Christmas Carolling, Dickens, and Home Alone

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year..” Is still ringing in my ears after a quick trip to Sainsbury’s on Saturday where I witnessed (I kid you not) my first fight over the last frozen turkey in stock, that can mean only one thing, it’s Christmas time again. But Turkey-fights aside I wonder – over the Christmas period – whether we have a staple literary call card, a book we always read, or even a movie we always watch, to “get us in the mood”. I am willing to bet at least a hundred brussel sprouts that for many that might be a Dickens number, yep that classic A Christmas Carol which first hit the seasonal scene back in 1843.

Manuscript of the opening stave of A Christmas Carol

At Christmas time today it seems many of us, perhaps unwittingly (though less so for the Dickens scholars I’m sure – they don’t even get an escape at Christmas), are caught up in a Dickens frenzy – one almost to rival the bicentenary Dickens feaver of 2012. We find ourselves accusing anyone who kicks up even the slightest fuss at the sight of Christmas decorations of being a “Scrooge”. University challenge tonight saw the contestants embarking on a who’s who round, identifying Scrooge in various adaptations of the book. Even Phoebe in Friends utters those famous words by Tiny Tim “God Bless us, everyone” and like it or not the chances are we’re probably familiar with the tale.

Take this year for instance, popping up on social media yesterday were news of a number of articles which looked at Dickens, Christmas and A Christmas Carol in new and fresh ways.

And it even crops up in Christmas shopping discussions:

Well, you get the picture. And maybe it’s because I’ve been carol singing, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been teaching A Christmas Carol this term and last week I sat through three, yes three, viewings of the 1984 version. I know, not even the Muppets – apparently none of these year seven kids had heard of the Muppets. Shocking.

In fact for many the way to access the story is by movies, of course there’s been many adaptations, Barbie, the Flintstones, Mr Men and Blackadder have all tried their hand at the tale, and this is only a shortlist of the many versions. And while probably the Muppets and Jim Carrey’s are the best known, the variety of ways to access this text is a bit like Shakespeare (I look forward to Barbie and Ken’s Romeo and Juliet..) maybe part of the reason it has lasted is because of its adaptability.

Not only is it part of the modern vernacular with Scrooge almost becoming a cuss over the festive period, but it also crops up where your least expecting it. Just as Scrooge is haunted by past, present and future, so is the modern world in part haunted by the ghost of (A) Christmas (Carol).

Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining. It’s definitely up there as one of my favourite Dickens books, I’m more intrigued than anything as to why this is. Sure Oliver and Drood have been transformed into musical numbers. Many remember the recent adaptations of Great Expectations, Bleak House and perhaps even Hard Times. But they aren’t so much staples as occasional viewing. And crucially these books are adapted and not appropriated, musicals aside. Whereas A Christmas Carol has a huge appropriation legacy. You can read much more about that here. Chances are you’re unlikely to schedule in time to catch a version of The Pickwick Papers (Dickens enthusiasts aside). But A Christmas Carol, in whichever form it weaves it way in, is one we’re almost as likely to catch as the Queen’s Speech, Dr Who (and then there was that rare and glorious moment back in 2010 when the two combined thanks to space and time), or The Snowman.

Back to its cropping up everywhere for a moment. And this is more appropriation than adaptation – in true Christmas Carol style of course. On Saturday I settled down to watch Home Alone. Yep, another Christmas classic and A firm favourite in our house – my sister can recite almost the whole movie word for word. Fear not I’m not about to pull the wool from your eyes and suggest that the robbers are actually Scrooge and Marley in disguise, though that would be an interesting twist.. But one image in particular struck me as a nod to A Christmas Carol.

I’m not going to offer a complete synopsis of the film, if you haven’t seen it do check it out. But at the beginning of Home Alone the big family (Kevin aside) is setting off for a holiday to France but the night before, all alarm clocks set, (not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse) there comes a storm. And a big one. It plays havoc and disconnects all the electricity. Well in the midst of the wind, rain, and snow there’s a shot which fixes on the eerily swinging Christmas wreath on the McAllisters’ door. And as it zooms in there’s a brief focus on the door knob. Probably the same one Marley was as dead as at the opening of A Christmas Carol..

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail”

There was certainly a nod to the ghostly animated knob in Home Alone. I found myself questioning my eyes, had the door knocker got a face, and was that face moving? I was having Christmas Carol flashbacks and mad I may be, but I wanted to check.

The passage in A Christmas Carol I’m thinking of is this one:

“It is a fact that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including—which is a bold word—the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley since his last mention of his seven-years’-dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow, as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look; with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face, and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression. As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again”

If my year seven classes were anything to go by this instance in A Christmas Carol causes one of two reactions (depending on your nervous disposition), either laughter or fear. There were screams from one class and giggles from the other. But in Home Alone it probably goes unnoticed. It’s just a quick shot in the midst of a storm after all.

In fact if we remember anything about the door, it’s probably its starring role later in the movie. The door handle is definitely hot stuff.

But in the early hark back to A Christmas Carol, there seems to be something Marley-esque about this uncannily sinister father Christmas who bobs about in the wind in the centre of the wreath.

Home Alone

He is certainly very lifelike, and it plays with the imagination just as the knocker which appears to resemble the face of Marley messes with Scrooge’s mind. It struck me as somewhat Dickensian, in a comic kind of nod by the Home Alone creators from this family classic, to another and already Christmas classic (this reminds me of the way that a genre like sci-fi always includes elements even if it’s just a trinket or two as no to the works in its genre which preceded it – making it possible. And why should Home Alone, a newer Christmas classic, be any different?)

Scrooge, like the battered and bumped door knocker of Home Alone has a screw loose. And you’re probably thinking at this point that I have too, seeing ghosts of A Christmas Carol all over the place. While that is possible, it is surely a legacy to the many weird and wonderful adaptations and appropriations of the story which mean that a door knocker in a movie about a forgotten child can be loaded with such literary significance. More than that, hanging A Christmas Carol up along with our decorations has made Dickens, for many, as much the bloke of the season as Santa or baby Jesus.

If you’ve never encountered A Christmas Carol it’s well worth a read, or check out one of the many adaptations or appropriations. I look forward to the next one to hit the screens, though after Batman’s homage and the all time best, The Muppets, I think it may be a tough act to follow.

But bring on the next Dickens, even if it’s made of plastic no doubt it’ll be fantastic. Or failing that it will join a long line of versions: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless ’em – every one!”

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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7 Responses to Christmas Carolling, Dickens, and Home Alone

  1. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | Shakin' Spearians

  2. Pingback: Where’s Shakespeare: The Christmas Edition | Shakin' Spearians

  3. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | The Shakespeare Standard

  4. Pingback: Where’s Shakespeare: The Christmas Edition | The Shakespeare Standard

  5. Pingback: Christmas Carolling, Dickens, and Home Alone | The Shakespeare Standard

  6. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:
    Sarah really “gets it” in my view in her reflection on the mythology of Christmas evoked in “A Christmas Carol” and as she discusses, “Home Alone” as well. I hope you enjoy this piece as I have and become a regular visitor to her excellent site.

  7. Pingback: Christmas Carolling, Dickens, and Home Alone | The Shakespeare Standard

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