A Brief History of A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations: Background information when reading Marley

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by Jon Clinch

Marley by Jon Clinch X
Marley by Jon Clinch
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 304 pages
    Nov 2020, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Mark Anthony Ayling
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About this Book

A Brief History of A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations

This article relates to Marley

Print Review

Marley's GhostA Christmas Carol, the first and best known of Charles Dickens' five Christmas Books, was published on December 19th, 1843. On publication, it was considered a critical and commercial success and served to bolster Dickens' reputation among his peers and the public at a time of creative and financial uncertainty.

The book drew on the Victorians' renewed interest in the Christmas holiday and their burgeoning interest in the ghost story, a genre that exploded into English cultural consciousness during the Victorian Era, experiencing widespread popularity in both short and long form. This rise in interest would continue into the early 20th century with prolific horror authors like M.R. James flying the flag.

Dickens, like many of his peers, was intrigued by the supernatural. However, he often expressed skepticism regarding phantoms returning from the dead to impart wisdom and bang tables. Still, this did not put him off from including these elements in his work to assist in developing a story's plot and themes.

A Christmas Carol also signaled a more autobiographical approach to writing for Dickens. While it deals with topical issues of the time, such as child exploitation and poverty, it also draws on elements of the author's traumatic childhood. In his 2009 biography of Dickens, scholar Michael Slater points out that scenes involving Scrooge's past, specifically those recounting a holiday alone in the schoolhouse, conjure images of Dickens' isolated childhood following his father's incarceration in debtor's prison. Also, while the character of Ebenezer is reputed to owe much to that of renowned English miser John Elwes, he has occasionally been associated with John Dickens, Charles' father.

A Christmas Carol has been continuously reimagined across the artistic spectrum, testifying to the tale's longevity. Adaptations of the novella have proliferated on stage, radio and television, and it is now an indelible feature of the Christmas holiday.

The story has experienced an especially enduring relationship with cinema. The earliest known film adaptation of Dickens' novella, Marley's Ghost, was directed by Walter R. Booth in 1901. The film features key scenes from the story and is essential viewing for any would-be cineaste.

Since Marley's Ghost, there have been numerous adaptations, ranging from Brian Desmond Hurst's timeless Scrooge (1951), which adheres to the original closely and features a masterful lead performance from Alastair Sim, to Ronald Neame's subversive musical Scrooge (1970), which includes constant song and dance and ran with the tagline What The Dickens Have They Done to Scrooge? Richard Donner's Bill Murray adaptation, Scrooged (1988), updates the action to the set of a TV special and the cutthroat world of TV executives. Jim Henson's entertaining The Muppet Christmas Carol (1991), meanwhile, offers a wonderful gateway to the classic for children.

There also have been numerous animated versions. Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983) is fondly remembered, primarily for being the first cartoon to feature the iconic Mouse in 30 years. Less so with Jimmy Murakami's Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), which many consider to be aesthetically dull, featuring forgettable songs and dreary animation. In 2009, director Robert Zemeckis helmed a computer animated version starring Jim Carrey. Zemeckis' version was notable for upping the scare factor and darkening the tone, resulting in an excellent rendering that reputedly proved unsettling for certain audience members who dismissed it as too scary.

With the arrival of Jon Clinch's novel Marley (2019) and the recent BBC adaptation of A Christmas Carol, interest in the story shows no signs of abating. With its core message of charity and compassion as relevant today as it ever was in Dickensian London, it will be some time, no doubt, before audiences grow weary of it.

"Marley's Ghost" by John Leech. Hand-coloured steeling engraving, 9 .8 x 8 cm vignetted, from A Christmas Carol, first edition (1843).

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This "beyond the book article" relates to Marley. It originally ran in October 2019 and has been updated for the November 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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