Jesse Kornbluth and Paige Peterson decided to update “A Christmas Carol.” This is what they did.
How did I come to revise a holiday classic? That’s a story…
Half a century ago, I left the suburbs of Philadelphia to become a boarding student at Milton Academy, a school so different from anything I knew that it might as well have been on the moon.
Suits at dinner? Amazingly, we wore them. Toothpaste inspection? Yes, and your shoes had to be spit-polished. Doing your homework in a communal study hall? Ninety minutes a night.
In those days, Milton — like many New England boarding schools — was staunchly traditional. Teachers were addressed as “sir.” There was a girls’ school across the street, but we had no co-ed classes.
The library was the setting for the most memorable event of my first year at Milton — there, the night before we went home for Christmas, the headmaster read “A Christmas Carol.” Arthur Bliss Perry was as Old Boston as it gets. Son of a Harvard professor who discoursed on Emerson and edited the Atlantic Monthly, he came to Milton to teach in 1921 and became headmaster in 1947. In l961, when I first encountered him, he was a figure out of time — a tall, thin patrician, wearing three-piece suits, a school tie and eyeglasses with octagonal lenses and the thinnest of wire frames.
The Milton library was a red brick, ivy-covered cathedral. For Mr. Perry’s reading, the fireplace was lit. I believe we stood as Mr. Perry entered and took his seat in a baronial chair that had been set between the two standing lamps that were the only lights.
And then Arthur Bliss Perry became Charles Dickens.
He read without accent and without drama. He didn’t play up the sentiment. He simply delivered — as he had each December for fourteen years and would for two more — the greatest Christmas story since the original one.
I got shivers. Maybe a tear. It was that remarkable an experience.
A few years ago, I decided our daughter was ready for a version of “A Christmas Carol” not dumbed down by Disney. I didn’t imagine I could equal Arthur Perry’s performance, but if an audience of adolescent boys counting down the hours until their liberation could listen to this story in rapt silence, I certainly thought our child could make it, over two or three nights, to the end.
She lasted five minutes.
I got the point.
Books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. The evocation of Scrooge’s place of business is a slow starter. By our standards, the language is clotted and the piece is seriously overwritten. And it’s not like we haven’t seen Victorian London a zillion times in the movies or on TV.
After the non-start with our daughter, I began to work on the text. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters — to reduce the book to its essence, which is the story. (I think Dickens would approve. When he performed ‘A Christmas Carol’ — and he performed it 127 times — he used a trimmed-down version. So did Arthur Bliss Perry.) In the end, I did have to write a bit, but not, I hope, so you’ll notice; I think of my words as minor tailoring, like sewing on a missing button or patching a rip at the knee.
The original “Christmas Carol” is 28,000 words. This edition is 13,000. Like the Paige Peterson illustrations that accompany it, it means to convey the feeling of London in 1843 without the formal diction and Victorian heaviness — it means to be a story that adults can read to their captivated kids right to the end, and that kids can read by themselves with pleasure.
What does my revision read like?
Here are 395 words from the Dickens text:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some laborers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke; a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up tomorrow’s pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.
Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of “God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!”Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
Here’s my revision of that passage — in 107 words:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened. The ancient tower of a church became invisible; it struck the hours and quarters in the clouds. The cold became intense. In the main street, the brightness of the shops made pale faces glow as they passed. Butcher shops became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant of pheasant and duck and goose, so it was next to impossible to believe that anyone anywhere had to think about such dull realities as bargains and sales. And then it turned foggier yet, and colder.
It was brutally cold when Scrooge rose from his desk to close the office for the day.
Which version would you rather read? Which would you rather hear?
To read more about our edition of “A Christmas Carol,” click here.