Harmon’s Histories: 175 years later, ‘A Christmas Carol’ rings true

Jim Harmon

It’s hard to believe. It’s been 175 years since the book was published.

Originally titled “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” Charles Dickens’ novella was published on December 19, 1843.

An instant hit, it sold out by Christmas Eve.

When it first became available in America in January 1844, it was priced at 6 cents in book shops in New York and Washington.

The inspiration for the book is said to have come from a visit to a London Ragged School, where volunteer teachers offered free education to “society’s most destitute children.”

The London Spectator newspaper (in a review carried by the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser) called it “a most appropriate Christmas offering,” which it hoped would lead to “a spirit of wide and wholesome philanthropy.”

Over the decades, the story has become a holiday favorite, still being read by millions and performed in a variety of venues from stage plays to TV shows and even cartoons.

In 1904, young Frank Bonner presented “An Appreciation of Dickens” as part of the high school Christmas program in Missoula, followed by an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” performed by nine fellow students.

The following year, the holiday program at Irving School (aka, “Old Central”), which housed both grade school and high school, featured skits called “Christmas Eve in Scrooge’s Office” and “The Fezziwig Ball.”

On Christmas Day 1913, the Missoulian newspaper featured “An Editorial by Charles Dickens” adapted from “A Christmas Carol.”

Richard Jones, who conducts Dickens London Tours, recently researched the seemingly endless versions of the story produced on film or TV.

The earliest to be found was a 1901 silent film titled “Scrooge (or Marley’s Ghost),” created by Robert W. Paul. If you click on the link to watch, Jones suggests you “Keep an eye on the section, in scene two, when Marley’s face manifests on the doorknocker, and inadvertently, makes a brief appearance through the back of Scrooge’s hat!”

Other film adaptations followed in 1910 and 1935, but the one released in 1938 starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge became a mainstay for decades (still being aired on TV stations at Christmastime). MGM reportedly wanted Lionel Barrymore to play Scrooge, but he had become nearly crippled by arthritis and was unable to perform.

Many critics have declared Alastair Sim’s 1951 portrayal of Scrooge the best film adaptation, ever. I won’t disagree, but I like both the ‘38 and the ‘51 versions as well.

Among the likely and unlikely actors to portray Scrooge over the years have been Vincent Price, Frederic March, Basil Rathbone, Sterling Hayden, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Jack Palance, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer and Jim Carey – not to mention Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Magoo.

There is still one version I can’t wait to see.

It was performed last year on BBC1 in London to critical acclaim – well, acclaim if one considers “wonderfully warped” to be acclaim.

Titled “A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong,” the players of the “Mischief Theatre” created a blundering, fictional group called the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society with “sets falling apart, props failing apart, stagehands and set dressers trying hard to put things right.”

Bob Cratchit can’t seem to learn his lines, so prompting notes were placed everywhere on the set. There was as much drama going on backstage as onstage. You get the idea. Hopefully, it’ll be performed soon on this side of the pond.

Hopefully, too, the wishes of Scrooge’s young nephew, Fred, will once again guide us through the holiday season and beyond.

In his (er, Dickens’) words, let it be “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time … the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Hopefully we all may learn “to keep Christmas well.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.