Charles Dickens, some say, invented Christmas - at least as we celebrate it today. The stories he wrote about the season exult in hearth and home: the simple joys of family and friends, the delicious treats of the season. The deeper theme of redemption, though, lies at the heart of his vision of Christmas, particularly in his most popular tale, "A Christmas Carol" (1843).
A smart new version hits the small screen Sunday with English actor Patrick Stewart (of "Star Trek" fame) starring as Ebenezer Scrooge (TNT, Dec. 5, 8-10 p.m., and repeated throughout the month). It makes a fine addition to a long list of stage and screen adaptations, from cartoons like "An All Dogs Christmas Carol" and updated interpretations like Henry Winkler's "An American Christmas Carol," to the masterpiece of them all, Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film "A Christmas Carol."
Filmmakers and theatrical directors have drawn inspiration from Dickens's tale, stamping it with their own social or aesthetic perspectives.
"It's such a great story, people want to make it their own," says Joel Brattin, a professor at the Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, which houses the unique Fellman collection of Dickens's books and papers. "But it throws his work into brighter light when you see how they shade it."
The story about the reformation of a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future rings true for many because it can be seen as either a secular or religious parable (there are several references to the Christian tradition in Dickens's original story), depending on how it's played.
But in either case, Scrooge's reclamation is toward community. "Love your fellow man as Christ loved you," says Laurie Rozakis of the State University of New York in Farmingdale, paraphrasing the Bible. "One of the hallmarks of this story is that you can read several dimensions of meaning [into it] because of the richness of its prose. It will endure because it has depth and texture."
To many Dickens scholars, Mr. Sim's performance as Scrooge seems closest to Dickens's own intentions. This version is slightly more gothic, with exaggerated dark shadows, ghostly music, and a creepy tone through much of the story, which is meant to reflect Scrooge's own cramped, dark state of mind. But bursts of light break through the shadows at the Cratchit household, at Fezziwig's ball, and at the home of Scrooge's nephew. On that bright Christmas morning - after Scrooge's long night with the ghosts of conscience - he experiences love and joy for the first time in many years.
"Sim had this extraordinary ability to present the bizarre and grotesque and yet show a heart at work underneath," says Mr. Stewart of his predecessor. "His transformation scene is one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting of that time."
Stewart's performance is also quite distinguished. Though staying within the bounds of Dickens tradition, he plays Scrooge as a more ordinary middle-aged businessman, cold-hearted and avaricious, but not eccentric. An honest-to- Dickens script is a fine start, and though the production itself is uneven, we can easily see a discerning intelligence behind Stewart's interpretation. He knows Scrooge, all right.
He should. Stewart has a long association with the story, having performed it as a one-man show on stage for 15 years in theaters across the United States, including three times on Broadway. He also produced an audio version. In doing so, Stewart continued Dickens's own tradition of one-man performances of the work.
Indeed, the original story is consummately theatrical. "A Christmas Carol" is produced on stages across the country every year. Betsy Shevey of Lehman College, City University of New York, wrote an adaptation called "A New York Christmas Carol" that features a Latino cast who mambos at Fezziwig's ball, a Scrooge who is up from the projects, and a moral about the individual's responsibility to community.
David Bell of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta puts a multiracial cast on stage to tell the story, each actor taking several roles. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago also offers colorblind casting.
Director Laird Williamson's highly atmospheric, energetic, and warm version at the Denver Center Theatre Company is meant as a solstice celebration.
Each of these directors emphasizes different elements, but together they form a pattern of meaning.
"In Dickens, you usually begin with children deprived of the comforts of love [as in 'David Copperfield' or 'Oliver Twist']," Professor Shevey says. "But in 'A Christmas Carol,' Dickens makes the journey backward - a crusty old man, a person in power, has to go back into the past to find the child within."
"There's such a positive force embodied in Dickens's story," says Mr. Williamson. "There's a lot of greed around right now, and when greed takes over at the expense of compassion for our fellow man, social values like community, charity, and even the savoring of life, there is a great danger to the individual and to the whole society."
Dickens saw something he needed to confront in industrial society, Mr. Brattin says. "He wrote ['Carol'] with a larger purpose in mind - to make a contribution to the social good.... When Scrooge contributes to the social good, it brings him to life...."
One of the appealing aspects of the story is that Scrooge doesn't have to change his profession to be a better man. He improves life for others while staying in his current position.
"We like to see that possibility in ourselves as well as in Scrooge," says director Henry Godinez at The Goodman Theatre. "We can change, we can transform.... It's never too late."
"We have a moral imperative to be just," agrees the Alliance Theatre's Bell. "There is something in the story itself that fulfills a promise of regeneration, redemption, the spiritual covenant with others. I watch the faces of audiences leaving the show, and I see them steeling themselves with resolve to be better."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society