Once again, a month late with this post. Sorry. Christmas. Then we were all sick with colds in January. Y’know, life.
December’s movie selection, the fourth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was An American Christmas Carol (1979). Hardly an original selection, I admit, but seminal, nonetheless, given the season.
I chose this particular version of the classic tale for three reasons: (1) because it was in colour (my son has not yet been won over by the allure of black and white films); (2) because it was a more “modern” — if the Great Depression can be considered “modern” — take on the story without being completely contemporary; and (3) because I have memories of “connecting” with this particular version of the story in my own adolescence.
37 years later I have to admit I enjoyed this particular rendition of Dickens’ classic tale far less than I remembered having done so “back in the day.” I guess I didn’t find Henry “The Fonz” Winkler quite as edgy a choice for the Scrooge character (in this case named Benedict Slade) as I did during that initial viewing. But in re-watching the film I was able to recall the scene that I remember as having the greatest impact on me, that I think left me with the lingering thought across all these years that the movie did, in fact, have some merit. It’s when one of the spirits takes Slade to the Christmas-monring home of his childhood sweetheart who is now happily married with a teenaged daughter who — no surprise — looks just like her mother did when Slade had been in love with her all those years ago. Sade immediately realizes — too late, of course — that all this joy and happiness and familial bliss he observes could have been his if only he had made different, more authentic, choices in his life. Even as a cynical, young teenager when I originally watched An American Christmas Carol, I felt the depth of pathos and desperation that must accompany the realization that you’ve hit a certain point in your life — far closer to the end than the beginning — and suddenly realize you’ve had it all wrong and you’ve squandered any number of opportunities for happiness with which life has presented you across the years.
But that’s my take. What did my son think? Well, for a start, I certainly think he appreciated the fact that I didn’t make him watch a black and white version. And he seemed to find the Great Depression backdrop fairly engaging from a narrative perspective. But mostly we ended up talking about the Christmas Carol story as a sort of cultural touchstone, rendered and re-rendered year after year, in one guise after another, as a sort of yuletide memento mori.
And how, we chatted, does that theme come to work itself out in the plot? What makes the story so timeless, so poignant? My son’s take was essentially the old saw that money can’t buy happiness. And I think that that’s a valid take-away up to a point — especially considering that it’s this same money, to a large extent, that actually does make folks happy once Scrooge discovers, by the end of the story, the joy in opening his purse and sharing his wealth with those he now realizes he cares about. But I think what my son really meant was that it’s far better to seek to be connected with people than it is to simply remove yourself from their orbit in a blind pursuit of wealth, or any other obsession, for that matter. (Of course, one of the things that ultimately makes A Christmas Carol so compelling is the inherent psychological underpinnings of why this miserly pursuit was undertaken in the first place.)
My take on things, especially as I get older, seems to have more to do with the ghost of Christmas future. Thus, for me, the story, at its heart, is a redemption tale. Rather a loaded word for an atheist, but bear with me. In this instance, after all, it was the miser who was redeemed, who saved himself from the dark shadows of things that might have come to pass if he hadn’t become aware of his own shortcomings. But the significant element of this equation was not who was “saved”, but the miraculous fact that each new morning offers us all a fresh chance to change our path, to save ourselves from ourselves. That’s why I think the oft re-created scene where Scrooge throws open the window on Christmas morning and asks what day it is is the crux of the whole matter: each day — every day — gives us another opportunity to truly embrace our lives and, with even a modicum of self awareness, to adjust our trajectory for the better. This is the stuff of which epiphanies are made.
Realizing at this point that I had gone right down the existential rabbit hole with my take on things (as usual!), and wanting to get our discussion back on more solid footing, I asked my son which iteration of the story he had seen over the years that he had found most compelling or memorable. He was a little sheepish, but was man enough to admit it was a Bugs Bunny version he had watched nearly a decade ago in elementary school. I laughed and told him not to worry; the truth was I was a big Scrooge McDuck fan myself! How ‘bout you?
Happy Holidays, and to all a good night.