Resurrecting Marley’s Ghost

It’s a given. It’s December and the ghosts of Christmas spectacles have come to life in their lavish and extravagantly brilliant manifestations. Crass commercialism is an obvious specter, haunting every advertising avenue imaginable in order to convince us that purgatory awaits those who fail to spend excessively on everyone we know; the magnitude of our spending proffering a materialistic view of salvation. Carols, having been played since the end of October, are already wheezing from exhaustion and will be the first to drop dead again with the stroke of midnight on the 25th. No mourners will be in evidence at that late and sated hour.

Christmas themed movies abound. The Hallmark Channel alone can elicit the coming of all ye faithful to a redundant feast of characters and plots in these tailor made for TV addiction stories. Their sameness includes a cast of impossibly young and beautiful people caught up in seasonally appropriate romantic confusion. The similarities amongst the scripts offer up a series of one-dimensional characters, who must first hate or distrust each other in order for the magic of  Christmas to transform them into happily-ever-after couples, radiating joy to the world, while defining White Christmas as an affluent, ethnic luxury. Pardon my own Scrooge-like cynicism here.

Speaking of Scrooge, his own story has gone through many interpretations and tis the season to see them all. My own introduction to this woeful character, who  – like his Hallmark counterparts – also undergoes a magnificent transformation but without the benefit of a beauty queen paramour to aid his transition, was through one of the televised accounts being played on a Christmas morning. The first actor I can recall in the role of this forcefully redeemed misfit is Reginald Owens in a credible 1938 adaptation of the book by Charles Dickens. Apparently on another local station, one that I did not watch out of loyalty to some other brand, you could find Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 classic, which is often regarded as the best telling (or retelling or is it retailing?) ever made.

Such movies comprise the ghosts of my own Christmases past, but I have laid them to rest in preference for the real deal. It is only in the pages of the written word that you can get the complete Dickens logos, pathos and ethos – with even a mild touch of eros added in for good measure – which no live action or animated feature has ever willingly captured.

Part of the reason may be due to the inexplicable complexities of his story. For instance watch how the various versions try to cope with his convoluted accountability for time. The ghostly visits are foretold to take place over three early morning encounters and yet transpire in just one. For another look at the vast array of sites visited however briefly by Scrooge and his spectral tour guides in order for Dickens to effect the old man’s rehabilitation in a rational (for a fantasy work) way. Then you can get a sense of why the respective producers made cuts to the fabric of the story in order to maintain a rational, if not sufficient, budget; storyline, in most cases, be damned.

My own conspiracy theory about exclusion of scenes, characters and sentiments is due to the heavy dose of religious (aka Christian) influence in the Dickens text needing to be eradicated in order to make the production marketable and thereby profitable. And to justify my perspective I must here resurrect the image of Jacob Marley, the character whose name will be forever stamped with the ignominy of being deader than a doornail.

Marley admits that he does not know how it is he has been allowed to be seen and heard by his former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. But he makes the best use of it by terrifying the poor rascal first with loud wails and the clashing of the debilitating chain he forged in life and then lamenting about his own flagrant disregard for the needs of others. When told that he was always a good man of business, Marley delivers his best remembered line that “Mankind was my business.” This statement is universally included in every live action and animated version of A Christmas Carol but without ever telling anyone the reason why this charitable obligation was so. Profit is the only motive for doing business, not benevolence, but this point is blithely ignored in every retelling (retailing) of the story in the belief that the audience will not question Marley’s logic.

One must read the book to find out why his dispirited proclamation and his perpetual travail make sense. It stems from the fact that in Dickens’ world the Sermon on the Mount not only makes sense, it and other admonitions by a young, itinerant rabbi were mandates for one’s behavior; profitability being displaced by faith, hope and charity. Marley’s most anguished speech is subsequently excised from the adaptations as his lament over his lack of spiritual knowledge is too firmly rooted in the Christian worldview to be palatable even in a Hollywood paean to seasonal tidings of humanistic comfort and joy. But I will give Dickens, in the person of Marley, his due by closing this paean to dissent with these unexpurgated words:

“Oh! captive, bound, and doubled-ironed, not to know that ages of incessant labor, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

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