Emma Curry, ‘A blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat?’: A Muppets Chritsmas Carol
Emma Curry is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and recently submitted her thesis, titled ‘Language and the Fragmented Body in the Novels of Charles Dickens’. Over the past eighteen months Emma has also been coordinating the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project, a Twitter-based adaption of Dickens’s final completed novel. You can follow her on Twitter here: @EmmaLCurry
2012 has been a fascinating year for Dickens on screen. From Gwyneth Hughes’s Mystery of Edwin Drood (carried on from Dickens’s half-finished manuscript with a newly-written, brilliantly satisfying ending) to the BBC’s daytime modern reimagining of Nicholas Nickleby; from Sarah Phelps’s beautifully stylised, haunting version of Great Expectations last Christmas to David Nicholls’s more ponderous, reverent film adaptation this autumn; Dickens’s sympathies with the screen, most notoriously noted by film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, have been abundantly clear. In light of this, conversation has turned in various media throughout the year to the big question: which adaptation can be considered the ‘best’ of all time? Is it David Lean’s highly-regarded post-war Great Expectations? Or the BBC’s soap opera-style serialisation of Bleak House in 2005? Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!? Or Roman Polanski’s gritty remake?
I’d like to put forward the case for my personal favourite, which I think trumps all of the above: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Yes, I’m serious. And no, I’m not suffering from the effects of too much mulled wine. Judging the quality of an adaptation depends of course on some highly subjective and highly contentious criteria. But lend me your (festive) ear, and I’ll try to convince you of my choice. For capturing the spirit of the text, for faithfully rendering Dickens’s rich, vibrant prose, and for sheer joy and enthusiasm, the Muppets win every time.
Scrooge: Any adaptation of A Christmas Carol rests heavily on its leading actor. Scrooge needs to move from ‘covetous old sinner’ at the beginning of the tale to jolly and genial master at the end, with each state remaining believable despite the relative speed of his transformation. In The Muppet Christmas Carol Michael Caine achieves this brilliantly. His terror of the final, hooded spirit, his devastated weeping at his own graveside, and his joy at finding himself returned home in the closing scenes are all particularly convincingly portrayed. But it is his fantastically dramatic entrance at the beginning of the film that for me outshines all other versions of this story, as he grimly stalks through the streets ‘warning all human sympathy to keep its distance’, capturing the essence of Scrooge in that curt stomping before his face has even been revealed.
Scrooge’s first entrance:
Dickens: Many illustrious actors have played the man himself on screen, from Simon Callow, Derek Jacobi, and Anthony Hopkins to Ralph Fiennes in the forthcoming adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman. But to have the Great Gonzo as Dickens here is a masterful touch, allowing much of the tale’s original text to be inserted into the film as narration, whilst also capturing some of Dickens’s showmanship, vivacity, and self-importance (something I feel can be lost in contemporary perceptions of him). Rizzo the Rat also makes a great foil, providing humorous asides and contemporary commentary on the text (including my personal favourite: ‘Boy, that’s scary stuff – should we be worried about the kids in the audience?’ ‘Nah it’s alright, this is culture.’). The depiction of the problems of narration is also a hilarious and interesting touch: whilst Dickens wrote in Barnaby Rudge of how ‘chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind’, here Gonzo and Rizzo frequently have to resort to looking through windows, rushing through closing doors, and hitching lifts to keep up with the story. Such an addition, although largely for comic purposes, pushes us to think about the relationship between teller and tale, something Dickens would later come to interrogate in David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
London: Dickens’s eye for the details of a scene has been repeatedly commented upon in criticism, and his descriptions of London frequently emphasise the minutiae: the foggy cityscape at the opening of Bleak House famously roves up and down huge stretches of the Thames yet simultaneously takes in the splashes of mud on a horse’s blinkers and the freezing fingers of a ‘’prentice boy’ on board a ship. The sweeping opening vista of the Muppets’ Carol captures this richness in its similar split between scope and detail, showing the vastness of the city yet picking out the individuals living in these cramped, ramshackle buildings.
Sentiment vs. Scares: Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist of his belief in the ‘streaky bacon’ style of entertainment in which tragic and comic elements are alternated between scenes. The joviality and exuberance of the Muppet characters perfectly capture the humorous portions of the Carol (indeed, I feel it’s not immediately obvious who has written Scrooge’s ‘there’s more of gravy than of grave about you’ pun); but the darker scenes are also by no means diluted despite the young intended audience (Gonzo and Rizzo scarper at the end due to how scary things get, and as a child I remember I used to fast-forward this particular scene). Tiny Tim, who usually causes groans of dismay from many cynics, in frog form is able to capture Dickens’s sentimental intentions without becoming overly sickening, whilst the brief, heart-breaking shot of poor Bean Bunny shivering in his makeshift shelter behind the bins powerfully hits home Dickens’s social message.
Supporting Characters: Much as Dickens loved an anthropomorphic animal (see Grip the raven in Barnaby Rudge, based on his own pet bird, or ‘Eddard’ the donkey in Our Mutual Friend), of course there are no Muppet-style creatures in the original Christmas Carol. However, what Jim Henson’s fantastic creations capture perfectly is Dickens’s interest in the ludicrous and absurd details of seemingly everyday appearances – in the Carol alone he points out Fezziwig, who ‘laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence’, later a ‘great fat man with a monstrous chin’ and, even more peculiarly, ‘a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock’. In their embellished, cartoonish appearances, the Muppets perfectly encapsulate this mixture of the human and the bizarre.
If you’re searching for festive Dickensian fun, then, I advise you to look no further than this film. For me, it covers everything I’m looking for in an adaptation: it’s energetic, imaginative, and detailed; it takes a palpable joy in the language and in the story; and it’s faithful without being overly reverent. The film’s self-awareness is both hilarious and heartening, and it doesn’t claim to be the definitive version of the story: indeed, as Gonzo comments at the end, ‘if you liked this, you should read the book.’ Once Dickens had got over the surprise of seeing himself in blue furry form, I think he’d have loved this film’s role in introducing his work to younger generations, and taken delight in the continued resonance of his words and ideas nearly 170 years on. So join me in whipping out the DVD (or dusty VHS), cracking open the mince pies and indulging in this festive adaptation. After all, there’s only *a few* more sleeps ’til Christmas…
‘One more sleep ’til Christmas’
All images The Muppet Christmas Carol, Copyright © 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures.
 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and other Christmas Books, ed. by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford: OUP, 2006), p.10.
 Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, ed. by Clive Hurst (Oxford: OUP, 2003), p.79.
 Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed. by Stephen Gill (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p.11.
 Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. by Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p.129.
 A Christmas Carol, p.21.
 A Christmas Carol, p. 34; p. 64.