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How Spirited Continues a Long Legacy of Christmas Carol Adaptations

6 minute read

Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds) is a media consultant who sells the public whatever image his client wants, unbothered by the pesky truth. He’s also being haunted by a series of ghosts—and he’s not having it. Mid-haunting, he interrupts the floating corpse of Jacob Marley (Patrick Page).

“I’m so sorry,” Briggs interjects. “I’m stuck on the first thing there—you said past, present, future—like A Christmas Carol, the Dickens story? The Bill Murray movie with Bobcat Goldthwait?”

“Yes, yes, like the Dickens book and the Bill Murray movie,” Marley replies with frustration. “And every other adaptation nobody asked for!”

This self-referential bit comes from Spirited—a musical comedy starring Reynolds, Page, Will Ferrell, Octavia Spencer, and Sunita Mani—which has its Apple TV+ streaming release on Nov. 18. It is the umpteenth retelling of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, a timeless story that has evolved through the centuries. This time, though, the classic tale is told from the perspectives of the ghosts, who select one corrupt soul to reform each year.

Read more: The Real Reason Charles Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol

And the new movie musical is in good company: The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 versions of A Christmas Carol, including a video game. Episodes of more than 20 TV shows have been inspired by the novella, and four opera and two ballet versions of the story exist. No fewer than three adaptations are due this season alone; in addition to Spirited, Netflix has an animated version voiced by Olivia Colman and Luke Evans due Dec. 2, and a version will be staged on Broadway beginning Nov. 21 with more than 50 roles played by actor Jefferson Mays.

A Christmas Carol has spawned countless iterations—perhaps because of its bent for redemption and faith in humanity. While the original is firmly rooted in the mid-19th century, its themes translate all too well into the modern day.

How Spirited channels A Christmas Carol

“It is not surprising that A Christmas Carol continues to catch the hearts of cultures founded on and unsettled by socio-economic inequality,” Tim Carens, the director of British Studies at the College of Charleston, told English department blog Folio in 2018.

“It is a melodramatic morality tale made for communities that can neither justify nor condemn the process through which a small minority extracts vast wealth from the labor of the many,” Carens continued. “Melodramas achieve catharsis by polarizing good and evil.”

In Spirited, that small minority is represented by the Briggs Media Group, which specializes in exploiting human laziness and desperation to sell products, images, candidates—you name it. The many, in one early scene, are depicted by the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers, struggling against the rise of artificial Christmas trees and same-day shipping.

Briggs takes the stage at a Christmas tree convention to con the trade group members into buying his exorbitant services—and manipulating their customers. “Every Facebook-loving Boomer wants to fight a culture war,” Briggs sings. “So tell your core consumer what the hell they’re fighting for: A fight for morality.”

In Briggs, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) finds his perfect Scrooge, a symbol of contemporary apathy, narcissism, individualism, and capitalism. The media consultant is an “unredeemable,” collectively deemed by the other ghosts as too far gone to be saved, but the Ghost of Christmas Present is determined.

What makes A Christmas Carol work

The themes and framework of A Christmas Carol fit neatly into the 21st century—as they have since the publication. Originally published on December 19, 1843, the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Since then, it has never gone out of print—largely because its examination of the haves versus the have nots has never become irrelevant.

Laurie Langbauer, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches the novella to her students.

“It’s persisted because it’s just such a good story by an excellent writer,” Langbauer told The Well. “Dickens was trying to capture quintessential questions about human fellowship that we’re still concerned with now.”

While the appetite for stories about humanity persists, so too will an audience for ghost stories. The Victorians associated Christmas, one of the longest nights of the year, with darkness and ghosts—which lent itself to magic and fairy tales.

Read more: How Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Changed the Way the Holiday Is Celebrated

“He caught that almost crystalline structure of the fairy tale that makes it easy to grasp,” Langbauer said of Dickens. “But infinitely malleable and important for what it captures about psychology as well as culture.”

For Langbauer, the je ne sais quoi of A Christmas Carol lies in the fact that—in the world Dickens builds—redemption remains possible for everyone. If even the most miserly, miserable of characters has the potential for change, then so too does the reader.

“We know that things will work out from the beginning with a narrator who’s genial, really avuncular, a kind of expansive narrator who makes jokes and has a worldview that tells us this is a world in which people are sometimes not kind, but kindness is still the most important thing,” Langbauer said. “People want to continue to believe that they live in that kind of world, especially during the dark days each year.”

Other notable versions of A Christmas Carol

For 179 years now, A Christmas Carol has captivated the public: Upon publishing, it was widely plagiarized in print, which embroiled Dickens in a long-drawn legal battle. Almost immediately, too, the story was adapted into unauthorized stage productions.

The simple structure of the narrative allowed for it to be adapted endlessly—including onstage. Ray Dooley, a professor emeritus of acting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has performed multiple times in theatrical versions of the story. (Dickens himself staged more than 150 performances of the text.)

“You can paint the house any color you want, but the house is always going to be there,” Dooley said. “You can do most anything with it, and the foundation will support you, and result in some delightful alternatives.”

Centuries later, many may not have actually read the original text itself—but they very well may have seen the 1988 film Scrooged with Bill Murray, or The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992, or Home Alone, in which a Scrooge figure (Old Man Marley) has a change of heart inspired by a young boy in danger (Kevin)—not unlike Tiny Tim.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas is just a ‘Seussified’ version of the tale featuring an embittered, exploitative old man who undergoes an epiphany,” said Carens. “Learning the ‘true spirit’ of Christmas and embracing its ethos of giving rather than grasping.”

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