by Chris Dobson

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843; 176 years later, his "ghost story of Christmas", as it is subtitled, remains just as popular, with innumerable adaptations.

This December, for instance, there are not only family-friendly productions at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and Pitlochry Festival Theatre, but the BBC is showing a three-part, gritty adaptation by Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders.

It’s worth pausing to consider why A Christmas Carol remains so popular. Ever since its initial release, when it quickly sold out, it has been near universally praised, with theatrical adaptations and plagiarisations quickly springing up. As Paul Davis writes in The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge: "All of Dickens’ works have been adapted and altered", but "none has been retold more than the Carol. It has been adapted, revised, condensed, retold, reoriginated and modernised more than any other work of English literature."

The dawn of cinema spelled a new era for the adaptability of A Christmas Carol, ushering in famous and much-loved performances from Alastair Sim (Scrooge, 1951) to Jim Carrey (A Christmas Carol, 2009).

Dickens was only 31 when A Christmas Carol was published, and he was already famous following the success of other classics such as Oliver Twist. Despite commercial success, Dickens struggled financially, especially after taking to court the plagiarisers of his work. Nonetheless, publishers were keen to milk Dickens’ creativity for all it was worth, and from 1844 to 1848 Dickens pumped out more festive tales, from The Chimes (a "goblin story") to The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. None of these works managed to recapture the magic of Dickens’ original Christmas tale, however, and few people nowadays will have even heard of them.

In 2017, director Bharat Nalluri turned Les Standiford’s book The Man Who Invented Christmas into a film, with Dan Stevens as the supposed inventor of Christmas, Charles Dickens. Of course, Dickens didn’t actually "invent" Christmas, which had existed for centuries, if not millennia in some form. He did, however, revitalise the urban populace’s interest in Christmas, which had hitherto mostly been a rural tradition.

The custom of plonking a tree inside one’s house for Christmas, meanwhile, goes back to 16th century Germany, although this did not catch on in Britain until the early 19th century. But in Scotland, where Yule only became a public holiday in 1958, Christmas trees would have been few and far between in the 19th century, something hard to imagine nowadays, as the Scottish capital continues to morph year by year into one big German Christmas market.

Dickens, however, was very popular in Victorian Scotland, and legend has it that it was during a trip to Edinburgh that the English novelist caught sight of a gravestone belonging to one Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie. (What is it with English writers and their pinching of dead Scots’ names for their books? I’m looking at you, JK Rowling.) Apparently Dickens mistook "meal man" (referring to Scroggie’s profession as a corn merchant) on the grave for "mean man", which created in him the spark of inspiration that would result in Ebenezer Scrooge, the grump who was hating Christmas long before the Grinch was even born.

For the sake of extraterrestrial visitors unfamiliar with the story of A Christmas Carol, I’ll briefly summarise: Scrooge is essentially a fanboy of survival-of-the-fittest capitalism with a penchant for top hats and an extreme dislike for all things festive and fun. In part, his misanthropy stems from him getting dumped by the love of his life, but luckily for him the spirits of the dead are so loathe to have his miserable presence among them, they resolve to reform his character in the space of one night. The next day, Scrooge is so blithe and merry it leads some people to suspect he has gone barmy. For instance, we are told by Dickens that Bob Cratchit is so taken aback by his boss’s transformation that he "had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down […]; holding him; and calling to the people in the court for help and a straight-waistcoast." What an alternate ending that would have been.

Although Dickens’ influence is obvious on films such as Scrooged, the 1988 movie starring Bill Murray as the unpleasant TV executive Frank Cross, he’s also had an indirect effect on many other works. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance, stars a Scrooge-like character in the form of the heartless Henry F Potter, played with glee by Lionel Barrymore, who was chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest screen villains. There are even parallels between A Christmas Carol and Star Wars; Darth Vader, after all, is about as villainous as it is possible to be, merrily blowing up planets for the hell of it, but one moment of benevolence at the end of his life (saving his son Luke from the evil Emperor Palpatine) is apparently enough to redeem him.

Dickens also ushered in another popular tradition: the Christmas special. We’ve grown accustomed to festive episodes of our favourite TV shows, from Gavin and Stacey to Doctor Who, but Dickens was the first to use the religious frame of Christmas for a secular work of fiction. Since then, there have been so many books, films and plays made about Christmas, it would be impossible to list them all. The most recent example is the just-released movie Last Christmas, which was co-written by Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, and stars Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke as a cynic who is transformed by the power of love. That’s not a spoiler: it’s in the trailer and it’s more or less the plot of every Christmas movie ever made, with the exception perhaps of the Home Alone franchise.

Of all the adaptations of A Christmas Carol, in my view it is the 1992 Muppets’ version which is closest in spirit to Dickens’ novel, although I’m somewhat biased, as I grew up watching it every year during the holidays. True, the film takes a few liberties with the original text, not least by having the Great Gonzo portray Dickens, but in terms of raw emotional power, it is just as effective. Michael Caine is masterful as Scrooge and the songs are, for the most part, great, especially the opening number.

The question of which is the best adaptation will always be a matter of personal opinion, however. As Paul Davis has argued, "A Christmas Carol was Dickens’ Christmas gift to the nation. The British people took the gift and made it their own." It is now a part of our collective consciousness, a folk tale just as deeply ingrained as anything penned by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.

Dickens wanted to write something which would appeal both to his bourgeois readership and to the working class audiences of its theatrical adaptations; in this aim, he certainly succeeded. A Christmas Carol unifies people in divided times, bringing them together for Christmas Day. As each generation discovers the story of grumpy old Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts, they reinvent it anew. For some young theatre-goers in Pitlochry and Edinburgh, for instance, the productions of Isobel McArthur and Tony Cownie respectively will be their favourite A Christmas Carol evermore.

Ultimately though, nothing can beat the original A Christmas Carol. At only 100 or so pages, it’s a quick read, characterised throughout by Dickens’ trademark wit, with a nice balance of the spooky and the sentimental. For instance, when Scrooge encounters the ghost of his ex-business partner, Jacob Marley, he remarks: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Whether you’ve read it before or it’s your first encounter with the inimitable Boz (as Dickens was affectionately known in his time), it’s sure to put you in a festive mood.