A Christmas Carol proves that redemption is possible for anyone (so long as they’re rich)

You only need to skim The Pop Culture Studio’s archives to see that I’m big on Christmas. That same cursory glance of the site’s back catalogue will also make it clear that I’m prone to the occasional hot take, too – especially where classic literature is concerned. So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when I tell you that these two passions of mine collided recently while revisiting Robert Zemeckis’ 2009 adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

The Zemeckis version of A Christmas Carol is not a great movie. However, it is faithful to Charles Dickens’ original novel – and it got me thinking about the central premise of both. With A Christmas Carol, Dickens (and every filmmaker who followed him) suggests that redemption is possible for everyone, even an Olympic-level misanthrope like Ebenezer Scrooge. What’s more, he even suggestions that transformations such as this are vital if society itself is to truly thrive.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a crucial component to Scrooge’s redemptive arc that A Christmas Carol – both the book and its many, many screen adaptations – glosses over. It’s something I only fully noticed watching Zemeckis’ version: Scrooge secures his salvation as much through wealth as he does through remorse. In essence, the message of A Christmas Carol is that redemption is possible for even the most objectionable person – just so long as they’re rich.

Think about it: how does Scrooge demonstrate he’s turned over a new leaf after a night spent with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come? Sure, the old miser is full of platitudes about carrying the festive spirit all year round and being kinder and more generous to those around him. He even backs these words up with a markedly more cheerful disposition and – in the case of The Muppet Christmas Carol – a full-blown musical number. Ultimately, though, the greatest examples of Scrooge’s penitence all revolve around cold, hard cash.

For starters, there’s the child-sized turkey Scrooge buys for his perennially mistreated employee Bob Cratchit and his family. Admittedly, he ships the over-sized bird to Casa de Cratchit anonymously, but there’s no way that Bob didn’t eventually put two and two together regarding his mysterious benefactor. How could he not, considering Scrooge subsequently gives him a massive pay hike and (Dickens implies) picks up the medical bills for Bob’s sickly kid, Tiny Tim?

Then, there’s the sizeable donation Scrooge makes to a charity for the poor. Our guy doesn’t bother keeping that on the downlow, approaching one of the charity’s representatives openly on the street to pledge an apparently astronomical amount. A Christmas Carol’s epilogue suggests that Scrooge quickly developed a reputation around town as an upstanding pillar of the community thanks in no small part to charitable acts such as this. He rehabilitated his public image overnight and he relied mostly on money to do it.

Of course, what Dickens was trying to do here was impress on his Victorian era readers (particularly the more well-heeled ones) that they needed to be less apathetic and more generous towards the poor. That’s an undeniably worthy goal – arguably even more so than encouraging people to carry the Christmas spirit in their hearts all year round and not just in December. Yet the way Dickens conveys this message in A Christmas Carol plays differently in 2022 than it did 179 years ago, largely because Scrooge’s supposed redemption follows the Old Rich Guy Legacy Preservation playbook beat for beat. Like the tycoons of today, Scrooge uses his cash to whitewash a lifetime’s worth of misdeeds.

Earnest or not, his contrition is highly performative. He doesn’t quietly embrace his new outlook on life; he shouts about it from the rooftops (literally, on at least one occasion). Bob Cratchit’s raise is bestowed under ceremonious circumstances. Scrooge is also decidedly flamboyant in how he donates to charity – whispering the amount would only ensure it became the talk of London town in no time. It’s as though he’s just been visited by a trio of reputation management consultants, not benevolent spectres. If Dickens had gone a step further and included a scene where Scrooge slapped his name on the new wing of the local art gallery, it wouldn’t feel out of place.

In fairness to Scrooge, his atonement efforts are clearly sincere. But then, there’s probably at least one modern day magnate whose real-life reparations were grounded in genuine remorse, too. Ultimately, though, both parties’ goals remain the same: to erase the sins of the past with the ill-gotten gains of the present.

Does knowing this invalidate A Christmas Carol’s emotional and thematic power? Only as much as you allow it to. Like most hot takes, this angle – let’s be honest, my angle – on Dickens’ original story is a somewhat bad faith reading of well-intentioned story, distorted through a contemporary lens. Yes, you can make a strong argument that Scrooge bought his salvation as much as he earned it. However, this misses the point of A Christmas Carol’s core message: that everyone deserves a second chance, if they’re willing to take it – and that part of changing is putting your money where your mouth is (and not just metaphorically speaking).

It’s not just Dickensian caricatures who sometimes need reminding of this; we could all use a wake-up call to be kinder to others and do what we can to combat ignorance and want. That’s why Hollywood continues to crank out new, big screen versions of A Christmas Carol even now – because there’ll always be an audience willing to hear what this story has to say. Humans are and always will be self-interested creatures; most of us are in the market for a little redemption when it comes to doing our bit for society. Even so, you have to wonder: would Scrooge have so easily secured his, if hadn’t been so rich?

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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