Dickens’ Lasting Legacy through The Muppets
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is possibly the most overdone, overworked and reworked Christmas story to date. With film and TV adaptations spewing out almost ever other year many tend to forget about the original, the work that Dickens penned over 150 years ago. Some versions stick too close to the original and verge on boring, something Dickens never intended for his best seller. Others go too far and feature cute mice and special 3-D computer animations (looking at you Disney) but by far best adaptation is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Sure, I may have personal bias. The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most watched VHS tape of my childhood. For years I had Bob Cratchit as Kermit the Frog ingrained in my mind as one, although Dickens probably never intended for his famously downtrodden character to be played by a piece of fabric. But past the gimmicks and novelty that comes with The Muppets, The Muppet Christmas Carol is an adaptation that stays true to Dickens while adding something extra for audiences, the chance to share it with younger generations and generations to come.
Released in 1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol garnered a lot of respect form critics because of it’s close following of the text while still remaining true to the Muppet spirit. The characters of A Christmas Carol were cast almost entirely by the Muppets themselves. Kermit played Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Emily Cratchit (naturally), and most notably The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, the narrator of the movie. And there were some human actors, like Michael Caine playing Ebenezer Scrooge and Meredith Braun as Belle, Scrooge’s ex fiancée. In an article from “Starlog” magazine, published December 1992, Brian Henson, then President of Jim Henson Productions explains the reason for this casting. He states, “this isn’t the Muppets putting on A Christmas Carol– this is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a new full-length musical adaptation. For all practical purposes, Kermit and Miss Piggy are Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit. In previous films, the Muppets played themselves. In this film the Muppets play parts. The character operate on two levels; first, they’re the recognizable Muppet characters that we all know and whose actions and relationships we can anticipate, and then there are the characters they’re playing” (32). Somehow this odd puppet casting works for modern audiences. It gives audiences a respite from dull movie adaptations that follow the story too close while still telling the story that Dickens’ intended. Minus the musical numbers.
In an article by Hugh H. Davis, “A Weirdo, A Rat, and A Humbug: The Literary Qualities of The Muppet Christmas Carol” Davis sums up the effect that the Muppet’s adaption achieves to audiences. He states, “The Muppet Christmas Carol addresses this seeming paradox – that to be faithful to the original novel is to recognize all that has occurred since- by treating the text both self-reflectively and reverentially. This simultaneous recognition of the novel’s importance as literature and its importance as culture serves to mark the Muppet version of the story as unique” (Davis, 101-102).
An example of the reverent ways in which the Muppets version uses in the film is the story telling technique. Having Dickens narrate the story and having Dickens played by the Muppet, The Great Gonzo. As narrator Gonzo delivers lines straight from the original Christmas Carol while comically keeping true to the Muppet spirit by repeatedly breaking down the fourth wall. Davis highlights this story telling device stating, “Each moment of direct narration is a lifting of Dickensian prose straight to the script. Such lines from Dickens as those detailing that Scrooge lived in his deceased partner’s old house are found in both cinematic and literary versions. Risso is astounded that Gonzo can relay such lines in the story as a third person narrator. ‘How do you know what Scrooge is doing?’ he asks… ‘Storytellers are omniscient. I know everything’; Rizzo replies, ‘Well, hoity-toity, Mr. God-like Smarty Pants’”(Davis, 100-101)! The choice of having a Muppet play Dickens as a narrator was a conscious one by Muppet writer Jerry Juhl who felt that Dickens narration was essential to the original work and essential to the Muppet film adaptation.
Another important distinction that brings the Muppet version closer to Dickens’ classic is how they portray the ghost of Christmas past. The second ghost to show up in the story is probably the least consistent figure in Christmas Carol adaptations due to it’s ambiguous description. Meant to represent the inconsistency and unreliability of memory, Scrooge describes the ghost in the original story stating, “It was a strange figure- like a child: yet not so like a child as a old man… But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all was visible” (Dickens, 1389); Scrooge also describes the ghost’s long muscular, yet shrunk to a child’s size. Because of this odd description many adaptions differ on the ghost’s appearance. In some it’s a young woman, in others an old man. The Muppet’s version gets the ghost pretty close to its original description without making it horrifying to children. It portrays the ghost as a small child, floating and swathed in light, her appearance a bit blurred. A valiant attempt in trying to get the essence of the character.
Although no film adaptation can ever hold a candle to an original work it’s important to recognize when a film does it right. Although not many toddlers recognize Dickens they do respond to a green talking frog and his piggy partner. Knowing the influence it would have on kids, like myself, The Muppet Christmas Carol stays true to both the Muppet spirit and Dickens’ words. By keeping it fun while respecting the original text the movie keeps Charles Dickens’ story alive for generations to come. So watch it.
Davis, Hugh H. “A Weirdo, A Rat, and A Humbug: The Literary Qualities of The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Studies in Popular Culture. 21.3 (1999): 95-105. Print.
Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Longman, 2010. 1376-1425. Print.
Passmore, Fred. “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Web. 1 May 2014. <http://www.sheeplaughs.com/scrooge/muppets.htm>.
In The Muppet Christmas Carol Kermit and Miss Piggy portray the loving married couple of Bob and Emily Cratchit.
Mike Quinn, Michael Caine and Steve Whitmire posing with the Cratchits.