings it up. Cratchit says, "If it's convenient, sir" with a bit of a smirk, not that Scrooge is looking at him. That moment perfectly defines their relationship. Richard E Grant's Cratchit has some gumption with his boss, but it's not the annoying kind like in Rankin-Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town. Mostly that's because Patrick Stewart's Scrooge is a stronger, more complicated character than Walter Matthau's.

Stewart's is defined by severe isolation and loneliness, but it seems to be something that he's intentionally brought on himself. Since he truly wants to be left alone, it's hard to feel sorry for him when people steer clear. Stewart's a great enough actor that he still generates some pity, but I can't fault Cratchit for getting irritated with the old man or getting in his digs where he can. There's some swagger in his "It's only once a year, sir." He knows he's won this argument and he's not afraid to be pleased about it.

At the same time, he does his best not to be too obnoxious. Scrooge sounded serious earlier when he threatened Cratchit's job, so this isn't a match of equals. When Cratchit starts to wish Scrooge a Merry Christmas, he catches himself and stops. Scrooge challenges him. "You were about to say something, Cratchit?" But Cratchit's smart enough to say, "Nothing, sir" even though he's smiling at his own mistake. I quite like him.

Scrooge goes out first and we stay with Cratchit just long enough to see him pick up the keys and blow out the last candle. We've already had some Christmas street scenes and the film doesn't need a sliding scene for Cratchit either. The sliding scene is usually to show us that Cratchit has a joyful life away from Scrooge, but this production has already implied that by giving him a sense of humor and an independent spirit even in the office. It's going to leave Cratchit for now and have us follow Scrooge as his adventure begins.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Michael Caine (1992)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Scrooge is absolutely beside himself after his encounters with Fred and the solicitors. Slamming the door on Honeydew and Beaker, he sees Fred's wreath where Fred hung it before leaving, grabs it off the wall, and tries to rip it up. It's just then that a small voice outside starts singing "Good King Wenceslas" (the substitute of choice for carollers who don't go for Dickens' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen").

Scrooge yanks open the door and bares his teeth at the young, singing rabbit. "What do you want?!" he snarls, daring the boy to ask him for something. Unfortunately for the boy, he does. "Penny for the song, governor?" Scrooge slams the door on the kid, goes back to trying to tear up the wreath, then opens the door again to chuck the wreath at the boy. It's a unique and clever take on Scrooge's threatening the kid with a ruler, made cooler because it develops Scrooge's character in a powerful way. I haven't seen another version of Scrooge get this flustered and furious. It makes him vulnerable without taking away from his meanness.

That carries over into the next scene, which is closing time. Cratchit has to step into Scrooge's office to announce that the work day is over. Scrooge looks up from his work, sullenly. He's not joking like he was earlier in the day. In fact, he's sulking. "Very well," he says, "I'll see you at 8:00 in the morning."

The exchange between Cratchit and Scrooge here is awesome. Cratchit reminds Scrooge that the next day is Christmas, so Scrooge says that he'll let the staff come in at 8:30 then. Cratchit has to fight for the whole day off. There's no question about whether or not it's convenient and Scrooge makes it very clear that he's being persecuted and put upon. Caine is amazing and gives us a Scrooge who's still hurt from the earlier scene. I feel genuinely sorry for him and a more passive Cratchit would totally cave and come in. But Kermit isn't that Cratchit.

Kermit's role in the Muppets has always been to be the calm in the center of the chaos, so he continues that here. Whether he's managing his unruly staff of rodent accountants or managing Scrooge's bad moods, he keeps it together and sticks up for what's right. What's strange is that Scrooge seems to respect him for this. Earlier, he treated Cratchit as a valued, even trusted employee. Now, he begrudgingly grants the day off ("take the day," like a spoiled child who's being forced to share a toy) even though it's the last thing he wants to do. Though to be fair, Cratchit also defeats Scrooge with logic: explaining that other businesses will be closed and there'll be no one to do business with.

Scrooge leaves Cratchit and the rats to close up with a final, "Be here all the earlier the next morning!" then stalks off. As the staff cleans the office and shuts everything down, Cratchit sings "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas," an ode to the excitement of Christmas Eve that serves the same purpose of Dickens' sliding scene. With Scrooge out of the picture, the festivities can commence.

Of course, the sliding scene still makes it into the movie. Cratchit's song continues after he locks up and moves into the street. Outside, a group of penguins are having a "skating party" and Cratchit joins in as well as Gonzo and Rizzo.

He finishes the song and heads home and it looks like the film is going to let the Christmas street celebration be nothing but fun and joy. But surprisingly, as Cratchit leaves the frame, the camera pans down to the shivering bunny who was singing earlier and is now trying to keep warm wrapped in newspapers. It's a touching bit of darkness and Dickensian social commentary in what we might expect to be nothing more than a feel-good film. Nice job, Muppets.

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | George C Scott (1984)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Since George C Scott's Scrooge has his encounter with the charitable solicitors at the Exchange, he parts ways with Cratchit earlier in the story, right after Fred leaves. In fact, Fred's visit makes Scrooge late in leaving and he's a bit flustered. He's going to finish his day there, so Cratchit will stay behind and close up shop. "Don't lock up a moment early!" warns Scrooge. That's a fair statement based on what we've seen of Cratchit so far.

In the first couple of scenes of this version, Cratchit has come off as lazy and maybe a bit dim, but he does redeem himself slightly here. Scrooge is almost out the door before he realizes he's forgotten his hat, but when he turns back for it, Cratchit is right there, efficiently holding it out. Scrooge's only acknowledgment of the kindness is to look a little embarrassed, but he follows that up right away by recognizing that Cratchit will want the whole day off tomorrow.

Had Scrooge not forgotten his hat, the topic of the day off never would have come up, but Scrooge is forced to stop and think and he realizes that this is a bit of business they need to see to. The dialogue follows Dickens closely and as I'd expect from Scott's very relatable Scrooge, he inspires sympathy when he complains about the inconvenience and injustice of paying a day's wage for no work.

For Cratchit's part, he's as sincere and sentimental about the holiday as Fred was. He comes across like he feels entitled to Christmas off, something that Scrooge seems to acknowledge when he sighs, "I suppose you must have it." Cratchit has the strength of cultural convention on his side and they both know it. I love David Warner as an actor, but so far his Cratchit is insufferable. I kind of cheer a little when Scrooge gets his last dig in with a stern, "Be here all the earlier the next morning!" and follows it up by pointing at Cratchit and commanding, "Make sure!"

Cratchit assures Scrooge that he will, but of course he totally won't.

Outside, we meet Tiny Tim as he hobbles his way up to the curb opposite Scrooge's office. He's a total cutie and unlike many of the film Tims, is actually very small. When he sees Scrooge come out of the office, he calls out, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Scrooge!" perhaps not knowing the old man's feelings about the day.

Scrooge's response to Tim is hilarious. He points his cane at the kid and says, "Don't beg on this corner, boy!"

Tim explains who he is and that he's waiting for his father. Like in the earlier scenes, Scott's Scrooge is thoughtless and uncaring, but he has a sense of humor. He humphs to himself, "Well then you'll have a long wait, won't you?"

Tim's unperturbed "Thank you, sir!" gets an exasperated "Humbug" out of Scrooge as he moves on towards the Exchange.

On the way, Scrooge passes through a couple of Christmas street scenes and encounters a couple of groups of carollers. The first is a half dozen kids who are blocking Scrooge's way, so he yells at them to clear the road and let him through. In this part of town, Christmas is being celebrated, but it's not all happiness and joy as evidenced by the sound of a baby's crying in the background.

When Scrooge reaches the Exchange, he meets the second group of singers: a professional bunch with brass instruments. There's plenty of room here though, so Scrooge simply ignores their Christmas greetings and offered donation cup. He heads into the building where he'll conduct some business and meet the charitable solicitors.

After that scene, the movie returns to Cratchit as closing time arrives and he meets his son outside. It's impossible to dislike Cratchit outside the office. He dotes on his son and lovingly picks him up to carry him as the two of them talk about how excited they are that Dad's got the whole day off tomorrow. Cratchit may be a lousy employee, but he's a great father.

At Tim's suggestion, they walk by the Exchange on the way home to watch the kids playing in the snow. Thankfully, they don't meet Scrooge, but the same band is still playing. They don't slide, but just watch the other children who are doing that and throwing snowballs at each other. Instead of using the sliding as a metaphor for Cratchit's cutting loose and celebrating, this film makes it a symbol of Cratchit's hopes for Tim. He wants to see his son playing that way one day.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Albert Finney (1970)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Albert Finney's Scrooge falls somewhere between Walter Matthau's and Fredric March's. Like those two, he's more to be pitied than feared, but Cratchit neither openly defies him (as in Matthau) nor shy away from him (as in March). He was bold enough to show some camaraderie with Fred during the nephew's visit, but backed off when Scrooge got seriously pissed about it. He's walking a tightrope, this Cratchit.

Like some of the others, he's a clock-watcher and has to point out to Scrooge when it's time for him to go. And like Gene Lockhart's Cratchit, he also has to remind Scrooge that it's payday. Scrooge's response to that is to point out Cratchit's biggest flaw as Scrooge sees it: that Cratchit's only concerned about pleasure. I don't know if that's fair, but it plays into one of this version's biggest themes. Scrooge takes pleasure from nothing and he resents anyone who does enjoy life.

With that in mind, I may have judged Cratchit too harshly in the earlier scene with Fred. It looked like they were teaming up against Scrooge, but that was probably all Fred with Cratchit's simply looking guilty by association. Cratchit doesn't seem as brazen when he's alone with the boss. He's happy that it's quitting time and he even musters a couple of smiles for Scrooge, but he also knows how Scrooge will respond to them and is appropriately nervous. The thing is though that he can't help being who he is: an optimistic young man who finds pleasure in whatever circumstances he's in, including working with Ebenezer Scrooge. Seen that way, Cratchit's to be admired. When he wishes Scrooge a Merry Christmas before departing, I don't believe it's an intentional offense like Fred's was. I think he genuinely hopes that Scrooge will find some merriment over the holiday. Which of course he will.

Scrooge stays behind to get some more work done and to lock up, but the movie follows Cratchit outside for now. Instead of a sliding scene, we get a full-on Christmas celebration when Cratchit meets up with his two youngest kids, Kathy and Tiny Tim. Like Tim in the Alastair Sim version, we meet them as they're looking into a store window at toys they'll never be able to afford. But where Sim's Tiny Tim seemed to find all the enjoyment he wanted just by looking, these two have some longing looks, especially Kathy as she stares at a particular doll.

We aren't meant to feel sorry for them though. They're thrilled to see their father who asks them which toys in the window they like best. Kathy points out the doll, but Tim's more philosophical. "You said we can't have none of them," he says, "so I might as well like all of them." He's a boy after his father's own heart.

Not to be down on Kathy for having a favorite. She gets it too and the three of them launch into a song about how much they love Christmas, even on a budget. As they sing, they shop, and the scene keeps contrasting their shopping experience with those of richer people. Lavishly dressed children walk with parents carrying large bundles of festively wrapped gifts; then Cratchit and his kids buy brown-paper "mystery presents" at four for a shilling. At another shop, we get a preview of the prize turkey hanging in the window as Cratchit comes out with his tiny bird. All the while, there's not a hint of irony as they sing about the joys of the season. Kathy still wants that doll, but she's as content and excited as the rest of them.

The scene follows them all the way home to share their purchases and their song with the rest of the family, ending with Cratchit's lighting the candles of the Christmas tree. That segues into Scrooge's blowing out his candle at work just before he leaves. When he goes outside, he'll meet the charitable solicitors who will inspire a completely different kind of song from him.

It's not a subtly made point, but it's still a good one and faithful to what Dickens wrote in this year's scene. Celebrating Christmas has nothing to do with physical circumstances and everything to do with attitude and the ability to count one's blessings. And as this movie will go on to point out, the same is true of enjoying life in general.

Friday, December 19, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Fredric March (1954)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Fredric March's Scrooge is a pitiable old fart. It's hard to take him seriously. March was in his late 50s when he made this version, but he gives Scrooge a lot of energy and a weird sense of humor (like smiling broadly at things that aren't that funny). It feels like a young person playing an old person, even though that's not actually the case. The result is a Scrooge who's just slightly unhinged. He's not dangerous; just cantankerous and a little strange.

Fred certainly didn't take Scrooge seriously, but Cratchit has to and Bob Sweeney sells it with his sweetly timid performance. He has to approach Scrooge at quitting time to remind him of the hour and he does it with hat literally in hand. He's hunched over as if to make himself a smaller target and he stammers a little when he talks.

After being yelled at by Scrooge for wanting the whole next day off, Cratchit manages a little smile and turns to go, but he stops at the door. Scrooge has already gone back to work - staying behind to get more done - and sees none of this, but Cratchit looks back at his boss and smiles once more. That reminds me of the smile that Dickens wrote into this scene, something that most of the versions have ignored up to now. In this case, it's a smile of humble gratitude with maybe a some genuine affection mixed in. Sweeney's Cratchit wants a better relationship with his boss, but he has no hope that that will ever come to be. As he's standing there at the door, looking back at Scrooge, he clearly wants to say something (probably to wish Scrooge a "Merry Christmas"), but he doesn't and instead just leaves quietly.

Bernard Hermann's music during this scene has been somber and almost dreadful as if something bad is about to happen. Nothing does, but it creates an awesomely tense mood that lasts until Cratchit goes outside. As he closes the door behind himself, the score gives way to the carollers from the opening scene who are still in the street entertaining the crowds.

This is no ragtag band of amateurs belting out Christmas standards. They're a legitimate chorus with angelic voices singing original material while traveling with a festively decorated, horse-drawn carriage. Their effect on Cratchit is immediate. He blinks a few times as if waking up and begins to look around with curiosity. He straightens up and you can almost see the oppressiveness of Scrooge's office fall off of Crachit's shoulders. There's no sliding scene, but the carollers fill the same function and Cratchit is all full of smiles as he moves through them to head home.

It's a wonderful use of music and it reminds me to talk about something I realized the other day about the sliding scene. In the Reginald Owen version, sliding is a big deal for Scrooge's nephew Fred. He does it a couple of times in that movie and convinces other people to do it too. Rewatching that film this year and thinking especially about the sliding, it hit me that it's a metaphor for giving up control. I've been thinking about control a lot this year and how it's an illusion.

When Fred slides - or when anyone slides on the ice - it's a complete abandoning of that illusion. You can see it on their ecstatic faces. They're having an adventure, even though it's only a few seconds long. Giving up control transports them and puts them in a mindset that embraces life. It's something that Scrooge knows nothing about, but Fred - or in Dickens' story, Cratchit - does. The music in this adaptation does something similar. It's not a physical abandonment of control, but it has a similar effect on Cratchit in a spiritual way as it transports him to a different mindset that allows him to enjoy life.

It has the opposite effect on Scrooge, of course. As the carollers move down the street past his office, he comes to the window and scowls at them. They're far too big and professional a group for him to go after with a ruler, but he slams his shutters to keep their singing out. Scrooge is all about control and he's as uninterested in giving himself over to music as he would be giving himself over to the ice.

The same, oppressive score from before returns as Scrooge decides it's time to go. He grumbles to himself as he closes up shop. There are quite a few "humbugs" in there, but he's also cursing Kris Kringle (whom the carollers were singing about). He calls Santa "St. Hypocrite" and launches into a weird poem. Because he's muttering, it's tough to tell exactly what he's saying, but the gist seems to be that he doesn't trust Santa's generosity. He either believes that Santa's making a profit somehow and is hiding the fact, or that Santa should be making a profit and isn't to be trusted if he's not. Either way, Scrooge's primary issue is economic.

All the Scrooges are overly fiscally-minded, but the fuller depictions of him don't stop there. They suggest that there's something deeper in Scrooge that's broken. But this is the version that rephrased Fred's appreciation of Christmas from broader, humanitarian concerns to simply economic ones. That's too bad, because this version has a lot of other things going for it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Alastair Sim (1951)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Alistair Sim's Christmas Carol really knows what it's doing. By introducing Scrooge at the Exchange instead of in his office, it holds off on letting us see him and Cratchit together until closing time. And by switching Fred's visit with the solicitors, it builds to that interaction in a cool way. We go from seeing him conduct business at the Exchange to seeing him conduct business - or rather, refuse to conduct business - with the solicitors. But his next visitor, his nephew, gets under his skin and throws Scrooge off. The strong, confident man of the first two scenes isn't so invulnerable when it comes to his sister's son.

As Fred leaves, he says goodbye to Cratchit, which is the first good look we've had at Scrooge's clerk. Cratchit seems uneasy with the conversation, which could be due to the class difference between him and Fred, or it could just be that he's generally nervous at work. It's too soon to tell, but the movie's about to make up for that.

Rather than letting time elapse in the office, the movie cuts to the city street. That's partly to let us see the Christmas festivities going on out there, but it's also to introduce us to Tiny Tim. Cratchit's youngest son is standing at a toy store window, waiting for his mom to finish an errand. When she's done, they walk towards home with Mrs. Cratchit complaining about Scrooge and how he'll want to keep her husband as late as he can.

That's the segue back to the office where the clock's chiming 7:00. Scrooge scowls at it and checks his watch to verify that it really is time to quit. He packs up methodically and walks to the front door where Cratchit is already getting ready.

Scrooge has had time to recover from his conversation with Fred and he's coldly professional the way he asks about Cratchit's wanting the next day off. Cratchit's timid reply seems to tick him off though. As we'll see later in this version, this exact conversation is an annual tradition for the two men and Scrooge doesn't like it. He snaps at Fred, but - and this is the genius of Sim's performance - still grabs my sympathy when he says that it's not fair. Even though he's wrong, he clearly believes he's right and it hurts him that he's alone in his view.

Cratchit is a nervous wreck for the whole encounter. He hates displeasing his boss and tries to take attention off himself by claiming that it's his family - not himself - who think it's important that he be home with them on Christmas. He's full of crap, of course. It's noticeable almost immediately that Cratchit doesn't agree with Scrooge about working on Christmas.

Scrooge begrudgingly gives Cratchit the day off and we see Cratchit smile for the first time, partly about the conversation's being over, but mostly about getting his holiday. In his delight, as Scrooge walks out, Cratchit accidentally wishes Scrooge a "Merry Christmas," but he stands his ground and bravely accepts Scrooge's disdain rather than retract his statement. He's too excited to let that bother him now and he's positively bouncing as he gets his own stuff together to leave.

Scrooge clearly makes Cratchit uneasy, but he doesn't seem to be unfair or abusive about it the way we've seen in some of the other adaptations. He's simply a hard, serious, unpleasant man, but Cratchit knows exactly where he stands with his boss. In fact, this Scrooge never even threatens Cratchit's job.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Size Does (Not) Matter: The New Paradigm [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

A good friend, writer Jack Mackenzie, got me thinking about book lengths in Science Fiction and how they have been tied to publishing. He also got me thinking about how this no longer matters. Let me explain.

Science Fiction began as a novel medium. As Richard Mathews points out in Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (1997), "The emergence of realism as the mainstream focus for the literary imagination created a clear dialectical pole against which the fantasy genre could counterthrust as a specialized mode of fiction. In fact, fantasy especially utilized the novel - the most ambitious and popular vehicle for realism - as its primary literary vehicle as well." Fantasy in this case would include everything from The Castle of Otranto to The Hobbit to the Foundation series. All imaginative fiction.

Novels like Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (291,000 words) were published in three sections because binding did not exist yet for larger books. These were read through circulating libraries that you subscribed to. This three part format dictated that the novel structure often had three distinct sections (Aristotle's classic Beginning-Middle-End). As printing improved, novels became shorter, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (75,000 words) until HG Wells wrote Science Fiction at a mere 60,000 with The War of the Worlds. Varney the Vampire (667,000 words) may hold the record for single longest fantastical work but it was not structurally a novel per se, but a serial sold a penny sheet at a time. The venue dictated the form and length.

Then it changed. Slowly as magazines proliferated, short Science Fiction tales known usually as "off-trail fiction" began to show up in magazines like The Strand and in weeklies like Argosy and All-Story. But the novel took its biggest hit when Hugo Gernsback created the first Science Fiction magazine in 1926, Amazing Stories. Gernsback used novels but writers found short stories allowed them to explore more ideas more quickly and became the norm. Science Fiction books were culled together from stories, but these were not novels. The original Foundation trilogy is not a series of novels. The first three books are short story collections. (Shhh, don't tell anyone.) As were classics like City by Clifford D. Simak, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Black Star Passes by John W. Campbell, Voyage of the Space Beagle by AE van Vogt, and Adam Link, Robot by Eando Binder. You get the idea. Writers still wrote novels, serializing them, but even these were shorter affairs at 40-60,000 words, making them able to fit into an issue or two.

After the Pulps faded away and paperbacks took over, Ace Books came out with a popular series of "Doubles," two short novels back-to-back. These include some classics such as The World of Null-A and The Universe Maker (1953) by AE van Vogt, Philip K Dick's Solar Lottery was paired with Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump (1955), Robert Silverberg's The 13th Immortal went with James E Gunn's This Fortress World (1957), Big Planet and The Slaves of The Klau (1958) by Jack Vance, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Seven From The Stars and Keith Laumer's Worlds Of The Imperium (1962) and on and on and on. Eventually Ace would publish longer single novels in the 1960s but they would keep the same format and look.

Another publishing experiment in a similar line in the 1970s was Laser Books. The Canadian publisher of Harlequin Romance novels wanted to try a Science Fiction line, to sell SF in grocery stores and convenience outlets. Three novels a month by new and established writers, each an independent work, but all in the 60,000 word range. The cover art for all the books was done by Frank Kelly Freas, giving the line a nice uniformity. Authors included Thomas Monteleone, Raymond F. Jones, KW Jeter, Ray Nelson, Stephen Goldin, George Zebrowski, John Morressy, Jerry Pournelle, Jerry Sohl, David Bischoff, Robert Hoskins, Piers Anthony, and Tim Powers. After 57 novels the experiment was declared a failure and the line was ended. No instant classics amongst these novels, but many of their authors did go on to pen worthy additions to the Science Fiction canon.

On the longer side, the 1960s saw the creation of the paperback bestseller. The Lord of the Rings, driven by the counter culture, sold stunning numbers for Fantasy. In the 1970s, John Jakes' Kent Family chronicles did similar things for historical fiction while Frank Herbert's Dune books were Science Fiction's big winners and Stephen King's horror novels for the darker stuff. The paradigm had changed. People wanted big fat books again, books that allowed a reader to dwell in strange places for a good long while. So how big were these books? If we include The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings is only 300,000 words. The original Dune trilogy is 398,000, but The Song of Fire and Ice series (five books, each at 300,000 words) is 1,500,000 words so far.

Most of today's basic bestsellers are 100,000 minimum. Would The Sword of Shannara (1977) have sold as well at 70,000 words rather than 180,000? Probably not. Book buyers were looking for something that felt like The Lord of the Rings as well as read like it (maybe a little too much like it). That's a marketing tactic. Buyers began to equate size with quality. (Bigger is better, our minds tell us. If only this were true. I'd rather read a 2500 word Lord Dunsany gem over anything David Eddings ever wrote!)

The long and the short of it all is that publishing markets determine how long books are. Asimov is what Asimov is because he wrote when he did. Could he have written longer novels if he had come along in the 1970s instead of the 1930s? He did in his later career. But are the later books as much fun as those old Astounding stories? Writers are the product of the markets that exist at the time they are trying to get published. The mid-listers of the 1970s are another good example. Avram Davidson could write wonderful 65,000 word books (sometimes shorter) and be part of Doubleday's mid-list making a small, but consistent living. Today? Forget it.

But then that was the past. All that was true up to 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle and the ebook went from an airy-fairy dream to the majority of the market share. And now with a movement towards indie publishing, authors are no longer tied to big publishers who dictate format, length or content (some would cry, also editing and proofreading). An author selling their own books online can now decide all of that for themselves.

This piece isn't about writing though, but reading. To go back to Jack Mackenzie. We both enjoy a good short SF novel. Something like Robert Silverberg's Nightwings or Michael Moorcock's The Eternal Champion or Tom Godwin's Space Prison. Fascinating reads that are 60,000 words or less. The ideas - the fun - are concentrated; not drawn out over 100,000+ words. That's how they wrote them back then. Because you had to.

It's fun to dip into an old stack of Ace Doubles. Jack Vance was the king of concentrated writing. He'd spark off more ideas in a page than a stack of bestsellers. But they weren't slow for all their richness. They moved with a pace that kept you turning all night until they were done and you wished they were longer. I think, and I'm sure Jack would agree, that every library (paper or digital) needs longer and shorter pieces, sagas as well as novellas and short story collections. I know when I've just finished a lengthy series that there is a period of time in which I feel soaked in that world, in that author's words, and it's hard to move on. That's when I reach for the short stuff. It gives you something to read while your brain processes all those chapters of Wonder. It gives you that needed step away from Hogwarts, or Middle Earth, or Arrakis. It lets in a little air, bittersweet as parting is, and says, yes, you will read again.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Reginald Owen (1938)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Reginald Owen's Scrooge is a fascinating man, and not just because of that weird tuft of hair. He was consistently rude to the charitable solicitors, but in his conversation with Fred he showed some glimpses of humanity. There were parts of that scene where the conversation was pretty much over, but he re-engaged and kept it going. His dislike of Fred seems more like a defense mechanism than an honest reaction.

There's a little of that going on with Cratchit, too. Gene Lockhart is a funny actor and we get some great moments from his Cratchit. After the solicitors leave and Scrooge shuffles back into his office (Scrooge's walk is another interesting thing about him; Owen makes it look like he's in some kind of chronic pain that affects his posture), Cratchit looks at the clock and then listens to it to make sure it's ticking. He sighs heavily and then has some of the port that Fred left on his desk earlier. He's absolutely miserable, partly because of whom he works for, but also because it's Christmas Eve and those last fifteen minutes are gonna draaaag.

There's a dissolve and Cratchit is still watching the clock, but it's 6:30 now; forty-five minutes since the last time we saw him look. Scrooge comes out and catches him, leading to some great dialogue that's not in Dickens. "You keep close watch on the closing hour!" Scrooge observes.

"It's half-an-hour past," says Cratchit. I can't tell if he's supposed to close at 6:30 or if he was supposed to be done at 6:00, but either way he seems to have been waiting for Scrooge to come out and give the okay to go. Owen's Scrooge has a tight rein on his clerk.

"Then close up! Close up!" barks Scrooge. "Don't work overtime, you might make something of yourself!" It's one of my favorite lines in any adaptation. It's such a grouchy old man thing to say, but it also suggests the slightest possibility that Scrooge sees potential in Cratchit and is angry that Cratchit would rather get home and celebrate Christmas.

Based on some things that happen later, Owen's Scrooge feels profoundly lonely to me. It's his own doing, but I feel bad for him, especially when he keeps dropping hints that he'd like for someone to tear through his wall. That also adds a different dimension to his complaining about Cratchit's taking Christmas off. Not only does Scrooge have to pay Cratchit for no work; he's also going to be stuck at home by himself all day.

There's another added bit that's not in Dickens when Cratchit timidly mentions that it's payday. Scrooge is pretty unfair, but funny when he grouses, "Can't wait to spend 'em, eh?" But he pays up and sends Cratchit on his way, staying behind to close up.

This isn't the only version where Cratchit leaves ahead of Scrooge, but the others make it seem like a trust issue. Owen's Scrooge seems to sort of like Cratchit in a weird way, so that's not the case here. It's more of a work ethic thing. Cratchit can't wait to get started on Christmas while Scrooge hangs back to get some more work done (though he appropriates the bottle of port from Cratchit's desk to keep him company).

The movie follows Cratchit into the street, but he doesn't join the boys in sliding. We've already had a sliding scene earlier with Fred and Cratchit's sons (and will get another with Fred later), so Cratchit engages in a snowball fight instead. That becomes a significant part of next year's scene though, so I'll leave it until then to talk about.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Seymour Hicks (1935)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

After Scrooge's nephew leaves, the '35 Scrooge has a quick cut from the interior of the office to the exterior, looking in through a window. That could indicate some passage of time, but it doesn't necessarily. As we look in on Scrooge, some small silhouettes block part of the window and begin singing.

Their tune is "Good King Wenceslas" instead of Dickens' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but Scrooge's reaction is the same. He picks up a heavy-looking object that could be a ruler, but is more rod-shaped, and heads to the door with it. The boys run off, but we get a good look at one of them as they're singing and there's no joy in his performance. He looks tired. This is a job for him and it fits the mood introduced in the movie's opening scene. It's the holidays, but not many people are all that fired up about it. Fred seems to be in the minority.

As Scrooge turns back to the office after running off the carollers, the clock chimes and Cratchit starts shutting down his work. Scrooge barks at him, accuses him of being lazy, and declares that the office clock is fast. Cratchit defends himself though, politely. He doesn't appear to be afraid of Scrooge or of losing his job so much as he simply wants to avoid conflict. Sir Seymour Hicks' Scrooge is a weak, miserable, old man who complains a lot, but Cratchit seems to realize that there aren't any real teeth in his threats.

Scrooge brings up the day off, again throwing Cratchit into defensive mode about it's being only once a year. When Scrooge says that it isn't fair, it's just another complaint, so he doesn't create any sympathy. Cratchit's main challenge in his job is to endure Scrooge's griping and deflect as much of it as he can. That's a smart tactic, because apparently Scrooge likes to complain just to complain. Though he rumbles about Cratchit's leaving time, Scrooge immediately starts getting ready, too.

Scrooge and Cratchit walk out together and when Scrooge hands over the key to Cratchit, he does it at the same time that he instructs Cratchit to be there all the earlier the next day. I thought that maybe he's telling Cratchit that he has to open the office the day after Christmas, which would've been a nice touch, but when they get outside, it looks like Cratchit locks up and gives the key back to Scrooge. My print of the film is dark in that shot and it's hard to tell exactly what Cratchit hands his boss, but I think it's the key.

Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but Hicks' Scrooge doesn't always make sense. I wouldn't put it past him to display his power by making Cratchit turn the lock, but then take the key back as a sign of distrust. I feel bad for this Cratchit. He seems like a nice, capable man, but Scrooge sure keeps him on his toes.

Monday, December 15, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Mark McDermott (1910)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Edison's Christmas Carol is only ten minutes long, so it's super bare-boned. By the time Cratchit leaves the office for the night, we're only two minutes into the movie. The charitable solicitors and Fred all breezed in and out quickly without even intertitle cards for dialogue. As I observed the last couple of years, Scrooge's visitors are all so obnoxiously boisterous that it's hard to blame him for being cranky with them. You really have to know the story already to get what's actually going on.

But I'm never satisfied with that as an answer. The fun of this project for me is to read into what's actually in the adaptation, not what the adaptors expect me to fill in. So as far as I'm concerned, Mark McDermott's Scrooge is grouchy, but that's about it.

He fussed at Cratchit at the beginning of the story and he fusses at him again when Cratchit leaves. But that could be because of bad timing. Scrooge is still shaking his cane out the window at his departing nephew (and his nephew's loud, disruptive friends) when Cratchit abruptly gets up and starts putting on his scarf to go home. Scrooge turns his displeasure on the clerk who points to the clock. There are still no intertitle cards for dialogue, so we get no conflict over Cratchit's getting the holiday off. Instead, it's purely an argument about Cratchit's departure time and Cratchit comes off looking like a clock-watcher and maybe a little bit lazy.

Scrooge lets Cratchit go though and returns to his desk to get some more work done. So far, it's hard to see the problem with this Scrooge. As far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with him that wouldn't be fixed by a quiet evening at home, but I don't think he's gonna get one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Jim Carrey (2009)

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Jim Carrey's Scrooge is perhaps the most odious of them all. From his repulsive appearance to his naked disgust of all other humans, he's aggressively, intentionally offensive. Gary Oldman's Cratchit is also offensive, but in a different way. He's an idiot.

There are other simpleton Cratchits (and we'll be coming up on some of them shortly), but Oldman's has a vacant expression and an unaware grin that make him seem more House Elf than human. Which may be why Scrooge tolerates him. This Cratchit has no will of his own, so he's no challenge to Scrooge's misanthropic view of humanity. If all people were like this Cratchit, I'd hate them too.

I'm being very hard on this Cratchit, but there's potential for a very great lesson to be learned here. I don't think I'm alone in sometimes being tempted to judge the people around me. I don't do it all the time, but I question motives and intelligence more often than I should. One of the lessons that Scrooge - and I - can learn in this version is that there's more to Cratchit than first appears. Maybe he's actually as stupid as he looks, but that doesn't mean he's without value.

We get a hint of that after he and Scrooge leave for the day. Their conversation goes pretty much as Dickens wrote it, with Carrey and Oldman's performances supporting the interpretations of the characters as I've described them. They also leave the office together, though it's Scrooge who locks the door, presumably not trusting Cratchit with the responsibility. That's part commentary on his feelings about Cratchit, but it's also consistent with his feelings about everyone. In fact, this Scrooge not only locks the office door, but also shakes the locks to make sure they're sound.

Cratchit stands still for a moment and watches as Scrooge shuffles into the fog. Then the music becomes festive and Cratchit begins to giggle and shake in excitement. It's Christmas Eve and he's like a little kid. He runs around the corner, sees some boys sliding on a long patch of ice, and joins them.

That's when I realize what Oldman is doing with this performance. He's playing Cratchit as a small child. That's super creepy to look at and it still says very unflattering things about Cratchit's mental ability, but it's an interesting choice that I'm curious to see play out over the course of the film.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Scrooge McDuck (1983)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Because Mickey's Christmas Carol is balancing the characters' personalities with the established personalities of the "actors" playing them, Scrooge and Cratchit's relationship is a lot different here than in the other versions. Like the Carl Barks/Duck Tales Uncle Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge is a happy miser and his stinginess is played for laughs. And a couple of Mickey's defining traits are his pluck and optimism, so his Cratchit has that too. That means that he's more assertive than usual.

We already saw how Cratchit jumped into Scrooge's conversation with Fred when Scrooge started to get the better of his nephew. It's also Cratchit who brought up getting some time off for Christmas Day; not at closing time, but back when Scrooge first showed up at the office. That's all classic Mickey.

But there's also some traditional Cratchit, too. Mickey will stand up for the right thing to a point, but Cratchit's timidity - and Scrooge's large personality - keeps Mickey from taking over the role. So we have Cratchit's doing Scrooge's laundry and getting only a half day off on Christmas (unpaid).

Already though, there's affection between the two characters. Scrooge lets Cratchit leave a couple of minutes early, eliciting a genuine, "Thank you, sir! You're so kind!" from his clerk. Scrooge's response to the compliment is, "Never mind the mushy stuff!" And as Cratchit leaves, he accidentally wishes his boss a "Bah, Humbug" that he boldly changes to "Merry Christmas." Scrooge's "Bah" in response in almost warm.

Scrooge's problem in this version isn't that he's completely unfeeling, it's just that he lets his greed keep him from doing the right thing by people. Like the Rankin Bass version, this is a simplified Scrooge, but it's a fuller approach than the one Rankin Bass took. We're meant to like and root for Scrooge, not just judge and pity him.

There are no street scenes or carollers directly connected to this scene, but the adaptation covers that ground in other ways. We got lots of Christmas busyness and celebration in the opening shot as Scrooge walked to his counting-house (no social commentary about the poor in this one, outside of the charitable solicitors' remarks of course). And Cratchit's sliding scene is unnecessary, too.

When I was writing about the Richard Williams cartoon the other day, I noticed that it distances the viewer from Cratchit. I didn't remember until later that Dickens does the same thing. In fact, he doesn't even give us Cratchit's name right away, but just calls him "the clerk." The sliding scene is the first glimpse that Dickens gives us to any kind of joy in Cratchit's life or that he's even an important character at all. Mickey's Christmas Carol has already shown us both of those things.

Friday, December 12, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Walter Matthau (1978)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

As the title suggests, Rankin-Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town focuses on Scrooge's miserliness. Pretty much to the exclusion of any other possible trait. With it's narrating "humbug" and sappy songs, it's almost purely children's entertainment, which means that they aren't going for a complex Scrooge. All of his conflicts with Cratchit and Fred have been around money and Scrooge's hatred of Christmas (because it's a time for spending money).

For Cratchit's part, we've learned that he's stealing coal from Scrooge, so he's not especially timid. He doesn't respect Scrooge and has figured out how to game the system. Once Fred leaves, Scrooge brings up the topic of the next day off and Cratchit gets downright sassy with him. Instead of "If quite convenient, sir," he says, "I didn't think you'd have to ask."

That leads Scrooge into his complaint about "picking a man's pocket every 25th of December," but he's defending himself to Cratchit. In fact, as he continues, he goes hard for sympathy and even musters up some tears until Cratchit actually relents and volunteers to take the holiday unpaid! Scrooge has no real power, he relies on Cratchit's kindness to get what he wants. He even lets Cratchit go home first and stays himself to lock up. Scrooge's stinginess makes him a man to be pitied, not feared, but I'm not complaining. It's not a very nuanced take, but it's a pleasant change of pace from the darker versions we've been looking at.

There aren't any outside scenes mixed in with this one, but we've already seen plenty of that earlier in the show. Everyone outside is enjoying the holiday. There's no social commentary about the poor; carollers sing out of joy, not for donations. And even though Scrooge hasn't interacted with the singers, he has had an altercation with some kids building a snowman. In this version, Christmas is a universally wonderful time and Scrooge is ridiculous for not getting it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Alastair Sim (1971)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

In Richard Williams' Oscar-winning cartoon, Scrooge has so far been portrayed as cold-hearted in every sense of the word. He's gotten angry, but for the most part he's calm, aloof, and used to being in complete control of his situation. Cratchit hasn't had much to do, but he looks constantly and deeply sad. There's an enormous imbalance in power between these two men and Cratchit is worn down by it.

For good reason, too. The one time that Scrooge has lost his cool was when Cratchit wished Fred a "Merry Christmas." Scrooge had patiently endured Fred's interruption and was dismissive of him until Cratchit got involved. This Scrooge appears to be especially abusive to his clerk as this year's scene continues to reveal.

After the solicitors leave the counting house, the film fades to black and lets time pass before the clock chimes seven. The film then cuts from the clock to Scrooge and Cratchit as they get ready to go. Cratchit's already dressed for outside and is helping Scrooge by holding the old man's hat. The first line is Scrooge's asking Cratchit about the day off, but for all we know we could be coming in on the middle of a conversation.

Not that Cratchit is all that talkative. His "If quite convenient, sir" is very timid and leads to more lecturing by Scrooge. Alastair Sim delivers his lines languidly, explaining his point as if to a child. To Cratchit's credit though, he sticks up for himself a little when he observes that it's only once a year. That irritates Scrooge though and he's grouchy when he orders Cratchit to be there all the earlier the next morning.

They leave together and it's actually Scrooge who locks the door, as if he doesn't trust Cratchit. This is the saddest, most miserable Cratchit so far.

There's no caroler or street scene in this version. We'll get a little of that next year as we follow Scrooge home, but for now the movie's focused on the two men. And there's certainly no scene with Cratchit joining any boys in sliding on some ice. That kind of levity would completely ruin what the movie's doing with his character so far.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Teen Titans #13 (1968)

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We already covered this scene in the very first (and so far, only) post on the Teen Titans adaptation, because it's part of the introduction to Scrounge and Ratchet. But it's been a couple of years since I've gotten to write about the Titans story, so I should at least share another panel that's related to this year's scene.

Back to a real adaptation tomorrow as we move into cartoon versions.

Ted White's Fantastic: Short Heroic Fantasy [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction began its life as The Magazine of Fantasy. By the second issue the words "and Science Fiction" had been added. Why? Because no pure Fantasy magazine had ever made it past five issues. Weird Tales had been more Horror than Fantasy. Unknown published John W Campbell's version of Fantasy, but a brand for Science Fiction readers, almost an anti-Fantasy at times. Cele Goldsmith and the long-running Fantastic knew this too and the mix had always been heavier to the SF side. During the early 1960s Goldsmith cultivated Sword and Sorcery writers like Fritz Leiber, bringing him back to magazine publishing with new Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tales. She also brought in new writers like John Jakes with Brak the Barbarian and Roger Zelazny with Dilvish the Damned. This continued until June 1965 when Goldsmith (now Lalli) left the publication when Fantastic was sold to Sol Cohen, with a change from monthly to a bi-monthly schedule.

Laili was replaced by Joseph Ross (Joseph Wrzos) who inherited a huge stockpile of stories from the old days of the Pulps. Fantastic became a reprint magazine, its first new issue containing only one original story, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tale "Stardock". Ross published the small reserve of Fantasy tales purchased before the switch that included Avram Davidson's classic novel The Phoenix and the Mirror and "The Bells of Shoredan" by Zelazny. Amongst the reprints was the Pusadian tale "The Eye of Tandyla" by L Sprague de Camp (from Fantastic Adventures, May 1951). But Ross wasn't long for the position, being replaced by Harry Harrison and later Barry N Malzberg. Both Harrison and Malzberg would leave over the reprints that plagued the magazine. They wanted to edit a magazine of new, modern Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Fantastic needed a new editor. One who could present both quality Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cohen was willing to sell his reprints in other formats and leave the new editor to his work. A choice was found with Robert Silverberg's help: junior editor from FaSF, Ted White. For ten years White would create a magazine that featured intriguing works of Fantasy as well as decorate it with great artists including Jeff Jones, Mike Kaluta, Ken Kelly, Harry Roland, and Stephen Fabian (and occasionally Joe Staton's pieces that remind me of DoodleArt). And this with the major handicap of low pay, for Fantastic offered its writers only one-cent a word in a marketplace that usually paid three to five cents. By cultivating new writers and snapping up gems where he could, White offered stories that often were chosen for the Year's Best Fantasy collections and even won the occasional award.

White's debut was April 1969 and its contents were not spectacular, chosen by others. The only hint of what was to come was Fritz Leiber's review column on ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. It would have to wait until December 1969 before a truly interesting Fantasy would appear. This was Piers Anthony's Arabian Nights inspired Hasan, which Anthony supported with an essay on Arabesque Fantasy.

April 1970 saw another Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tale, a series dating back to Goldsmith but one that White was happy to continue. "The Snow Women" is a tale of Fafhrd's youth set in the cold north. Two more would follow in later years, "Trapped in the Shadowlands" (November 1973) and "Under the Thumbs of the Gods" (April 1975). At this time Leiber was collecting his tales into the first collections of Lankhmar and the new material would later be included.

Also in the April 1970 issue was John Brunner's "The Wager Lost by Winning," part of his Traveller in Black series, of which he would continue with "Dread Empire" (April 1971). Brunner, a British author known for his Science Fiction, created something different in these tales of the odd little wizard who roams the world, and they would win him a place in the Thieves' World alumni eight years later.

June 1971 featured a new non-fiction series, "Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers" by L Sprague De Camp. This series of articles looked at classic Fantasy authors including Robert E Howard, HP Lovecraft, Fletcher Pratt, William Morris, L Ron Hubbard, TH White and JRR Tolkien, running off and on until 1976. These pieces offered intriguing insight into the lives and trials of Fantasy writers, leading de Camp to write the first major biographies of both Lovecraft (Lovecraft: A Biography), 1975) and Howard (Dark Valley Destiny, 1983).

February 1972 saw the first of the Michael Moorcock stories to appear in Fantastic, with "The Sleeping Sorceress" starring the albino superstar, Elric of Melnibone. Later the same year, Count Brass featuring Dorian Hawkmoon would appear in August 1972. Both characters would become one as Moorcock melded his multiverse together to include everyone from Elric to Sojan to Jerry Cornelius.

White published the magazine versions of several good heroic fantasy novels during his decade: The Crimson Witch (October 1970) by Dean R Koontz, which feels more like Sword and Planet, like Ted White's own "Wolf Quest" (April 1971), "The Forges of Nainland are Cold" by Avram Davidson (Ursus of Ultima Thule in book form) in August 1972, The Fallible Fiend by L Sprague de Camp (December 1972-February 1973), part of his Novaria series, "The Son of Black Morca" by Alexei and Cory Panshin (Earthmagic in paperback) in April-July 1973, The White Bull by Fred Saberhagen (November 1976) who was moving away from the robotic Berserkers to become a Fantasy bestseller, and The Last Rainbow by Parke Godwin (July 1978). All of which would populate the book racks of the 1980s.

August 1972 saw the beginning of a series of new Conan pastiches by L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. "The Witches of the Mist" (August 1972), "The Black Sphinx of Nebthu" (July 1973), "Red Moon of Zembabwei" (July 1974), and "Shadows in the Skull" (February 1975), all of which form Conan of Aquilonia. Lin Carter groused in his intros to Year's Best Fantasy about this book, which had been stuck in legal limbo with the collapse of Lancer. Finally free, it appeared serially in Fantastic then in paperback in 1977.

Several other Sword and Sorcery series got a new start or a first start in Fantastic. Lin Carter wrote new tales of Thongor's youth with "Black Hawk of Valkarth" (September 1974), "The City in the Jewel" (December 1975) and "Black Moonlight" (November 1976). He also offered posthumous collaborations with masters Robert E Howard in "The Tower of Time" (June 1975) - a James Allison reincarnation story - and with Clark Ashton Smith in verbose Mythos-heavy pieces, "The Scroll of Morloc" (October 1975) and "The Stair in the Crypt" (August 1976). The February 1977 issue featured an interview with Lin Carter that was informative about his days on the Ballantine Fantasy series and other Fantasy goings-on in the 1960s and 1970s.

Brian Lumley published some of his first Primal Lands tales, part Lovecraftian horror, part Sword and Sorcery in Fantastic. These included "Tharquest and the Lamia Orbiquita" (November 1976) and "How Kank Thad Returned to Bhur-esh" (June 1977) . Lumley's Fantasy harkens back to Weird Tales and the works of HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands and Clark Ashton Smith's sardonic fantasies.

Another good start was made by Australian writer Keith Taylor, who wrote about wandering singer and swordsman Felimid mac Fel. These stories were the embryonic form of the book Bard, which Taylor began under the pseudonym Denis More. "Fugitives in Winter" (October 1975), "The Forest of Andred" (November 1976), and "Buried Silver" (February 1977) form the first part of the series that went on to contain five volumes with further tales in the new Weird Tales in the 1990s.

Other heroic fantasy pieces included "The Holding of Kolymar" (October 1972) by Gardner F Fox, "The Night of Dreadful Silence" (September 1973) by Glen Cook, destined for fame with his Black Company in the 1980s, "Death from the Sea" by Harvey Schreiber (August 1975), "Two Setting Suns" (May 1976) by Karl Edward Wagner, part of the Kane series , and "Nemesis Place" (April 1978) by David Drake, featuring Dama and Vettius, Drake's two Roman heroes.

Not all of White's choices were Sword and Sorcery. He published the wonderful "Will-o-Wisp"(September-November 1974) by Thomas Burnett Swann, "War of the Magicians" (November 1973) by William Rostler, "The Dragon of Nor-Tali" (February 1975) by Juanita Coulsen, "The Lonely Songs of Loren Dorr" (May 1976) by George RR Martin (long before Game of Thrones) and "A Malady of Magicks" (October 1978) by Craig Shaw Gardner, beginning the popular humorous Fantasy series featuring Ebenezum.

By the end of 1978 Fantastic was on a quarterly schedule and losing readership. White had grown more dissatisfied with Sol Cohen, wanting to take the magazine into the slick market. He also wanted a raise. January 1979 was his last issue before he left to edit Heavy Metal magazine. He was replaced with neophyte Elinor Mavor. Another period of reprints followed and the look of the magazine declined. Mavor was finding her feet with new authors like Wayne Wightman, Brad Linaweaver and artists like Janny Wurts. She published Stephen Fabian's graphic story "Daemon" (July 1979-July 1980), but the only gem to appear before amalgamation with Amazing Stories was the two part serial of The White Isle by Darrell Schweister, with illustrations by Gary Freeman, in the April and July 1980 issues. A last gasp of wonder before Fantastic was gone. It was the end of an era, but too few even knew what was lost. Other magazines would attempt to do what Ted White had done, through self sacrifice and continuous networking, but none would ever be such a haven for short heroic fantasy again.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Graphic Classics, Volume 19: Christmas Classics (2010)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

It's been tough to get a particular read on Scrooge and Cratchit in Alex Burrows and Micah Farritor's version so far. The two characters have performed their parts, but there hasn't been anything to distinguish them yet from other adaptations. But like with the other comics adaptations we've looked at, this scene helps some with that.

As soon as the charitable solicitors leave, Scrooge is up and putting on his coat. When he asks Cratchit about the day off tomorrow, it's with the same sneer he's been wearing for most of the story so far. There's an arrogant quality to this Scrooge. He has a sense of humor, but it's mean-spirited. He doesn't complain that Christmas off isn't fair, so he's not even making a bid for sympathy. That reinforces the idea that he's proud and sees others - especially Cratchit - as beneath him.

When he leaves, the story follows him and leaves Cratchit alone in the office. It makes no mention of how long Cratchit will be there, further distancing Scrooge from his employee. In fact, this is the first interaction that Scrooge and Cratchit have had all story. They've worked together in the same office for five pages now, but haven't spoken to each other. There's been no threatening of Cratchit's job or anything else. Cratchit is mostly ignored; not worth Scrooge's attention.

And with only two lines of dialogue so far, Cratchit's barely worth the reader's attention either. I still can't get a good read on him, which may be intentional if Burrows and Farritor are trying to keep me in Scrooge's shoes. Maybe in this version I'm not supposed to get much about Cratchit until we visit his house later in the story.

As Scrooge takes off, there is a lone caroller at the door singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but Scrooge is unprepared for him and doesn't have time to grab a ruler. Instead, he growls at the kid, chasing him off, and slams the door shut behind himself.

The boy doesn't seem to be singing for money though. His hands are full with a songbook and a lantern on a pole, so he doesn't even have anything to collect donations in if they were offered to him. I'm not sure why one kid would be singing door to door by himself, but the exchange doesn't seem to be making any social commentary other than "Scrooge really hates Christmas."

We get more of that message when the story follows Scrooge into the street. Farritor draws a lovely panel in which Scrooge is surrounded by Christmas celebrants shopping, partying, and smooching in the road. Unlike the previous street scene in this version, this one is full of holly and other greenery.

Christmas is in full force, but Scrooge is having none of it. He's raising one arm as if to strike someone who isn't there and he's frowning as he says, "Humbug." The sneer is gone though, maybe because no one's paying any attention to him. Scrooge's hatred of Christmas is genuine, but he possibly plays it up when he knows he can get a rise out of someone.

Monday, December 08, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Campfire’s A Christmas Carol (2010)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Scott McCullar and Naresh Kumar's adaptation skips the street scene outside of Scrooge's office except for some carollers. Dickens' solo kid has been joined by four more (singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," for the record), but this won't be the only version to turn the boy into a group.

I'm not sure why adaptations do that except to make the act of carolling more festive and fun. When a lone, small boy does it, it feels like an act of desperation as he tries to make enough money to maybe eat that night. When it's a group, it's a communal activity that possibly they're doing for the fun of it. So far, the adaptations we've looked at have all kept the kid by himself, heightening the despair that's mingled with the Christmas celebrations. By turning him into a quintet, McCullar and Kumar make a conscious choice that lightens the mood.

It gets dark again quickly when Scrooge gets involved though. I noticed last year that (intentionally by the creators or not) this Scrooge isn't just grumpy and mean; he's actively evil. When he picks up the ruler to chase away the characters, it's not just what he had handy, it's a bona fide weapon. Scrooge's ruler changes size from panel to panel (it's relatively normal-sized in the first panel above), but when he brandishes it against the kids it looks like it's about two feet long and has a sharpened end.

As the kids are still fleeing and Scrooge is still holding the ruler, he says to Cratchit, "And you will want all day off tomorrow, I suppose?" It's like he's challenging Cratchit.

In the background, Cratchit's already putting on his hat. No one's acknowledged that it's quitting time, but Cratchit knows that it is and he's wasting no time. I don't imagine that Cratchit's actually bold enough to leave early, but the effect is that Scrooge sort of threatens him and he's beating feet out of there. His "If it's convenient, sir," sounds like a way of deliberately not answering Scrooge's challenge.

When Scrooge says that it's not convenient, he's got the same mad look in his eye that he had when he talked about boiling people in their own pudding. He gets no sympathy points in this one. He feels like a sociopath looking for an excuse to snap.

Curiously, Cratchit doesn't seem bothered when he says, "It's only once a year, sir." He looks grim-faced and determined. A couple of panels later, Cratchit slips up and almost wishes Scrooge a "Merry Christmas," but catches himself and changes it to "good night." He doesn't look at all worried though. He's more focused on trying to get his coat buttoned.

A possible explanation for all that is something I've just noticed. This Cratchit has a large, square chin that's in direct contrast with Scrooge's smaller, weaker one. Cratchit's not a little guy either, physically. So it's very possible that he wants to avoid a confrontation not because he's afraid of Scrooge, but because he's afraid of what he might have to do to Scrooge if it came to that. And then Cratchit would be out of a job and it's a whole mess...

This is one, crazy Christmas Carol, but I'm digging it.

"JEEEEEEEG!" | The Nerd Lunch fellas and I talk Wrath of Khan

The awesome guys at Nerd Lunch had me back on last week, which was fantastic for a number of reasons. It hadn't been that long since I'd been on to talk about Star Wars, one of the great loves of my nerdy life, so I was surprised and especially excited to come back and talk not only about another great nerd-love, Star Trek, but also about what's arguably the best use of that show's most recognizable characters.

Not only that, but I got to participate in the guys' Drill Down format, where they do a deep dive into a single movie. That's something I've always wanted to do with them.

And not only that, but I also finally got to participate in a full episode with Jeeg, so now I feel like I've had the full Nerd Lunch experience. I know I'm gushing, but I really do love hanging out and chatting with those guys, so I hope you'll give it a listen, either via the embedded version above or however you like to listen to podcasts.

Speaking of gushing, Wrath of Khan is a great movie and we give it a lot of love, but we also talk about some of its problems. Or at least about a couple of problems that I have with it. One of the cool things about the episode is that we don't all agree about everything, so it's a great discussion and I hope you'll dig it.


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