“Marley was dead: to begin with.” The enduring charm of A Christmas Carol

christmas carolI personally love the book A Christmas Carol and I read it every December. It’s not a long book, which is probably why it’s a favorite classic of the overwhelmed high school student as well as this librarian with a “to read” list a mile long. I’m also a big fan of Christmas, and Christmas specials, and books about Christmas. I’ll admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Dickens’ longer works. In high school we read Great Expectations, and I remember very little of it except that it was particularly hard to follow, which kind of turned me off of anything else he’d written for a while. But a few years ago I decided I’d give A Christmas Carol a chance, and it became one of my favorite books.

The language that Dickens used is unlike anything we use in everyday communication in 2014. Not once does Tiny Tim ever LOL, and none of the Ghosts ever *smh* at Scrooge and his cluelessness. Honestly, I can see how it could be hard for some to sit down and read page after page of the lengthy descriptions Dickens used- after all, we want to get to the meat of the story with the ghosts and the grumpy old man learning to appreciate kindness and friendship over money- but when we take the time to read what Dickens wrote he paints some amazing images in our heads.

Take the opening line: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”* As far as first lines in a book go, that one is pretty darn good.
His description of Ebenezer Scrooge leaves no doubt we are dealing with a very unpleasant character:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”
Dickens is not without humor, as evidenced by this part of Scrooge’s conversation with Marley, whom we must remember was dead to begin with, that always makes me chuckle:

     “You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

     Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.

     “Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.

     “It is.”

     “I — I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.

     “Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.”

     “Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge.
The Ghost of Christmas Present makes a great impression upon Scrooge when they first meet by completely transforming Scrooge’s barren rooms into something he had never seen before, and Dickens describes it to every detail:

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone … In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”


And let’s not forget the chills we get when we first meet the Ghost of Christmas Future:

“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.”
Redemption, second chances, and hope are all themes in the book, along with the misappropriation of love for money, and greed, and the fleeting happiness that comes those things. And these are powerful themes, which make for powerful storytelling, and this is a story that has been told over and over. As far as adaptations go, there are many– enough to fill a whole Wikipedia page. Everyone from The Flintstones to Sesame Street has done an adaptation of this classic. There are even Doctor Who episodes that have a direct relation to this most famous work of Dickens’ (the Ninth Doctor meets Charles Dickens at Christmastime in the rebooted series one episode “The Unquiet Dead” and the Eleventh Doctor Christmas special “A Christmas Carol” from series five is obvious.) The following adaptations are my favorites- maybe not the ones with the most critical acclaim, but certainly the ones that I watch every year.

scrooged-movie-poster-1988Scrooged, 1988, staring Bill Murray, is set in the high pressure world of television. It’s one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, and his comedic genius shines even though the script- about a TV executive putting on a live Christmas Carol adaptation on Christmas Eve- is probably the least true to the book of all the versions listed here. The essence of the story is still there, though, and the dramatic change we see in Ebenezer Scrooge in the book is just as dramatic when it happens to Frank Cross on the screen. This movie is also ridiculously quotable, and even though it was made in 1988 it doesn’t feel too dated, though there is an abundance of shoulder pads that screams 1980s!




Mickey’s Christmas Carol, released in 1983, is an animated version starring Mickey Mouse and other familiar Disney characters including Uncle Scrooge, who was named after Ebenezer Scrooge when he was created in 1947 and went on to star in his own TV series (anyone else remember Duck Tales?) This short film adaptation is only about half an hour long, but it hits most of the key points of Dickens’ classic and is one of the more emotionally heart wrenching. When Mickey’s Bob Cratchit puts Tiny Tim’s crutch against his son’s gravestone, I sob just as hard today as I did when I first watched it as a little kid.


A Muppet Christmas Carol, released in 1992, is probably the closest adaptation to the actual book that I’ve seen, minus the catchy tunes and ice skating penguins. The narration comes straight from the book, and is delivered with zeal by Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens. In fact, I often hear Gonzo in my head when I read the book because of how much of the book made it into the movie. Starring Michael Caine (who may be more recognizable these days as Alfred in the most recent Batman franchise), it takes place in 1840s London…well, 1840s London if it had been populated by a menagerie of Anything Muppets. My favorite line is spoken right as the credits start to roll at the end of the film and Gonzo- that is, Mr. Dickens- says, “If you like this, you should read the book.”


And I agree.


-Carla Land, currently reading The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith

*book quotes taken from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, published December 2010 by Tribeca Books

6 thoughts on ““Marley was dead: to begin with.” The enduring charm of A Christmas Carol”

  1. A Christmas Carol is also one of my favorites, and I read it every year. This year, I’m listening to the audio narrated by Tim Curry! So good. I always mean to watch more of the movie adaptations, but I haven’t seen too many. The Muppet one is great though.

  2. I also LOVE A Christmas Carol and re-read (or re-listen, currently listening to Jim Dale’s version) to it every year. The Ignorance and Want passage always gives me chills. The closest film adaption I have found to the text (and my personal favorite!) is a made for TV version starring Patrick Stewart.

  3. I was so happy to read this! I love a Christmas Carol and I, too, read or listen to it every year. I’m glad you mentioned the humor too. A Christmas Carol always makes me giggle.

  4. By sheer coincidence my Goodreads quote of the day informed me that today is the 171st anniversary of the publication of “A Christmas Carol” and that Charles Dickens wrote it in six weeks. You learn something new every day!

  5. I recently read (listened to) the whole book for the first time — Jim Dale’s version as well. I loved hearing it out loud! My family routinely watched the movie version with George C. Scott as Scrooge, and I was pleased that nephew Fred’s line “his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him” was straight out of the book.

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