Now that Christmas Day itself is over, but not the Season, I'm taking some time to reflect on the lessons detailed in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." And upon reflection, I've decided that the most important character in the story is not Scrooge himself, but instead his deceased partner, Jacob Marley.
Dickens himself suggests so, by starting the novel ensuring his readers that Marley was most certainly dead. He realizes that the story itself has no depth, unless the scene between Scrooge and Marley actually, truly happened. Unless Marley was dead, and unless what he conveys to Scrooge is Truth, then Scrooge's change lacks the power that it deserves.
But even more so, to me, unless Marley is seen (and for the purposes of this blog post, portrayed) as this immensely tragic and woeful creature, the danger that Scrooge is exposing himself to and the dismal eternal future of those who waste their lives here on Earth, then "nothing wonderful" can come from the tale. And so, even more so (if possible) than the words of Marley, the pitiful nature of Marley provides the fuel for the entire story. Again, Dickens' emphasizes this, since Marley is constantly noted as raising a "frightful cry", or shaking his chains in woe. Marley is completely and totally miserable.
So when I watch the various incarnations of "A Christmas Carol," it's the portrayal of Marley which tells me just how well the director (and the entire crew) "gets" the story. So when I watched Disney's version, with Jim Carrey, I thought that it was an OK version until the arrival of Marley. In this version, Marley is almost comic relief! And then they made the worst mistake ever. Scrooge tries to comfort Marley by explaining this his old partner was always a good man of business, and Marley summarizes the whole of the moral of the story in the most powerful sentences of literary history:
Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!
And yet, in Disney's version, he does so with his lower jaw being "comically" manipulated up-and-down by Scrooge (if you've seen the movie, you know what I mean). Unforgivable.
For me, the best version is the 1984 version with George C. Scott. Frank Finlay is, imo, spot on, and I can't but help be moved when he says the above lines. The power, the emotion, the pure and deep misery Marley feels is there, and the audience, and Scrooge, cannot help but be moved by it, and act on it.
May we all remember the lessons of Marley, and for all of us, may mankind be our business.