Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television, by Fred Guida (2000)

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of my deep and abiding romance with literature, and of how alarmed I have become over contemporary literary criticism.  Since the introduction of Theory and Deconstruction, the deconstructionists have … destroyed.  Tearing down pillars of artistic merit, transcendence, beauty and tradition, contemporary literary critics have succeeded only in leaving little but devastation in their wake.
Readers interested in this catastrophe should read When Nothing is Cool, by Lisa Ruddick in the current issue of The Point.  (The article can be read here: http://thepointmag.com/2015/criticism/when-nothing-is-cool.)  Ruddick succinctly summarizes the state of affairs by writing:  Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective … I have spoken with many young academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.
The state of contemporary criticism was often back-of-mind while reading A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television by Fred Guida.  Thankfully, Guida is utterly free of irony, agenda and the canons of Political Correctness.  He comes to Dickens’s ‘ghostly little tale’ as a Carol Connoisseur, a man who loves Dickens, the Carol and the great, ghostly tradition of all it stands for.  He is an expansive humanist, at heart, nostalgic for the best of the past and hopeful for the best of what is to come.  If The Christmas Carol is as important to you as it is to myself, then Guida’s book is indispensable.
Guida provides not only cogent and reasoned critiques of the various film and television adaptations of the Carol, but also looks at the literary, political and economic roots of the work.  He bravely addresses both Dickens’s Christian philosophy and his distaste for organized religion. Guida also strives to be more than a simple reference work, opting instead to be wonderfully comprehensive, transcending the mere facts and figures of actors, directors and broadcast dates, and instead talking about the intent, approach and emotional truth behind each adaptation.
Best of all … Guida gets it.  The Carol is a very special work, transcending literature and becoming secular liturgy.  Most who have only a fleeting experience of Dickens mistake the book for a light Christmas confection, ignoring the harsh realities and social terrors that Dickens bravely tackles.  This is a book that includes both joyous Christmas parties, and a scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the horrible children, Ignorance and Want, the legacy of man’s indifference and venality.  The key component of Guida’s argument is that the best Carol adaptations are those that: (a) maintain the core integrity of the book (b) focus on some component of it overlooked by other dramatizations and (c) comment on the times in which they are made.
Here’s an example of Guida rifting on the meaning of it all:  There is often an implication (or an inference) of frivolousness connected with the use of the world nostalgia; but we see that the nostalgia at work within Dickens was a rather complex thing.  Small wonder then that the heart and mind that would articulate so beautifully the need to touch all of the past, the sweet and the bittersweet, could also be so sensitive to, and inspired by, a very different kind of stimulus; and that this stimulus would culminate in the shattering images of two children named Ignorance and Want.
Criticisms of Guida and his book would mostly boil down to matters of preference.  Though all of his critical choices are well-reasoned, they will not always be the reader’s own, so mileage varies.  But whether you are a partisan of Basil Rathbone or Alistair Sim or Mr. Magoo or Albert Finney or George C. Scott – you will still feel united with Guida in a larger brotherhood of Carol aficionados.
Guida provides exhaustive coverage of not only the major productions of the Carol, but homages and takeoffs found in sitcoms; he looks at the history of magic lantern shows and examines operatic works inspired by the Carol.  Your Correspondent would have liked an overview of radio adaptations (for example, there is a wonderful version starring Ronald Colman that can easily be found on the Web); but that would swell an already fecund work to the breaking point.

Often throughout the text of The Christmas Carol, Dickens alludes to the fact that he is sitting beside us in spirit as we read; for many people, Christmas is a time to reconnect with both Dickens and the Carol.  Guida understands that our annual visit with Scrooge and the Christmas Ghosts is an ongoing conversation that changes every 15-to-20 years, with no end in sight.  A reflection of where we’ve been with Carol adaptations and intimation of where they might go, Fred Guida’s book is simply terrific.

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