Spirited and the History of Adaptations of a Christmas Carol


VSLint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds) is a media consultant who sells the public the image his client wants, regardless of the pesky truth. He’s also haunted by a series of ghosts – and he doesn’t. Half-haunting, it interrupts the floating corpse of Jacob Marley (Patrick Page).

“I’m so sorry,” Briggs interjects. “I’m stuck on the first thing there – you said past, present, future – like A Christmas Carol, the story of Dickens? Bill Murray’s movie starring Bobcat Goldthwait?

“Yeah, yeah, like the Dickens book and the Bill Murray movie,” Marley replies in frustration. “And all the other adaptations no one asked for!”

This self-referential bit comes from Fiery– a musical starring Reynolds, Page, Will Ferrell, Octavia Spencer and Sunita Mani – which will be streaming on Apple TV+ on November 18. This is the umpteenth retelling of the 1843 short story by Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol, a timeless story that has evolved over the centuries. This time, however, the classic story is told from the perspective of ghosts, who select one corrupt soul to reform each year.

Read more: The real reason Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas carol

And the new musical is in good company: The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 versions of A Christmas Carol, including a video game. Episodes of over 20 TV shows have been inspired by the short story, and there are four opera and two ballet versions of the story. No less than three adaptations are due this season alone; in addition to FieryNetflix has an animated version voiced by Olivia Colman and Luke Evans for December 2, and a version will hit Broadway starting November 21 with over 50 roles played by actor Jefferson Mays.

A Christmas Carol spawned countless iterations, perhaps because of its penchant for redemption and faith in humanity. While the original is firmly rooted in the mid-19th century, its themes translate all too well to modern times.

How Fiery chains A Christmas Carol

“It’s no surprise that A Christmas Carol continues to touch the hearts of cultures founded and disrupted by socio-economic inequality,” Tim Carens, director of British studies at the College of Charleston, told the Folio English Department blog in 2018.

“It’s a melodramatic morality tale made for communities that can neither justify nor condemn the process by which a small minority extracts immense wealth from the work of the many,” Carens continued. “Melodramas achieve catharsis by polarizing good and evil.”

In Fiery, that small minority is represented by the Briggs Media Group, which specializes in harnessing human laziness and desperation to sell products, images, contestants, and more. The many, in an early scene, are represented by the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers, fighting the rise of artificial Christmas trees and same-day shipping.

Briggs takes the stage at a Christmas tree convention to trick members of the business group into buying his exorbitant services and manipulating their clients. “Every Boomer who loves Facebook wants to wage a culture war,” sings Briggs. “So tell your primary consumer what they’re fighting for: a fight for morality.”

In Briggs, the ghost of the Christmas present (Will Ferrell) finds his perfect Scrooge, a symbol of contemporary apathy, narcissism, individualism and capitalism. The media consultant is an “unsalvageable”, collectively considered by the other ghosts to be too far to save, but the Christmas present Ghost is determined.

Which makes A Christmas Carol work

The themes and framework of A Christmas Carol fit right into the 21st century, as they have since publication. Originally published on December 19, 1843, the first edition was sold out by Christmas Eve. Since then, it has never been exhausted, largely because its examination of the haves versus the have-nots has never gone out of place.

Laurie Langbauer, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches the short story to her students.

“It’s persistent because it’s just such a great story by a great writer,” Langbauer told The Well. “Dickens was trying to capture the essential questions about human brotherhood that still preoccupy us today.”

As the appetite for stories about humanity persists, so will ghost story audiences. The Victorians associated Christmas, one of the longest nights of the year, with darkness and ghosts, which lent itself to magic and fairy tales.

Read more: How Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Changed the Way the Holidays Are Celebrated

“He captured this almost crystalline structure of the fairy tale that makes him easy to grasp,” Langbauer said of Dickens. “But infinitely malleable and important for what it captures about psychology as well as culture.”

For Langbauer, the I do not know what of A Christmas Carol lies in the fact that, in the world that Dickens constructs, redemption remains possible for everyone. If even the stingiest and most miserable of characters has the potential to change, so does the reader.

“We know things are going to work out right from the start with a great, really avuncular narrator, kind of an expansive narrator who cracks jokes and has a worldview that tells us this is a world in which people don’t sometimes aren’t nice, but kindness is always the most important thing,” Langbauer said. “People want to keep believing they live in that kind of world, especially during the dark days of every year.”

Other notable versions of A Christmas Carol

For 179 years now, A Christmas Carol captivated audiences: upon publication, it was widely plagiarized in print, which embroiled Dickens in a drawn-out legal battle. Almost immediately too, the story was adapted into unauthorized stage productions.

The simple structure of the story made it possible to adapt it endlessly, including on stage. Ray Dooley, professor emeritus of drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has starred in theatrical versions of the story several times. (Dickens himself staged over 150 performances of the text.)

“You can paint the house any color you want, but the house will still be there,” Dooley said. “You can do almost anything with it, and the foundation will support you and provide delicious alternatives.”

Centuries later, many may not have read the original text itself, but they may well have seen the 1988 film. Scrooged with Bill Murray, or The Puppet Christmas Carol from 1992, or Alone at homein which a character of Scrooge (Old Man Marley) changes his mind inspired by a young boy in danger (Kevin) – much like Tiny Tim.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is just a ‘seussified’ version of the tale featuring an embittered, exploitative old man who suffers an epiphany,” Carens said. “Learning the ‘true spirit’ of Christmas and embracing its philosophy of giving rather than taking.”

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