A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.

 

Hell or High Water is slow and clever

Texas is the setting for this clever, slow-paced drama, in which two brothers set about righting the wrongs done to their family. And what a dreary place Texas turns out to be. Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) cruise through its empty towns and dusty fields in one beaten-up car after another, all the while passing evidence of a modern-day recession. Businesses gone bust. Townsfolk in debt. Billboards featuring words like “Need a loan?” These signs all point to the focus of this story: the banks. Hell or High Water gives us a sort of sideways take on the 2008 financial scandal in which banks were blamed for the housing bubble. Here we see how the banks have a hold on ordinary people in Texas and bleed them dry through exorbitant interest rates and merciless calling in of loans. Contemporary Scrooges if you will.

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Ben Foster and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water. Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igD-fXiHRRY

The Howard brothers aim for Texas Midlands Bank and begin robbing several branches of small amounts at a time. They then cover their tracks before going back to the bank as “upright” citizens to pay off their debts. Because the characters are motivated by familial love the viewer definitely roots for the two robbers. In fact, the pair represent the attitudes of many of the ordinary folk who have struggled against generations of poverty, and have a strong antipathy towards these institutions.

A tired old law-enforcement officer, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), works out what the brothers are doing and patiently lays in wait for them, following them around the county to catch them.

The action and setting in Hell or High Water is suffocatingly slow at times. And the story could well be seen simply as an old one dressed in a new guise. But it’s clever. And the modern concerns, juxtaposed with flagrant racist insults, and genuinely struggling people make for absorbing and relevant viewing. Chris Pine and Ben Foster both present their characters with realism and believability.

Hell or High Water opens at cinemas in South Africa on 4 November 2016.