Sunday, December 02, 2018

“I Was a Boy Here!” | Dickens

Illustration by Harry Furniss.

As usual, as we look at Dickens' text, I'm going to copy the entire text of the section in bold italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for is was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.

A lot of adaptations insert some kind of transition scene here. Scrooge and the Ghost flying over London and into the country, or something like that. I don't know why they do it, but I don't mind. It always reminds me of Peter Pan taking the Darling children over London and off to Never Never Land. Which isn't a bad thing to be reminded of.

"Good Heaven!" said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. "I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!"

I never noticed this before, but the statement that Scrooge was "bred here," suggests that he was born in this area, too. I don't know why, but I always assumed that he went to school a long way off from home, but since his little sister comes to get him by herself, it makes sense that the family home isn't that far away. Which makes it even sadder and more of a statement that Scrooge doesn't go home for the holiday. But I'm getting ahead of the story...

The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!

"Your lip is trembling," said the Ghost. "And what is that upon your cheek?"

Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.

Scrooge is already affected. Marley wore him down to the point where he acknowledged that there may be some need for change, though Scrooge wasn't ready to commit to making those changes. Then the Spirit of Christmas Past placed its hand on Scrooge's heart and promised that Scrooge would "be upheld in more than" just not falling out of his window. There was something supernatural in that, but now we see that it's symbolic of something mundane, but no less magical. The touch of the past - that is, the powerful recollection of vivid memories - gets through Scrooge's defenses and immediately goes to work on him.

Weirdly, it reminds me of what JJ Abrams said about making The Force Awakens. How in order to move the Star Wars saga forward, he first had to move it backwards. What he didn't say explicitly, but what I believe he meant, was that to move past the bad will generated by the prequels, he had to take viewers back in time to what made them fall in love with the series to begin with. That's what the first Spirit is doing with Scrooge.

"You recollect the way?" inquired the Spirit.

"Remember it!" cried Scrooge with fervour -- "I could walk it blindfold."

"Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!" observed the Ghost. "Let us go on."

They walked along the road; Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.

Most adaptations leave out the town and go straight to the school, which is understandable, but too bad. It's very picturesque.

"These are but shadows of the things that have been," said the Ghost. "They have no consciousness of us."

The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye ways, for their several homes! What was Merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon Merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?

Dickens is being cheeky. Scrooge hasn't always hated Christmas, even though - as we'll see - he had reason to. This is impossible to convey on film. We see Scrooge happy to see his childhood friends again, but without hearing his thoughts, we can't tell that he's digging hearing them wish each other Merry Christmas. The result is that it seems like Scrooge has always been grumpy about the holiday, which isn't the case. The Spirit is reminding him of that.

"The school is not quite deserted," said the Ghost. "A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still."

Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed. 

I bet not many adaptations have Scrooge sobbing.

Pay attention to "neglected by his friends." A lot of adaptations make it seem like Scrooge had no friends, even though we see him greeting them on the road. (Incidentally, his naming them "every one" means that adaptations have to come up with names for him to say, even though Dickens doesn't. I'm always curious about where writers came up with those names. Are they real people the adapter knows? I haven't been curious enough to try to find out, though.)

The truth is that Scrooge did have friends, but that they've forgotten him in their excitement to go home. I don't read this as an intentional snubbing; it's just a childish self-centeredness that's so focused on their own joy that they don't think about how miserable their buddy Ebenezer must be back at school. I think I remember that at least one adaptation tries to keep this nuance, so we'll watch for it.

They left the high-road, by a well remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortune; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.

Dickens makes a big deal out of how run down the school is. Apparently, it was inspired by his own boyhood school, as was David Copperfield's as described in that book. Even though the school is probably close to Scrooge's home, this may also say something about the kind of education that Scrooge's father can afford for the boy. We see in the rest of the story that Scrooge has to work hard to get out of poverty, so it makes sense that his father wasn't especially well off. At least one adaptation though talks about an inheritance that Scrooge was able to invest, so maybe I'm misreading this. Something else to pay attention to.

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.

"Deal forms" are basically school benches or pews.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the panneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading an ass laden with wood by the bridle.

"Why, it's Ali Baba!" Scrooge exclaimed in ecstacy. "It's dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And Valentine," said Scrooge, "and his wild brother, Orson; there they go! And what's his name, who put down in his drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don't you see him! And the Sultan's Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!"

Valentine and Orson need some explanation. They're from a fifteenth century French romance called The History of Two Valyannte Brethren, Valentyne and Orson. It's about twin sons who are born to a noble family, but separated as children. Orson is carried away by a bear and raised as a wild man, while Valentine becomes a chivalrous knight. It was translated into English in the sixteenth century and was included (abridged) in children's readers.

The guy from the Gate of Damascus and the Sultan's Groom are both characters from an Arabian Nights story called "Noureddin Ali of Cairo and his Son Bedreddin Hassan." In fact, "what's his name" is Bedreddin Hassan himself.

What's fascinating to me is the actual appearance of these characters "outside the window." And Scrooge's assertion that on one, particular Christmas, they "did come, for the first time, just like that." It sounds like the boy Scrooge had a visitation or at least an hallucinatory experience. But I think it's more likely that Dickens is just describing how real these characters felt to young Scrooge. That when Scrooge was abandoned by his flesh-and-blood friends, these literary friends stepped in to comfort him. It's a beautiful image and one that my own boyhood self would have been able to relate to, though the appearances would have been by Tarzan, Conan, Sherlock Holmes, and Robin Hood.

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

Again, Old Scrooge is totally getting into this.

"There's the Parrot!" cried Scrooge. "Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. 'Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?' The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn't. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo!"

From Robinson Crusoe, of course.

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, "Poor boy!" and cried again.

"I wish," Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: "but it's too late now."

"What is the matter?" asked the Spirit.

"Nothing," said Scrooge. "Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all."

This is remarkable and not something that many adaptations use. Scrooge is already gaining empathy for people he's recently used poorly and he's regretful about how he's behaved. This won't be the last time that something like this happens, and adaptations are more likely to keep one of the later examples. Maybe they don't want Scrooge changing this early.

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, "Let us see another Christmas!"

Scrooge's former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The pannels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Scrooge knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays.

He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Scrooge looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door. 

Dickens doesn't say why he's not reading. Maybe he's outgrown books as an escape? That's too bad, if true. He seems to be wallowing in his misery now.

It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her "Dear, dear brother."

Scrooge's sister isn't always younger than him in the adaptations. I want to try to figure out why some of them change that. I remember that some of them suggest that Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him, so Dad holds a grudge. Which would make it necessary for Fan to be older than Scrooge, unless they have different mothers. If the versions with older Fans are also the versions that mention how Scrooge's mom died, that makes sense. It'll be fun putting those pieces together and see if that's the case.

"I have come to bring you home, dear brother!" said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. "To bring you home, home, home!"

"Home, little Fan?" returned the boy.

She's apparently named after Dickens' older (and favorite) sister.

"Yes!" said the child, brimful of glee. "Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you're to be a man!" said the child, opening her eyes, "and are never to come back here; but first, we're to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in the world."

Here's another point where adaptations differ. Some of them make it seem like Scrooge is finally going back to a now-loving home environment. At least one shows that that definitely is not the case. The way I read this, Scrooge's father thinks that Scrooge is done with school and ready to get a job. Whether Scrooge's schoolmaster would agree or not doesn't come up. It might just be that Scrooge's dad has run out of money.

But before Scrooge goes to work, he does get to come home and spend Christmas with Fanny, which is what she's focused on.

"You are quite a woman, little Fan!" exclaimed the boy.

She clapped her hands and laughed, and tried to touch his head; but being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace him. Then she began to drag him, in her childish eagerness, towards the door; and he, nothing loth to go, accompanied her.

A terrible voice in the hall cried, "Bring down Master Scrooge's box, there!" and in the hall appeared the schoolmaster himself, who glared on Master Scrooge with a ferocious condescension, and threw him into a dreadful state of mind by shaking hands with him. He then conveyed him and his sister into the veriest old well of a shivering best-parlour that ever was seen, where the maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes in the windows, were waxy with cold. Here he produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered installments of those dainties to the young people: at the same time, sending out a meagre servant to offer a glass of "something" to the postboy, who answered that he thanked the gentleman, but if it was the same tap as he had tasted before, he had rather not. Master Scrooge's trunk being by this time tied on to the top of the chaise, the children bade the schoolmaster good-bye right willingly; and getting into it, drove gaily down the garden-sweep: the quick wheels dashing the hoar-frost and snow from off the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray.

The command to bring down Scrooge's box makes it into one of the adaptations, but I don't think it's explicitly stated that it's the schoolmaster saying it. I can think of only one other adaptation that even mentions the schoolmaster, but that scene is quite different from the way Dickens wrote it.

I love the humor in the comments about the schoolmaster's wine and cake. This really is a miserable school.

For those who don't know, the "chaise" is a one-horse carriage and the "postboy" is its driver. The "garden-sweep" is the curve of the driveway as it winds through the grounds.

"Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered," said the Ghost. "But she had a large heart!"

"So she had," cried Scrooge. "You're right. I'll not gainsay it, Spirit. God forbid!"

"She died a woman," said the Ghost, "and had, as I think, children."

"One child," Scrooge returned.

"True," said the Ghost. "Your nephew!"

Scrooge seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, "Yes."

Some adaptations reveal that Fan died giving birth to Fred. That's not mentioned in this scene by Dickens, but it could come up later. I'll be interested in finding out if that (and the hypocrisy of Scrooge's holding it against Fred when he knows how it feels himself) is a Dickens move or something that screenwriters came up with.

So here's what we're looking for this year:

  • Any transition scene from Scrooge's room to the country?
  • How does Scrooge respond to these scenes? Is he as deeply affected by them as Dickens suggests? Does he cry? How does that relate to the way the adaptation has presented Scrooge so far?
  • Are any of Scrooge's friends sympathetic that he has to stay at school? Does Scrooge even appear to have any friends in the adaptation?
  • Is the school rundown? Does the adaptation imply anything about the wealth of Scrooge's father?
  • How does the adaptation handle Scrooge's literary companions, if at all?
  • Is Fan younger or older than Scrooge?
  • What does the adaptation suggest about Scrooge's father's change of heart? Has he actually warmed up to Scrooge? And does the adaptation suggest why Scrooge's dad has been unkind to the boy? Is it because Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him? If so, is there a connection between that and Fan's age (relative to Scrooge's) in the version?
  • Is the schoolmaster in the adaptation? If so, how is he handled differently from Dickens' version?
  • Is there a mention of how Fan died? If so, is this also a version that mentioned Scrooge's mother dying while giving birth to him?


Caffeinated Joe said...

Quite the scenes to go over this year! I didn't realize Dickens wrote more of the view of the town, as well. Always felt it was just the fields around the secluded school Scrooge was stranded at. Interesting detail.

I like your analysis of Scrooge reading and his fictional friends from the books feeling nearly real to him as a child. So real that he still well remembers the feeling as his grumpy old self.

All your points are great and I look forward to seeing the differences.

Michael May said...

I did notice one adaptation this year that includes a shot of the little town, but most of them are just the fields, like you say. That's always how I imagine it, too.


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