A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol is arguably the most adapted book in history. While Patrick Stewart beamed down from the Starship Enterprise with his one-man show, Kelsey Grammar began life after Frasier with a frenetically awful song-and-dance version.
Who needs television reruns when you can buy a DVD of Alistair Sim's seminal performance or Albert Finney's excellent portrayal? Bill Murray updated Scrooge for the Reagan generation (Scrooged), and Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder inverted the story for Thatcherite Britain. The Muppets did it their way.
With all this choice, it is easy to forget Dickens' original. First published in 1843 (between Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son), it is the author's howl of horror at children condemned to a doomed childhood. In A Christmas Carol, this evil fills the workhouses, fuels the terrible vision of Want and Ignorance and ensures that Tiny Tim's life is tiny indeed.
The story is too famous to require much recapitulation: a misanthropic miser finds redemption after three ghosts (of Christmases Past, Present and Future) cause his pathetic life to flash before his eyes. What does bear some repeating is the sheer glory of Dickens' prose, which was never more atmospheric, musical or more moving than here.
'A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and on his wiry chin,' Dickens writes during our first view of Scrooge.
'He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.'
There is much of this glacial precision, but also generous helpings of humour - Dickens may want to open our eyes, but he wants to entertain. Describing the freezing conditions Bob Cratchit must endure in Scrooge's office, Dickens writes that the clerk 'tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.'
The dialogue is so good that scriptwriters often reproduce it verbatim. 'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' Scrooge says to Marley. 'Business!' cried the Ghost. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.'
And readers, I hope, will find it hard to suppress tears when Scrooge gleefully grabs his second chance. 'I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody.'
A Christmas Carol is very much a story for our time - a warning about the dangers of self-centredness and material greed, not to mention the perils of debt. But that is because this is a story for all times. A merry Christmas to everybody indeed. 'God Bless Us, Every One!'