4 Reasons to Watch A Muppet Christmas Carol

Tomorrow is Christmas, and that means its time for watching all the Christmas movies. I’ve talked about It’s a Wonderful Life, and the true meaning of the movie, and last year I talked about A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In that post I used pictures from A Muppet Christmas Carol, and now I’m going to explain why the Muppet edition of Charles Dickens’ opus is the best film adaptation of the novel:

And why Gonzo should be on the bookjacket of A Christmas Carol.
And why Gonzo should be on the bookjacket of A Christmas Carol.

4. It Sticks to the Story

There are various adaptations of the story in both plays and movies, almost all of which focus on giving Scrooge a more tragic background than what is depicted in the story: his mother died giving birth to him, alienating his father; his sister (the only person he loved) died giving birth to his nephew; etc. I can understand why some of these were added, but at the same time I hate these editions because they give Scrooge excuses to be evil and end up making the Ghosts look like tormentors rather than the guiding spirits they’re meant to be. Scrooge turning into a callous, greedy recluse is almost understandable when his life has been going from one abuse to the next without respite, and the Ghost of Christmas past making him relive these horrible events seems to serve no purpose other than to torment him. After all he couldn’t not kill his mother when he was born, or save his sister from dying, or whatever addition the adaptation throws in.

In the original story Scrooge ends up alone and hated by the entire city because that’s what he chose. It happened in degrees, each decision he makes carries him further into the darkness and eventually his desire for wealth drives away the woman he loves and everybody else who might have cared about him (except for his nephew). That’s what the Ghost of Christmas Past is showing him: not the tragic events he couldn’t change, but the choices he made that he could have and should have made differently. By sticking to the story and abandoning many of the alterations adopted by contemporary adaptations, A Muppet Christmas Carol manages to capture the same magic and sense of joy that encapsulated the story of Scrooge’s redemption.

Not to mention this is one of the finest imaginings of the Ghost of Christmas Past: the book description almost defies a visual recreation.
Not to mention this is the finest Ghost of Christmas Past I’ve seen and matches the book almost perfectly.

Yes, A Muppet Christmas Carol sticks to the story and yet at the same time…

3. It’s not Afraid to Adapt The Story

Of course A Muppet Christmas Carol is still a movie adaptation, and it’s not afraid to remove or change parts that wouldn’t work in a movie format. For instance, in that picture above I said that the Ghost of Christmas Past is almost perfect in matching the description. I used the qualifier almost because a completely accurate recreation of the Ghost would have turned A Muppet Christmas Carol from amazing and joyful, into a nightmare straight from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos:

being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Yes, that’s the Ghost of Christmas past sprouting and then discarding limbs like an eldritch horror from beyond time. I first saw this movie when I was a young boy, and I tell you there would have been a lot of wet seats in that theater if they’d gone with an accurate recreation of the Ghost. Adapting a story from one medium to another is a fine art, and Brian Henson proved he was a master when he created the Muppet version of this ghost.

The best adaptation, however, is undoubtedly the removal of the dread children from the scenes with The Ghost of Christmas Present. In last year’s article, I told you that Tiny Tim represented all the suffering children in England. Tiny Tim was a great, yet subtle metaphor for the plight of children of in 19th Century England (and the world at large) and yet I guess Charles Dickens felt it might be too subtle because halfway through the story he throws in a couple of starving, almost zombie like children hiding under Santa’s robes to represent the children of the future if society doesn’t change. It’s a ham-handed interlude in an otherwise great and moving story, and A Muppet Christmas Carol nails their adaptation by removing this unneeded piece of the story.

Come forth and know me better man!
The Ghost of Christmas Present is a bringer of joy, not sorrow, and the Muppets understood this.

2. Michael Caine

Playing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge can’t be easy, because you have to show a believable character arc of going from the evil, money-grubbing Mr. Scrooge to the man who would give you the shirt off his back at the end of the movie. Yet not only does Michael Caine nail that arc beautifully, he does it while interacting with stuffed animals on sticks.

No, I didn't mean anything by "stuffed" Ms. Piggy... Please don't hit me!
No, I didn’t mean anything by “stuffed” Ms. Piggy… Please don’t hit me!

You need only watch the scene of Michael Caine pleading with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to see what I mean. “Tell me I can sponge out the writing on this stone!” is a plea that rings in my ears still, and I was completely convinced that Michael Caine was terrified in this scene, like he was being threatened with a gun off camera or something. It’s really that genuine, the only performance I’ve seen come close to this level is Patrick Stewart’s performance in the 1999 TV movie. Except Patrick Stewart doesn’t get to sing. Just watch Michael Caine’s performance in this scene and tell me that you’re not bawling like Rizzo at the end…

Which brings me to my final point.

1. The Songs

If there was one story that I thought could defy becoming a musical it would be A Christmas Carol, yet the songs in A Muppet Christmas Carol are so fitting that you’d think Charles Dickens wrote it with the Muppets in mind. Like some kind of time travelling wizard-author. Just listen to Scrooge’s intro:

Or Marley’s (and Marley’s) warning:

If that final plea of “Change!” doesn’t send shivers down your spine then you’re clearly some kind of invertebrate. Yet the crown jewel of this movie are undoubtedly this song:

It is the season of the Spirit,

The message if we hear it,

Is make it last all year!

This is the world Charles Dickens dreamed of people, we’re living it right here and now, and there’s no better way to remind yourself of that then by watching the Muppet Christmas Carol.

Merry Christmas Everyone!
Merry Christmas Everyone!
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Merry Christmas

Oh my, what’s this? It’s December 24th, which means either the Mayans are running a little late or they’ve delivered the most disappointing the apocalypse since… well every other doomsday prediction ever, really. Now it’s Christmas Eve and that means I get to write all the warm and fuzzy stuff I want, without explanation or apology. For some of my international readers it is already Christmas, so let me first wish them all a very merry Christmas and happy Holidays!

Seriously guys, it's not worth it!
And better luck next time Apocalyptists!

Now onto the main event. I know I usually talk about writing…and that’s exactly whats going to happen. Let’s talk Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.

Undoubtedly the most famous Christmas Story ever written, it is not only an excellent story but a prime example of how a good story can reach people on the most basic level. Prior to Dickens writing this novel, Christmas was a purely religious holiday, and was mostly confined to church services and small private celebrations. The hallmarks of Christmas that we all know an love now: the presents, the tree, the feasts, the charity, the gathering of family, that was all just something Dickens made up because that was what he thought Christmas should be. Scrooge isn’t just one man, Scrooge represents the greedy, cruel and careless world that Dickens grew up and lived in his entire life. In the hellish confines of 19th century London, child labor was abundant (Dickens worked in a shoe polish factory at the ripe old age of 12), and when they weren’t working on dangerous machinery they were being locked up with their parents in jail, and often dying with them there. Tiny Tim represented the plight of children in London at the time, they were sickly, suffering and dying…and no one seemed to care. The city had turned into Scrooge:

He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing,wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” – A Christmas Carol, Chapter 1 Marley’s Ghost

And it was crushing the life out of everyone. Well Dickens said fuck that, and wrote a story that changed the course of god damn history. Suddenly people, companies and even governments were giving to charitable organizations. Several laws came out immediately after publishing his story, improving safety and working conditions in factories, and finally outright banning child labor in 1867. Sure it took a long time to get to where we are now, but we got there.

“What are you talking about, John!? The world is falling apart!” Well to that I will leave you to the almost-as-handsome-as-me character Esposito from Castle to explain:

Or for those of you who have recently seen The Hobbit, Gandalf says something similar (paraphrasing): “I find it is the small things that keep evil at bay, the small kindnesses and love ordinary people show to each other.”

Yes there is still a lot of horror and cruelty in the world, as recent events have recently shown us, but often times we’re powerless to prevent much of what goes wrong in the world. I can’t single-handedly stop every single crime against humanity.  Recent events have shown us that if some madman wants to go out there and cause pain…there’s not a lot we can do to stop it. Instead of trying however, and throwing blame around, what we can do is share the joy in our lives with those around us, while we still can, lest we end up like the ghost of Jacob Marley. Most people know Marley has a chain, a chain he forged in life, but they forget what else he was supposed to do:

“”It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

He’s not just being punished for his evil deeds, but for his unwillingness to live his life, instead choosing to horde his wealth and remain locked in his house. The chain makes it more difficult for him to move, which means he will spend longer trying to enrich his spirit than a more benevolent, yet solitary, person might have to. What’s worse about this is that Marley has to go around experiencing all the joys he missed in life, but he can no longer take part, so all he can do is stare at the joy that was once available to him but now can no longer share. His one chance at redemption is to help Scrooge avoid the same fate by helping Scrooge break the chains that will bind him as well. The point is that whatever happened in his past to turn Scrooge into a bitter husk of a man is passed, and he has to move on. As the Ghost of Christmas Past says, “these are the shadows of the things that have been, that they are what they are, do not blame me.” The ghost might seem to be torturing Scrooge but that’s simply not the case, he is being given a golden opportunity here to look back at his life and recognize the mistakes he made with complete clarity and objectivity (the ghost is showing him how it was, no rose-tinted glasses for Scrooge). Neither the Ghost nor Scrooge can change what has already past, but Scrooge can learn from his mistakes. We rarely get the chance to make this retrospective look because often times the mistakes we make don’t seem like mistakes at the time. Then suddenly twenty years have passed and your left wondering how you ended up penniless and riddled with phlebitis! But, the point of this section isn’t simply that Scrooge wasted his opportunity, its that he can make up for the mistakes of his past, and as the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him, there are still opportunities to be had.

Come forth and know me better man!
Come forth and know me better man!

This is a great example of juxtaposition that I talked about earlier this year. Scrooge has just gone through a very painful emotional experience, and hitting him with another dour, melancholy ghost now would just dilute the impact of the previous ghost and make the last ghost redundant. Instead Scrooge gets to see people at their best, sharing the journey through the city celebrating Christmas with a spirit who is basically Santa Claus. I love this part of the book, especially the Spirit’s favorite catch phrase: “Come, and know me better man!” He’s not saying come and know me personally, after all his time on this Earth is very short. Instead he’s telling Scrooge “Come and experience joy for the first time. Come, and I will show you what you have been denying yourself.” That’s a powerful image, at least for me. Then after the happy go lucky times with Santa, we meet up with the grim reaper and it takes all of five seconds for Scrooge, the dour, flinty, hardnosed bastard, to be reduced to a quivering pile of thoroughly terrified flesh. The Past Ghost showed Scrooge what he’s missed, the Present Ghost shows him what could still be his, and the Future Ghost shows him what he will become if Scrooge refuses to change.

What I love about A Christmas Carol though, is the way in which Scrooge redeems himself. He doesn’t make any kind of huge changes to his life, he doesn’t give up all of his money and move into a monastery or turn his house into a giant orphanage. What does he do you ask?

He’s starts smiling.

Granted its not a very good smile, but its not bad for a first attempt.
Granted its not a very good smile, but its not bad for a first attempt.

He starts wishing random people on the street a Merry Christmas. He attends a Christmas dinner with his Nephew. He gives Bob Cratchit an annoymous turkey for and then surprises Bob at work the next day with news of a raise in his salary and an offer to help manage Bob’s finances. These aren’t huge changes like we’re used to seeing in feel good Christmas movies, like Rudolph going from a social outcast to legendary hero because of a freak storm, which makes it feel much more real and far more relatable. Big changes are hard, and take time. Everything Scrooge does, however, are a great example of how just a few easy to make changes can have a profound impact on your personality and life. In time Scrooge might make other changes in his life, but for the time we see him in the book (and his redemption is actually the shortest section of the novella), these seemingly tiny changes improve his quality of life to an immeasurable degree.

That’s the real lesson to take away from this timeless story, the obvious moral of the story is not be a hardnosed skinflint completely lacking in empathy, but the real lesson, the important moral, is that change starts small.

A smile, a good word, and a positive outlook can make all the difference in the world.

Now stop reading this and go have fun! A Merry Christmas to All!

Note: In case the pictures and video didn’t tip you off, I”m a huge fan of A Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s not only a fun, colorful and incredibly moving movie, but it is also one of the most faithful adaptations to the book I’ve seen thus far. Seriously, it’s a wonderful movie and you seriously need to watch it. If only to see Michael Caine sing.