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December 20, 2016

Why the Dickens Is it Always A Christmas Carol?

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: — Matthew Soberman @ 12:49 pm

Some stories have become emblematic of the Christmas season, from the story of a loathsome green yuletide burglar with an uncanny knack for rhyme, to a boy determined to get his hands on a firearm while his father becomes enamored with a lamp. But perhaps the most recognizable Christmas story of all – you know, besides the one involving a virgin, a manger and a small handful of Wise Men – is likely to be Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.

Since its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol has been adapted to virtually all media, from stage to radio to film and to television, with a wide variety of interpretation.  Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by the likes of Alistair Sim, Bill Murray, Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Magoo. And unsurprisingly, Jim Henson’s characters have done their take too. From The Muppet Christmas Carol to A Special Sesame Street Christmas to Muppet Magazine’s “A (Sort of) Christmas Carol” to A Sesame Street Christmas Carol to the December illustration in The Sesame Street Storytime Calendar 1982 to A Very Muppet Christmas‘ “Yet Another Christmas Carol,” the Muppets have had their fair share of ventures into Dickens’ iconic tale, with the role of Scrooge being played by Michael Caine… and Oscar the Grouch… and Sam the Eagle… and Oscar the Grouch… and Statler… and Oscar the Grouch. So the big question is this: Just why are there so many Muppet versions of A Christmas Carol? (I guess songs about rainbows will have to be discussed another time.)

Naturally, because I’ve brought up the question (and because Joe and Ryan tend to frown on articles that are only a paragraph long), I happen to have a few theories of my own. First of all, it’s a broad story. The message is broad enough that anyone can use their own setting and characters (as long as they stay close to the characterization Dickens provides) and make it a unique twist on a well-known concept. But why the Muppets specifically? Well, I think it all begins where you would expect to begin: with Doc Hopper.

Pictured: Doc Hopper as Santa in the Hallmark Channel movie “A Boyfriend for Christmas”. It’s the closest we can come to Doc Hopper as Scrooge.

So what does The Muppet Movie’s main villain have to do with Ebenezer Scrooge? It all goes back to the film’s climactic scene. You all must know it by heart by now: Kermit the Frog stands toe-to-toe with Hopper in that ghost town, and faced with an army of hired thugs, Kermit says something that speaks to the core of the Muppet idea: “I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc. And I think if you look in your heart, you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go, to follow our dream.”

This scene was actually a point of contention in the development of the film, according to Brian Jay Jones’ account in Jim Henson: The Biography. Jim Henson believed that in the course of the film, Hopper deserved to have been redeemed. Henson said later, “Even the most worldly of our characters is innocent… our villains are innocent, really—and it’s that innocence, I think, that is our connection to the audience.”

Ebenezer Scrooge is really an archetype of a villain redeemed. Over the course of one night, Scrooge manages to gain perspective on his past, examine the present, and understand the course his actions will take in the future, turning him from a miser to a fountain of generosity. We see laid plain the choice we all face: be selfish, and know that it will give you nothing beyond what you physically accumulate, or be giving, and find that it will come back to you in the form of friendship, kindness, and love.

It also teaches us that it’s never too late to redeem yourself. We all, if we choose it, can be like Scrooge and learn to love and to give. It’s also a message that comes from the beloved creator of the Muppets himself: “Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody.” And forgiving yourself is a big part of keeping that idea. It’s a part of the Muppets’ spirit, and it’s a part of the spirit (no pun intended) of A Christmas Carol.

So now that we’ve covered the big picture, let’s get into one of the small details: just why does every Sesame Street interpretation of A Christmas Carol cast Oscar the Grouch as Scrooge? (No, literally, he’s always Scrooge; if you need to, take a moment and check Muppet Wiki and see for yourself.) Personally, I think it comes down to how Caroll Spinney has shaped the character of Oscar. He’s a lot like Scrooge at the beginning of the story, resentful of the overly cheery atmosphere around him, using grumpiness as a means of resistance. But even though he is generally downright grouchy, he always has a soft spot for a neighbor/friend that’s hurting or in need. Beneath the gruff exterior, there is that small bit of goodness that he lets out now and then.

It’s that small kernel of kindness, like the one Scrooge feels for Tiny Tim, which allows the lessons he is presented over the course of the night to truly sink in. We love Oscar not just because he’s grouchy and provides an antithesis to the other, more generally sunny-dispositioned characters, but because even he learns the lessons of compassion that are taught on the Street on a regular basis. And if a total grouch is capable of redemption, then anyone can be.

The idea of redemption and forgiveness are core to the Muppets’ overall message, which is why A Christmas Carol makes for such an attractive candidate for repeatedly reinterpreting again and again. The meaning is timeless, and generally, in contrast to the somewhat materialistic messages drummed into our brains every holiday season, it’s an important idea to remind people of. The story proves to us that anyone can be saved if they let love and kindness into their hearts and show it to everyone they can. And if enough people can do that, the world will eventually be a better place. Jim once said, “My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” A Christmas Carol and the Muppets teach us that it’s never too late to start making the world a better place. And that’s no humbug.

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by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com

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