What the Dickens?

By Neil Earle

One of the bestsellers of this season is Les Standiford’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (Crown Publishers, $19.95).

It’s all about how writer Charles Dickens found himself in a creative stall and a debt crisis about 1843. He needed to come up with something quick to feed his family, save his career and avoid his father’s shameful fate of going to debtor’s prison, an event that haunted the young Englishman.

The biography comes at a particularly serendipitous time for our local Glendora Church Drama Group as we are working our way through “Scrooge Unplugged,” a short play based on Dickens’ seasonal favorite. Channel 224 has already shown “Scrooge,” a 1970 remake of the 1951 Alistair Sims gem which scared me to death when I was young.

In the past five weeks it’s been fun exposing our seven young child actors to this delicious roast beef of a book compete with vivid characters buffed up for the new generation – Xmas Future is a Darth Vader figure, the Fog Machine really helps revive 1800s London, songs are scattered throughout to keep the audience involved.

I enjoyed being forced to read the original this summer in preparation and found myself admiring the novella’s structure, fine pacing, vivid personalities (Marley’s Ghost, Old Fezziwig) and the one obvious reason why churches should be fascinated with Dickens’ signature work. That reason is as plain as the “Humbug” on page one. It is, simply put, repentance. A Christmas Carol is a vivid portrait of real repentance, perhaps one of the most unforgettable in English Literature. No matter how many times we see it, it still has power to move us. Scrooge moves from uncompassionate conservatism (“Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?”) to Xmas morning glory providing a goose as big as Tiny Tim for the struggling Cratchit family who at least lived long enough ago to escape the sub-prime market collapse.

During the 20 minutes I spent at Universal Studio studying screenwriting in 1997 we were taken through the structure of a movie plot, how there must be clear sequence of minor crisis until we get the Transforming Moment (if indeed it ever comes, otherwise you’ve moved from melodrama to tragedy). Our instructor simplified this by showing how in most American-based movies the character must arc. Transformation or Lesson Learned – this is seen as the ideal goal for the movie, play, or novel. Else there is no redeeming moral purpose, no reason to shell out our $10 or whatever.

The adults in our play are from all over the USA and some have never been exposed to Dickens before. But being sincere Christians they all get the point. Repentance adds fiber and meaning to the drama of life. Some of them made the connection between Scrooge and another home-grown tale of vivid transformation courtesy of Frank Capra. I’m talking about Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946). This movie has haunted me since I came home that day this July to hear my neighbors in our complex warn my wife, Susan, and I about the bank down the street collapsing. That being a weekend we couldn’t do much about it but I reacted fairly calmly, considering, trusting in God and the FDIC.

The Bible and Christianity in general has left such a mark on Western culture, which includes Western drama, that we simply must see some morally redeeming reason for watching this stuff. Viewing again the fast-paced ending of “Wonderful Life” this weekend on YouTube I was struck by how the Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey character – catching a vivid glimpse of the real value of his life, wife and family – returns to the bridge outside Bedford Falls and not only cries out to the incompetent angel Clarence but actually prays to God himself, “God. Please. Give me my life back.”

Repentance. Moral transformation. Life lesson learned. Call it “Capra-corn” if you want, mark it up to cliché if you will, but there are reasons why Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey continue to haunt us all these years. “A man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.” “We took nothing into this world and we can take nothing out.” That’s from a book that’s been around a lot longer even then A Christmas Carol and one that can speak to us even more in this financially-stressed, debt-ridden winter of 2008.