My Christmas Carol story
It is 1980. I'm in college. I'm taking a drama class. The class is taught by a guy in the drama department. When he's not teaching drama, he designs sets for the productions of whatever play the school is doing. Which means, in addition to attending classes, the class is required to attend all productions, so that they may then praise the instructor's work the following Monday.
I suffer through well-mounted, boring-as-all-get-out productions of The Shadow Box, The Country Wife and What the Butler Saw. The last production of the semester is an adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol, as it happens, is my favorite Christmas story. (#2 is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, #3 is It's a Wonderful Life. The story of the baby Jesus doesn't make my list.) Even by the age of 19, I've seen a fair number of adaptations, on stage and screen, and I know the story pretty well.
The adaptation I'm watching this particular evening in 1980, I can tell right away there's something not quite right about it. As with most college productions, the sets and costumes and effects are expensive and creative, the direction is general and the acting is, to put it mildly, big. But all right, I figure Dickens will somehow withstand a college production of his immortal classic. Beyond that, though, there's something off about the script itself: the characters aren't speaking Dickens, they're speaking some kind of fake, smoothed-over approximation of Dickens. Which, again, Dickens has survived Mister Magoo, he'll survive this weak-tea adaptation.
Then, as the play draws near its close, a terrible thing happens. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows up in order to open a can of whupass on Scrooge, and something is terribly, terribly wrong. The Ghost enters, stage left, and points an accusing finger at Scrooge. The stage direction is fine, but the Ghost is all wrong. First of all, he's a head shorter than Scrooge. Second, his hood doesn't conceal his face: instead, he's got a black stocking pulled over his head, a stocking with doesn't actually conceal his face as much as it draws attention to it. So there's a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, one of the most terrifying spectres of English literature, and he's shorter than Scrooge and you can see his face all mushed up behind the stocking on his head.
Then there's his accusing finger. His accusing finger is at the end of a skeletal prop hand. The prop hand has been expensively engineered so that it's articulated, which means that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can flex it. Now, if you love A Christmas Carol, you know that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come doesn't need to flex his skeletal hand -- all he does is point at things. All decent productions of A Christmas Carol recognize this. Bob Zemeckis understands this -- the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the new movie points at things so much, and so often, my daughter Kit declared that she was going to call him "The Pointer." By giving the actor an articulated prop skeletal hand to flex, the production has guaranteed that there will be a lot of skeletal hand-flexing. This prop skeletal hand has nothing to do with the character, and nothing to do with the story or the scene, and has everything to do with the prop designers calling attention to themselves, and, following that, the actor playing the Ghost calling attention to himself.
But that's not the horrible part. The production would be boring and laughable up to this point, but it's about to dash past that to the truly horrible. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a full head shorter than Scrooge, points his articulated skeletal prop hand up at Scrooge, and then talks. "Ebenezer Scroooooooooooge," the Ghost intones, and then goes on to converse and declaim throughout the sequence.
I can't honestly remember anything the Ghost says beyond that first "Ebenezer Scroooooooooooooge," because at that point my brain exploded. I was thrust down into a pit of madness and anxiety. You can do a lot of things to A Christmas Carol, you can cast Kermit the Frog or Scrooge McDuck or R2-D2 in A Christmas Carol, you can make Scrooge a TV executive or a bachelor Lothario or Susan Lucci, and the story will still more-or-less work. But the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does not speak.
Dickens declares quite plainly that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does not speak. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come cannot speak. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is The Future, and The Future is unknowable. If the Future drops by and starts yakking about this and that, it's no longer mysterious and frightening, it's pedantic and gossipy. Having the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come speak drives a stake through the heart of A Christmas Carol. The whole point of the scene is that Scrooge keeps asking "Is this real? Is this my future? Are these the shadows of things that will be, or things that might be?" and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come DOESN'T SAY ANYTHING. That's not just the whole point of the character, it's the whole point of the story: Scrooge must change his ways without knowing if the change will affect anything, otherwise the story has no teeth to it. If someone comes to you and says "You must change your ways, or else you will die, and I have the proof," you say "Well then, I guess I'd better change my ways." If someone comes to you and says "You will die, and everyone will hate you, and I'm not even going to tell you if changing will do any good or not," then your change requires a leap of faith, which is what A Christmas Carol is all about.
Now, bad as this is, it gets worse. It's not just that the actor playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a head shorter than Scrooge, and it's not just that his face is visible, smushed up under his black stocking, and it's not just that he's relentlessly showing off with his articulated skeletal prop hand, and it's not just that he's talking, which the Ghost should never do. No, on top of all this offense, his voice is terrible. His voice is this high-pitched nasal whine, he sounds like a six-year-old girl pretending to be a menacing robot, he's as frightening as a mosquito and decidedly less deadly. His voice is a nail down a blackboard, his voice is an off-key piccolo trumpet, his voice is a dentist's drill. And somewhere in there he guides Scrooge through his horrifying future, but I can't pay attention to any of it, I'm crawling out of my skin listening to this actor with his smushed-up stocking face ruin A Christmas Carol with his pinched, keening whine.
By Monday, my blood is boiling. I cannot wait to get to drama class, to speak my piece about this atrocity. I take my seat in the auditorium and the professor comes in. I feel like I have nothing to fear, the professor only designed the sets, I had no trouble with the sets, we can talk about the sets all day as far as I'm concerned, but by God, I'm not going to let this Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come debacle pass without comment.
The professor comes out, all perky and upbeat about the class. He says to the class "So, what did you guys think about A Christmas Carol?" I thrust my hand in the air. A bunch of other students do likewise. The professor calls on the student in front of me, a preppy girl in a sweater and hairband. She puts on her best apple-polisher smile and says "I really loved the actor who played the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he was really effective." And the professor beams with pride and says "Wasn't he marvelous? We cast him because he had such a great voice."