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Commentary on Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901)

One of the first film interpretations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, was the 1901 silent film, "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" directed by W.R. Booth and produced by R.W. Paul. This film interpretation of the novel was less interested in accurately replicating the original text on film than it was with creating and manipulating the technical aspects of film. As a result, many scenes from the novel that provide insight and commentary into period specific issues have been cut out of the film's plot and as a result, it lacks the social commentary that the original text contains.

With the absence of synchronized recorded sound and spoken dialogue, silent films required a particular selection of elements such as music, onscreen inter-titles, and melodramatic actors to ensure comprehensibility and interest to its viewers. During the silent era, instrumental musicians relied on the silent film industry as their source of employment. The music that accompanies silent films is referred to as 'photoplay music' and it is essential to give off appropriate atmospheres in the film. Unfortunately, we cannot observe this element in "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" because music is not present in this surviving version of the film. Silent films also expressed plot lines and important dialogue by showing clips of written text explaining to viewers what was happening in the scene. This written text is referred to as 'onscreen inter-titles'. "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" contains four important inter-titles which introduce each spirit that comes to visit Scrooge and a brief explanation of what happens during each spirit's visit. Since silent film does not contain dialogue, actors needed to express their feelings through melodramatic body language and facial expression in order for viewers to better understand how a character felt and what their motives were; the characters in "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" embody this idea.

In the early 1900's filmmakers frequently "chose to adapt an already well-known story, assuming the audience's familiarity with the tale" (Davidson). "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" is an excellent example of this. Though the three spirits are replaced by one; Joseph Marley, "the audience's familiarity with the tale meant less need for excessive inter-titles" (Davidson) or a precise reproduction of the source text. The reliance on familiarity with the tale allowed for producer R.W. Paul and his partner and director, W.R. Booth, to focus on making "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" into something of a trick film. A trick film that was a, "short, usually comic" film that "made extensive use of special effects, some of which were startlingly sophisticated given the limitations of the technology of the time"(Brooke). W.R. Booth was a "a stage magician and illusionist" (Brooke) and between the two, they brought a unique creative flair to the film and were able to capture elements of the novel that theatre could not for example, "superimposing Marley's face over the door knocker" (Davidson) created the ghostly effect that Dickens describes in the corresponding scene of the novel; an effect that would have been nearly impossible to recreate in the theatre.

Despite the exciting special effects and well known source material, the film "leaves something to be desired" (Eaton). The focus on special effects that dominates the film and the lack of true dialogue or loyalty to the source text, results in a loss of the wit and cynicism found in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

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A Commentary on "Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost" by DIHU301/ENGL305: The Self-Conscious Text class, fall 2014 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License