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First film book has been published

Saturday 12/4/21

The heat remains off, it's a little after six on this Saturday, and I feel like Bob Cratchit as I blow on my hands so I can work. My first film book has been published, and it's a work I'm very proud of. The book is called Scrooge, taking its name from the film that it's about--the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol that stars Alastair Sim as the miser. It's an entry in the Devil's Advocates series, which is published by Liverpool University Press. The Devil's Advocates are like the 33 1/3 series, but instead of books that are each about a single album--like my new Sam Cooke book--they're each about a horror film. You might be saying, "What? Scrooge as a horror film?" To which I rattle my chains--or fetters, if you prefer--and say, "Yes!" But not only yes, but a yes of deepest and truest conviction.


Scrooge premiered on Halloween, 1951, and with good reason--it's a dark, terrifying picture, and it was considered sufficiently dark that for many years--decades--it only aired in the States, for the most part, in the middle of the night. If you caught A Christmas Carol on TV, it was usually the happy 1938 version, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. There were lots of other adaptations--there's the 1970 musical with Albert Finney, and a 1984 George Scott version which was directed by the fellow who was the editor on the 1951 film. Mr. Magoo was Scrooge, and, of course, Scrooge McDuck.


But the 1951 film is more than a Christmas film. It's a full-on masterpiece of cinema, and it's the lone masterpiece made by its director, Brian Desmond Hurst. In some ways, I don't know how he pulled this out of him, because there is nothing in his filmography at this level. He was skilled, he was competent, and much admired and respected, but he went for something else with this movie, and by Jove, he got it.


I worked as hard as I could on this book, and I poured everything into it, in terms of my film knowledge, my Dickens knowledge, my ability with words, with ideas, with telling a story, and my love for the movie. Because it is the movie I love the most of all movies, and have done so since I was five-years-old. More on that in a second.


Scrooge is a Christmas film that is so much more. I watch it in April. January. I probably watch it more in the rest of the year than I do at Christmas. I wrote the book that way, too. It's a ghost story, in the truest sense of the phrase. A film about being haunted by actual ghosts, and by ghosts beyond ghosts. By depression. By fear of vulnerability. By guilt. By lack of courage. Which is different than cowardice, but still, it's a big thing, isn't it? By self-medication. By isolation.


In many ways, it's a perfect film for our age. The internet age. Performative culture. An age when so many of us live in fear. When we interact less on a real level. When we are performative and not real. When we can't cope. When we blame others, rather than look within. When we sleep more than is good for us. When we retreat to the "staycation" and the Netflix binge and we hate read and hate follow. For that is Scrooge in this picture that, for ample reason, bears his name, rather than A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a lot of us, right now, in this characterization by Alastair Sim. It's a work of terror cinema in traditional ways, and in ways that still seem radical, and new. Prescient.


In addition to being a ghost story, the picture is a work of German Expressionism, only in England! Film noir. Family drama. Black comedy. Proto-kitchen sink realism. It has a marvelous cast beyond Sim. Michael Hordern is Jacob Marley, and what's amazing about this Marley--besides "birthing" a ghost that will freak you out, as he freaks out Scrooge--is that he has this entire new backstory. That's because Noel Langley wrote this film. Who is Noel Langley? Just the guy who wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz. Pretty good, right? And what Langely did--with Hurst's go-ahead--was to show us Scrooge and Marley when they were younger. No other version of the picture does that. It was a huge decision and gamble at the time. Unprecedented. And no one has done it since. He also--crucially--changed Scrooge's relationship with his sister, Fan. She's the older sibling now, and what that does in the movie is massive. It changes a lot, and it changes it dramatically.


The film also has the most beautiful, heartbreaking, joyous moment in all of cinema, in my view. I'm not talking about the amazing dance that Scrooge does, upon awaking from his night of nightmares, in which he can spot the ghost of Jacob Marley--or so some say!--in his bedroom mirror behind him. If you know the film, you probably know what I'm referring to. When I think of what it means to be happy--what happiness actually looks like--I think of this scene of which I speak more than any other. It's one of the things I most treasure in all of art, and in all of this world. And I talk about how it came to be, how it works, why it's so special.


I talk about all of it, though. I go to the roots--Murnau's Nosferatu, for instance--and go through Dickens and his assorted ghostly writings; relevant pictures like Bride of Frankenstein; silent versions of A Christmas Carol; the ghost stories of M.R. James (which Michael Hordern made these awesome recordings of later in his life); the 1971 animated version in which Sim and Hordern reprised their roles, and which I'll be writing about soon for The Daily Beast. I show you what they did with the camera, the script, the casting, what Sim was like as a man and in his career up until this point--he was considered box office gold...in comedy, so he was the last person the British public expected as Scrooge. Completely against the grain of who you would have thought would get the role. I talk about the brilliant soundtrack, in which composer Richard Addinsall blends atonal music with Christmas carols, which is bonkers. It's like mixing late-1965 Coltrane with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman." I talk about the cinematography and all of the usage of deep focus, which was this shocking rarity in British movies at the time. I talk about the context from which this film originated, because there were no horror movies in England after the war (which is why Hammer became such a big deal in 1957). You had to sneak them into literary adaptations, but in the other instances--David Lean's Oliver Twist, for instance--the horror wasn't overt. Wasn't bang on. Scrooge is a banger.


And I also talk about my own relationship with a film that was huge in my life, and is huge in my life. Will be huge in my life. But I start with where I started with Scrooge. You see, I was a five-year-old boy who'd had some Dickensian origins of his own. I didn't spend my first Christmas with my family. Eventually I was adopted, and was on my third mother. I had two sisters who were adopted as well. They were twins. And then they were taken from us. Their biological mother took them back. My sisters were gone, and I was terrified that soon someone would come for me, and I'd be gone, too.


I didn't cope well. I became withdrawn. I had to speak to therapists. And one Christmas, when I was five-years-old, unable to sleep, scared that my time was coming, I did a search of the house. I wondered downstairs, while everyone was asleep. The TV had been left on in the family room. As I entered, I saw a scared man in his rooms, trying to eat his soup--not very successfully--as a symphony of bells went off, and he heard--and I heard--someone, or something, slouching towards him, from outside in the hall. And alone, probably at like two in the morning, a scared boy sat in front of that TV and watched a movie with which he instantly connected. And he loved that movie more than he would ever love any other.


The scared boy became a man who went through some very bad things. He was lied to by someone he trusted with his life, he was abandoned, and he had everything taken from him in a place he loved, some thirty plus years later. One Christmas, he went back to that place, to stay at a small inn, alone at the holidays, because he is always alone at Christmas now, though he doesn't wish to be, desiring to stay--at least for a night or two--in this setting to which he hoped to return, full-time, at some point in his life when it was possible. He had a hard time that night. And he sat up. Couldn't stop thinking. He put on the TV, and once more, at some ungodly hour, there was the film he had loved so much, and again he watched it.


So, parts of my personal journey bookend the story of Scrooge, in my book called Scrooge about Scrooge. It's the best I can do as a writer, and it means a lot to me if people will check it out. I understand that the hardcover is weirdly expensive--that's how it can work with a university press--though I don't really understand how there is a hardcover version anyway. The book is a little longer than a 33 1/3 book. But the soft cover and the e-book versions--which are the better ways to go anyway--are more normally priced, and I do think people would like it. I aimed to do what I do--tell the definitive story of something, but also to have a stand-alone work of art, as a piece of writing. It was a long time in the making. Hope you enjoy it.