Hollywood bidding war over Christmas Carol

Scrooges old and new: clockwise from top left: Disney 2009, Muppets, Ice Cube, Scrooge McDuck.

Universal Pictures has won a four-studio battle over the rights to Humbug, and has cast Ice Cube to star as Scrooge. What can today’s audiences learn from Dickens’s Victorian story?

Since the first silent adaptation in 1901, Ebenezer Scrooge has appeared in 22 films. He has been a duck; surrounded by muppets; and the star of a musical. He has been played by Patrick Stewart, Jim Carey and Laurence Olivier. Now, after Universal paid ‘high six figures’ for the latest screenplay, the mantle will pass to the American rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube.

In the 170 years since he wrote it, Charles Dickens’s book has not once been out of print. What’s the secret to A Christmas Carol’s continuing popularity?

The novella drew attention to the crushing poverty prevalent in Victorian England. The 1834 Poor Laws meant that many Victorian families had to resort to workhouses, where the destitute received basic board and lodging in return for labour. At the time, they were often accused of being poor because they didn’t want to work. Dickens turned these arguments on their heads: it was the rich who were failing to look after the poorest people.

Wide inequalities still exist in Britain: according to Oxfam, over 13 million British people live in poverty while the richest 1% are getting a greater share of wealth. In Humbug, Ice Cube will play a modern real-estate mogul; there are plenty of modern-day Scrooges putting profit before people.

After A Christmas Carol was published, Victorian Britain saw a burst of charitable giving. The story is laden with moral messages of the value of generosity. The rich must help the poor, and Christmas cheer must overcome Scrooge’s ‘Bah Humbug!’ attitude. For many, Scrooge remains a symbol of redemption. If such a villain can be transformed, maybe deep down anyone can.

The book is also a literary classic in its own right. Dickens’s strong characters, rich descriptions, and the vivid image of Scrooge visited by ghosts while still in his nightgown all bring the themes to life.

Ebenizer Cube?

Many will argue that modern audiences should come away from Humbug hopeful about humanity. Although Scrooge begins as a greedy and selfish person, he reflects on his life, and abandons his old ways to become charitable and sociable. We are used to hearing about self-help and celebrity reinvention, and A Christmas Carol should inspire us with the power of redemption.

Or perhaps the message of A Christmas Carol is darker and more ominous. Its happy ending glosses over the underlying warning about the dangers of materialism. Modern advertising and popular culture promote Scrooge-like greed and selfishness, while inequality and poverty are still rife. We should come away wary of falling into their trap.

You Decide

  1. Are you a Scrooge or a Cratchit?
  2. Can literature change the world?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were making a modern-day Christmas Carol, where would you set it? And who would be Scrooge?
  2. Research the differences between life for poor people in Victorian Britain and now. Write an essay discussing what the most significant change has been.

Some People Say...

“It is human nature to be selfish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s a book about the Victorians got to do with me?
The Victorian lives that Dickens describes have a lot to do with how we live now. The harsh conditions of the workhouses led people to campaign for the welfare state we have today, creating the NHS, National Insurance and pensions, among other things. Dickens’s books were not just about the Victorians, they touch on universal themes of poverty, inequality and social justice that we are still grappling with today.
Didn’t we get rid of the workhouses? Why is there still a problem?
Although workhouses are gone, many British people are forced to live on very little income, and more and more are relying on food banks to make ends meet. Changes to the benefits system have made many worry about the future of the welfare state.

Word Watch

The Poor Laws
In 1834 the government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, which was supposed to reduce the cost of looking after the poor. People could no longer ask the government for help in the form of poor relief except in exceptional circumstances, and many people had to go to the workhouses to survive.
Workhouses
Workhouses provided food and drink to people in exchange for long hours of gruelling work. Conditions were intentionally bad: families were split up, discipline was harsh, and many remained in workhouses until they died.
Wide inequalities
The richest 10% of UK households hold 44% of all wealth, while the poorest 50% own just 9.5%, according to The Equality Trust.
Mogul
A mogul is an entrepreneur or investor of great influence or wealth. American figures like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and Australian born Rupert Murdoch have, for some, become business magnates to be emulated.
Materialism
The belief which tends to be encouraged by consumer culture that tangible possessions and physical comfort are more important than spiritual values. Often contrasted with idealism.

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