My Christmas Carol story

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It is 1980. I’m in college. I’m taking a drama class. The class is taught by a guy in the drama department. When he’s not teaching drama, he designs sets for the productions of whatever play the school is doing. Which means, in addition to attending classes, the class is required to attend all productions, so that they may then praise the instructor’s work the following Monday.

I suffer through well-mounted, boring-as-all-get-out productions of The Shadow Box, The Country Wife and What the Butler Saw. The last production of the semester is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol, as it happens, is my favorite Christmas story. (#2 is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, #3 is It’s a Wonderful Life. The story of the baby Jesus doesn’t make my list.) Even by the age of 19, I’ve seen a fair number of adaptations, on stage and screen, and I know the story pretty well.

The adaptation I’m watching this particular evening in 1980, I can tell right away there’s something not quite right about it. As with most college productions, the sets and costumes and effects are expensive and creative, the direction is general and the acting is, to put it mildly, big. But all right, I figure Dickens will somehow withstand a college production of his immortal classic. Beyond that, though, there’s something off about the script itself: the characters aren’t speaking Dickens, they’re speaking some kind of fake, smoothed-over approximation of Dickens. Which, again, Dickens has survived Mister Magoo, he’ll survive this weak-tea adaptation.

Then, as the play draws near its close, a terrible thing happens. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows up in order to open a can of whupass on Scrooge, and something is terribly, terribly wrong. The Ghost enters, stage left, and points an accusing finger at Scrooge. The stage direction is fine, but the Ghost is all wrong. First of all, he’s a head shorter than Scrooge. Second, his hood doesn’t conceal his face: instead, he’s got a black stocking pulled over his head, a stocking with doesn’t actually conceal his face as much as it draws attention to it. So there’s a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, one of the most terrifying spectres of English literature, and he’s shorter than Scrooge and you can see his face all mushed up behind the stocking on his head.

Then there’s his accusing finger. His accusing finger is at the end of a skeletal prop hand. The prop hand has been expensively engineered so that it’s articulated, which means that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can flex it. Now, if you love A Christmas Carol, you know that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come doesn’t need to flex his skeletal hand — all he does is point at things. All decent productions of A Christmas Carol recognize this. Bob Zemeckis understands this — the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the new movie points at things so much, and so often, my daughter Kit declared that she was going to call him "The Pointer." By giving the actor an articulated prop skeletal hand to flex, the production has guaranteed that there will be a lot of skeletal hand-flexing. This prop skeletal hand has nothing to do with the character, and nothing to do with the story or the scene, and has everything to do with the prop designers calling attention to themselves, and, following that, the actor playing the Ghost calling attention to himself.

But that’s not the horrible part. The production would be boring and laughable up to this point, but it’s about to dash past that to the truly horrible. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a full head shorter than Scrooge, points his articulated skeletal prop hand up at Scrooge, and then talks. "Ebenezer Scroooooooooooge," the Ghost intones, and then goes on to converse and declaim throughout the sequence.

I can’t honestly remember anything the Ghost says beyond that first "Ebenezer Scroooooooooooooge," because at that point my brain exploded. I was thrust down into a pit of madness and anxiety. You can do a lot of things to A Christmas Carol, you can cast Kermit the Frog or Scrooge McDuck or R2-D2 in A Christmas Carol, you can make Scrooge a TV executive or a bachelor Lothario or Susan Lucci, and the story will still more-or-less work. But the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does not speak.

Dickens declares quite plainly that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does not speak. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come cannot speak. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is The Future, and The Future is unknowable. If the Future drops by and starts yakking about this and that, it’s no longer mysterious and frightening, it’s pedantic and gossipy. Having the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come speak drives a stake through the heart of A Christmas Carol. The whole point of the scene is that Scrooge keeps asking "Is this real? Is this my future? Are these the shadows of things that will be, or things that might be?" and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come DOESN’T SAY ANYTHING. That’s not just the whole point of the character, it’s the whole point of the story: Scrooge must change his ways without knowing if the change will affect anything, otherwise the story has no teeth to it. If someone comes to you and says "You must change your ways, or else you will die, and I have the proof," you say "Well then, I guess I’d better change my ways." If someone comes to you and says "You will die, and everyone will hate you, and I’m not even going to tell you if changing will do any good or not," then your change requires a leap of faith, which is what A Christmas Carol is all about.

Now, bad as this is, it gets worse. It’s not just that the actor playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a head shorter than Scrooge, and it’s not just that his face is visible, smushed up under his black stocking, and it’s not just that he’s relentlessly showing off with his articulated skeletal prop hand, and it’s not just that he’s talking, which the Ghost should never do. No, on top of all this offense, his voice is terrible. His voice is this high-pitched nasal whine, he sounds like a six-year-old girl pretending to be a menacing robot, he’s as frightening as a mosquito and decidedly less deadly. His voice is a nail down a blackboard, his voice is an off-key piccolo trumpet, his voice is a dentist’s drill. And somewhere in there he guides Scrooge through his horrifying future, but I can’t pay attention to any of it, I’m crawling out of my skin listening to this actor with his smushed-up stocking face ruin A Christmas Carol with his pinched, keening whine.

By Monday, my blood is boiling. I cannot wait to get to drama class, to speak my piece about this atrocity. I take my seat in the auditorium and the professor comes in. I feel like I have nothing to fear, the professor only designed the sets, I had no trouble with the sets, we can talk about the sets all day as far as I’m concerned, but by God, I’m not going to let this Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come debacle pass without comment.

The professor comes out, all perky and upbeat about the class. He says to the class "So, what did you guys think about A Christmas Carol?" I thrust my hand in the air. A bunch of other students do likewise. The professor calls on the student in front of me, a preppy girl in a sweater and hairband. She puts on her best apple-polisher smile and says "I really loved the actor who played the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he was really effective." And the professor beams with pride and says "Wasn’t he marvelous? We cast him because he had such a great voice."


37 Responses to “My Christmas Carol story”
  1. medox says:

    Some things reach a strange perfection in their wrongness.

  2. curt_holman says:

    “you can cast Kermit the Frog or Scrooge McDuck or R2-D2 in A Christmas Carol,”

    I have this vague memory of the Disney Xmas Carol in which “Yet To Come” whipped off his hood at the end to reveal that he was that husky vaguely canine-esque heavy who always often contends with Mickey Mouse – Pete, maybe? I think he’s silent most of the time but says something at the end.

    “A Christmas Carol, as it happens, is my favorite Christmas story. (#2 is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, #3 is It’s a Wonderful Life.)”

    It’s interesting to think that ‘Grinch’ and ‘Wonderful’ are both mirrors of specific aspects of ‘Carol.’

    Didn’t ‘Yet To Come,’ in Bill Murray’s ‘Scrooged,’ have a video screen for a face?

    • notthebuddha says:

      Disney’s Yet To Come was indeed Pete (better known as Goofy’s boss at the supermarket), who at least kept his dialogue down to a graveside, “It’s You, Ebeneezer Scrooge!” which is hardly the worst liberty taken with the story, and is arguably appropriate in a film aimed at such a young audience.

      Other chatty Yets include the usually superior WKRP – Hessman’s wearing only as much black as Fever usually does, and the confrontation takes place entirely in the brightly lit office.

      • Demonstrating once again I am wasting way too many neurons storing useless information, his one and only line is in response to Scrooge’s “Spirit…whose lonely grave is this?” and it’s “Why, yours, Ebeneezer…the richest man in the cemetery!” He then, in a classic Nightmare Fuel moment, cracks up laughing, slaps Scrooge on the back, and knocks him into the open grave.

        That said, that version did not do nearly as much long-term psychological damage to Child Me as either the deliberately OTT comic Future in “Scrooged” (the movie that may be singlehandedly responsible for putting me off the idea of cremation forever), or scare the EVERLOVING SHIT OUT OF ME like the utterly understated tall figure with a disembodied hand in the 1951 “Scrooge” (Alastair Sim IS Scrooge) or the GoCYTC in the George C. Scott version (which comes complete with creepy screechy music/sound effect and is so only sort of human shape that I am still half-convinced it’s not an actor, it’s a prop on a dolly.)

        Suffice to say the play described by Todd is an offense against man, God, and Charles Dickens.

  3. popebuck1 says:

    I think there’s special mention due for the 1979 TV movie An American Christmas Carol, which transferred the story to Depression-era New England and cast Henry Winkler as miserly financier Benedict Slade, who (amongst his other offenses) is bigoted against black people.

    So when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come appears, he is portrayed by the same African-American actor who plays one of Slade’s victims/targets elsewhere in the plot – except that to indicate that now he represents “The Future”, the actor appears in modern dress.

    Which – I kid you not – consists of: a gold lame disco suit.

    I mean: how do you get past something like that?

    • Todd says:

      Did he talk?

      • popebuck1 says:

        As a matter of fact, he did. (Not even booming and “spectral,” just conversationally, like the other two ghosts.) Which was a whole other level of wrong, of course – but once you’ve got the gold lame disco suit out there, all bets are off anyway, right?

    • moroccomole says:

      To be fair, I just watched it again — he’s wearing a black disco suit, albeit with a white, unbuttoned, big-wide-disco-collar shirt and several gold chains and medallions.

      • popebuck1 says:

        In that case, I take back all my criticisms!

        Okay, fair enough. Somehow I transmuted it in my memory into gold lame.

        Is it wrong of me to prefer my own flawed-memory version as being much more awful and fun?

  4. ja_samonikla says:

    and you instantly responded with, “are you fucking high?!” right…

  5. pirateman says:

    I really wanted the Professor to have actually played the part of the ghost. That would’ve been an awesome reveal.

  6. swan_tower says:

    Your rage reminds me of a community summer-park production of Macbeth I went to see, which involved several of my friends. I spent most of the cauldron scene facing the other way chewing on our blanket in an attempt to ignore what was going on behind me. I have, shall we say, firm ideas about how that scene should be played, and it does not involve the ingredients sounding like a grocery list.

    On the topic of A Christmas Carol, my favorite iteration is the Blackadder one — but that’s because I’m a bad, bad person. 🙂

  7. perich says:

    I feel your pain

    BC put on a legendarily bad production of Dracula my junior year. I think my review would have made more enemies, if (A) people cared what the school paper thought and (B) half of the cast hadn’t agreed with me.

  8. strangemuses says:

    Was the actor who played the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come about 5’2″, slightly built, and had a voice that sounded as if he hadn’t quite finished puberty? If so, it was the same actor I once saw playing Dracula in a college production of the stage play. When this pathetic Count took the stage, a good portion of the audience giggled and they continued to laugh at every scene he was in. I sat through the entire show unable to figure out if it was meant to be a farce, or if it was just horrible miscasting.

  9. freyja says:

    wow. i’m not even a big fan of a christmas carol and this story pissed me off. how could someone be so far off the mark and not see a problem?

  10. Clearly the best Christmas Carol was the Muppet one, I defy anyone to watch it and not feel festive.

    Also, Scrooged

  11. Not to derail any much deserved groaning over this take of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but what did you think of the Zemeckis version of A Christmas Carol? The critical response seems to be pretty sharply divided, some feeling that the spirit of the original story is remarkably well preserved and other feeling that it ends up buried under flashy effects, and “3D for 3D’s sake” roller coaster scenes.

    One thing I am glad to hear about this new version of likely one of the most frequently retold stories in western culture is that it stays faithful to Dickens’ description of Marley’s jaw. I find most screen depictions of Marley lacking in this regard, though sometimes the inability of the special effects of the time to live up to what Dickens wrote is understandable. As it stands, most Marley retain the jaw bandage, but lose the reason why it’s necessary. They do something else to terrify Scrooge, like rising up and rattling their chains around, which is inevitably less frightening than having Marley’s jaw fall down to his chest.

    • Todd says:

      I liked Zemeckis’s new version quite a lot, actually, for the reasons you cite. Sure, the roller-coaster ride on the icicle is silly, but it also leavens an otherwise unremittingly terrifying sequence.

      Marley’s ghost in the new movie is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen in cinema, and I’m still a little astonished Disney allowed it. The moment when his jaw falls off shocked everyone, and my six-year-old daughter spent the rest of the movie in my lap because of it.

      • My next question was going to be how your kids held up during the scarier parts, given your previous post and that I’ve read about some parents complaining that the film is much scarier than the thrill-ride focused ads make it seem.

        I’m still on the fence about seeing it. I’ll probably at least rent it at some point, but I’m not big on motion capture or Jim Carrey in most cases and the promotional footage of Zemeckis talking about how he’s finally been able to bring Dickens’s original vision to the screen juxtaposed with Scroog rocketing through the air and the aforementioned cicile ride kind of rub me the wrong way. Also my eyesight issues mean that only the most extreme of 3D effects really work for me.

        • Todd says:

          I had no problem with Carrey’s interpretation of Scrooge, I thought he was really good. His Christmas Past is passable, and his Christmas Present is pretty good. But his Scrooge is, for the most part, really small and sharply observed (which you wouldn’t know from the trailers).

  12. In my college English days, I was not known for witholding my opionins (my blistering denunciation of Scarlett O’Hara in Southern American Literature is still spoken of by that professor, who in fairness gave me an A+ for the class). I think I would have given my opinion in no uncertain terms. At length. Possibly with typed footnotes.

    I *love* “A Chirstmas Carol”. There are even rules in our house about which version gets watched when (which boil down to “leading up to Christmas Eve you can watch any version you want but on Christmas Eve the only one permitted and the last movie watched before everyone heads up to bed to dream about terrifying guys in black sheets showing you horrible visions of your future where your undertaker and your charwoman steal your stuff off your deathbed sugar plums doing the foxtrot WILL be the 1951 “Scrooge” starring Alastair Sim and God help you if you suggest otherwise because IT’S NOT CHRISTMAS IF YOU DON’T WATCH “SCROOGE”.” I’m totally fine with this rule.)

    Now, if it’s a modern-dress, TV-show takeoff, or reimmagined version (I confess a fondness for the Jack Palance western), okay, you can monkey with the Ghosts a bit. And even some things (like the gender of Christmas Past) are open to interpretation, though I confess I have yet to see one that does anything HUGELY radical with Christmas Present (possibly because unless you also gender-bend the Scrooge role and/or rewrite, “Come in and know me better” with a female GoCP could fall into Unintentional Double Entendre territory.)

    YOU DON’T LET CHRISTMAS FUTURE TALK. I give Disney a pass on this with “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” because they took a lot of other liberties to condense it into a half-hour kid-friendly format that crammed in as many recognizable characters as possible. Not least they cut out the best part, the ending with Crachit coming in to work the next day (much as I love Sim, I give George C. Scott the award for most comedically sociopathic Scrooge for how he strings this one out.) But otherwise, CHIRSTMAS FUTURE DOESN’T TALK. He SURE as Hell does not have a FACE. Not if you’re playing the story straight. The whole POINT is that the future is unknown and unknowable. Dump that, and you destroy the entire freakin’ point of the whole story!

    Gah. I migth have failed the class, but I’d have gone out in a blaze of glory…mess with “A Christmas Carol”, will they….

  13. mr_noy says:

    I’ve seen a number of crappy productions of Christmas Carol and, if truth be told, worked on a few as well (I even designed the Ghost of Christmas Future once) but none of those productions, even the very worst ones ever had a talking GoCF. Wow. What a head-slappingly obvious thing NOT to do.

    On the other hand, we did have one Ghost of Christmas Present who insisted on playing the role with a high-pitched voice, like a cross between a Santa’s elf and Billy Barty on helium. Talk about nails on a blackboard. The director asked him if he could, you know, play it bigger which the actor interpreted as a cross between a Santa’s elf and Billy Barty on helium only much louder. Sigh.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Ghost of Christmas Future

    Have you read a Prayer for Owen Meany?

    Same story, opposite effect. Did you go to school in New England? With John Irving?

  15. Anonymous says:

    “Beano” from High school

    So i am now a director and teacher at a high school in Lagrange. We are producing Your’e a googd man Charlie Brown and all i can think of is you singing You’re a good f**k Charlie Brown! I even brought in my yearbook to show the kids I was once skinny and had hair.
    Looks like things are great.
    Imagine my laughter when reding this as I force my kids to attend the plays I havd designed and then write glowing reviews of my work!
    Peace Brother,
    Eugene Beano O’Reilly