When it comes to stories involving Christmastime, no story has had quite the impact as that of A Christmas Carol. Who hasn’t heard the classic tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich man visited by three ghosts of Christmas who help him to see the error of his ways and become a better human being? Not only is this classic piece of literature still remembered, it has become fodder for numerous adaptations. From films to live theatre, television shows to comic books, nearly every medium has had some take of A Christmas Carol. Of course, with all of these numerous adaptations, there is something interesting to consider: why? After all, there are plenty of great works of literature that only possess a few adaptations to their name, or even none at all. What inspires people to turn to the story of Scrooge and craft a new telling of the familiar story, when plenty of other storytellers have trod down the familiar path? Before I discuss the elements of the story itself, I feel it would be worth discussing the world from which this story emerged. After all, context can offer an interesting viewpoint.
In the early 1800s, Christmas was not the widely celebrated holiday that it is today. In fact, it seemed to be on its way out. The Puritan era had possessed a displeasure in Christmas, seeing it as a Pagan holiday due to the elements that had been incorporated into the holiday. Likewise, Protestant reformations shared a similar dislike in these Pagan elements, leading to infighting among how best to handle the holiday. As for Christmas itself, it was seen as a secondary holiday, merely a religious celebration for churches and communities that was second to Easter. That would change in 1843, with author Charles Dickens. Horrified by the reports of the conditions endured by children in factories and mines, he sought to write a story that would serve as a sledgehammer to the public consciousness. To that end, he had turned to nostalgic thoughts about the past of Christmas and its traditions, merging them with his concerns for the poor. With this combination, he crafted a narrative that not only moved the hearts and minds of his readers, it fundamentally reshaped how Christmas was seen. No longer was it merely a community holiday. Instead, it was reformed into a time about good will and helping out the fellow man. In fact, this story ended up inspiring a movement to revive Christmas, setting into place many of the traditions and philosophies that remain entwined with the holiday to this very day.
The impact when it was first written cannot be doubted, but there is still the question of why it is so adapted. Part of it, I believe, stems from its structure. The story is written in five parts, which can easily be translated into a three-act structure. Its first act lays down the introduction of Scrooge, along with the ghostly visitation of Jacob Marley. Its second act brings the visits from the Ghost of Christmas Past (who presents Scrooge’s past and shows how much he has changed) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (who shows the meager home life of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit). Finally, the third act brings the Ghost of Christmas Future (who offers a haunting vision of a potential future) and Scrooge’s redemption into a more caring person. It is a lean structure, but an effective one. It offers a core structure that is steady in the trajectory of its character arcs, while offering plenty of room for tailoring and adjustments when it comes to exploring Scrooge. The story can be adapted into a darker tone that captures the ghost story nature of Dickens’s literary sledgehammer, or a lighter tone that leans into the heart and appeal for the betterment of humanity. Really, the overall structure and flow of the story is incredibly well-crafted. Paired up with the memorable characters and evocative imagery that flow from Dickens’s words, it is no wonder how it would catch the eye. However, the structure is only part of it. The other part is its heart.
Charles Dickens had seen firsthand how terrible life was for the poor. At a young age, he had to endure harsh working conditions to help his family survive. The harmful and humiliating conditions he had to go through planted that formative seed which would become a recurring theme in his work, namely the conditions and suffering that the poor endured. It was not until that report on labor conditions, along with witnessing conditions in a Manchester factory and a ragged school (a charitable organization that offered free education to poor children), that finally launched Dickens to craft this literary sledgehammer and swing. The passion in wanting people to look towards helping out those less fortunate can be felt all throughout the story, such as in Scrooge’s growing change as he sees the misfortunes that plague Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim. In fact, that growing change is a fundamental key here. That potential of change, that idea that people can grow past their flaws and see beyond their selfish desires, is a powerful ideal. People want to believe that individuals can change for the better. Whether in the bitter stings of the past or the concerns of the present, they want to see things improve. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his change from cold miser to big-hearted gentleman is a powerful story that takes this nebulous idea and paints a very personal picture of it. It offers a face to this idea, giving it life and a tangible form. In that way, a general desire to see things change for the better is granted a sharper clarity and thus makes for a stronger impact.
Ever since Charles Dickens first crafted his immortal tale back in 1843, A Christmas Carol has found its way into nearly every form of media with a multitude of adaptations. With its well-founded structure and a powerful appeal to helping others, it is no wonder why the story still moves the hearts of many to this very day.