Monday, November 30, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. French was the official language of which country for over 600 years?
  2. Which author based his most famous characters on the fascinating case of William Brodie — respected Edinburgh businessman by day, leader of a gang of thieves by night?
  3. 'Excuse my dust' was the requested epitaph of which irreverent author?
  4. Which great author received the meager sum of 10 pounds for his greatest work of literature?
  5. Edgar Allan Poe was expelled from West Point after wearing what to a public parade?

Last Week's Answers

Which was Shakespeare’s first play?

William Shakespeare wrote his first play The Taming of the Shrew in 1593.

When was punctuation invented?

There was no punctuation until the 15th century.

Hamlet--with 1,530 lines--is the longest speaking part in all of Shakespeare's plays. What is the second longest?

Richard III, with 1,164 lines.

Johannes Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press in 1454, but what culture discovered, used, and discarded this method long before Gutenberg’s invention?

The Chinese actually printed from movable type in 1040 but later discarding the method.

The first history book, the Great Universal History, was published by Rashid-Eddin of Persia. In what year was it published?

In 1311.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can you name the most commonly used words in the English language?

Jason came across this fun, challenging game and it quickly became an office hit — so we're pretty sure your students and coworkers will get a kick out of it as well. We were all pretty sure we could do it with no problem, but around the office there was varying success as you can see below.

Once you begin the game, you have 12 minutes to come up wit
h as many of the 100 most commonly used words in the English Language according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Try it out yourself here!

Score: 57





Score: 64

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Which was Shakespeare’s first play?
  2. When was punctuation invented?
  3. Hamlet--with 1,530 lines--is the longest speaking part in all of Shakespeare's plays. What is the second longest?
  4. Johannes Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press in 1454, but what culture discovered, used, and discarded this method long before Gutenberg’s invention?
  5. The first history book, the Great Universal History, was published by Rashid-Eddin of Persia. In what year was it published?

Last Week's Answers

Where does the “Old King Cole” nursery rhyme come from?

This rhyme is based on a real king and historical event. King Cole is an actual monarch of Britain who ruled around 200 A.D.

Which book did Dr. Suess write on a dare?

Dr. Seuss wrote "Green Eggs and Ham" after his editor dared him to write a book using fewer than 50 different words.

Ghosts appear in how many of Shakespeare’s plays?

Ghosts appear in 4 Shakespearian plays; Julius Caesar, Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth.

What is the shortest complete sentence in the English language?

“Go," is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

Where does the phrase “often a bridesmaid, never a bride” come from?

The phrase "Often a bridesmaid, but never a bride," actually originates from an advertisement for Listerine mouthwash from 1924.

Walter Dean Myers at NCTE 2009

— Jason Scott

The 2009 NTCE conference in Philadelphia was a great one for Prestwick House. In addition to being in nearby Philadelphia (hooray for no air travel!), it was chock-a-block full of interesting teachers and writers who stopped by our booth to chat.

Case in point, young adult author Walter Dean Myers stopped by our booth to say hello. Being a fan, I asked him to sign our catalogue which he graciously did. The whole experience has me wondering who we might bump into next year’s NTCE conference in Disney World.

I’m hoping that it will be the most literary of all the Disney characters (and the character who still moves the most Disney merchandise) Winnie the Pooh.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

FINALLY SOLVED: The Mystery of Pygmalion’s Missing Scene!

by Douglas Grudzina

You know those stories that are so ubiquitous, so culturally iconic, that everyone thinks he or she “knows” it?

You know how some people can get really bent out of shape when their belief that the version of the tale they know is not necessarily the original or the definitive version is challenged—when someone dares to suggest that what they “know” about the story is simply inaccurate?

A week or so ago, we did a post on the universality and limitless adaptability of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Today, let’s examine the strange case of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
At least three times a year (quite possibly more), we receive a letter, e-mail, or telephone call inquiring about a “defect” in our Prestwick House Touchstone Literary Classic edition of Pygmalion. The inquiry is always the same: a crucial scene is missing from our edition, specifically, the scene in which Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins take the flower-girl-turned-Princess Eliza Doolittle to the ball.

Most of the calls we receive are from genuinely concerned customers—either concerned that they purchased a defective product, or that we may have received a defective product from our printer, who somehow omitted full pages from the manuscript.

First, a word about the texts of our Touchstone Literary Classics (and probably more than you ever needed or wanted to know about the history of international copyright in the bargain). Back in the day—I think 1926 is the pivotal year, but don’t quote me—copyright laws were very different from today’s. Most things written and printed in the world prior to that year—it might be 1923, but I really think it’s 1926—have fallen into the “public domain.”

(Not everything, but most things.)

“Public domain” means that no one person or entity owns the copyright. Shakespeare is in the public domain. So is Dickens. So are Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—and so are some of George Bernard Shaw’s works. All of our Literary Touchstone Classics are public domain works. (We can sell them to you so inexpensively because we do not have to pay royalties on the work.)

Now, added material, like introductions, prefaces, footnotes and endnotes, study guide questions, etc., can all be copyrighted; and Prestwick House, of course, owns all of the material included in the Touchstones.


Pygmalion was originally a play written for the stage by George Bernard Shaw in 1913. It was a typical five-act play: Act I taking place in the street outside of Covent Garden Theater; Act II taking place in the library of Henry Higgins’s home on Wimpole Street. Act III takes place in the drawing room of Higgins’s mother at her at-home. Act IV returns to Higgins’s home, and Act V returns to Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room. There are, in all, three sets: the London street, Higgins’s library, and Mrs. Higgins’s drawing room.

The action of the play ends with everyone leaving Mrs. Higgins’s house to go to Mr. Doolittle’s wedding. Higgins balks at going, and Eliza says something to him along the lines of: “Good-bye, Professor Higgins, I shall not be seeing you again.” Higgins curses, she leaves, and the final curtain falls. [Applause]

This 1913 stage play is the version reproduced in the Prestwick House Literary Touchstone. (Since it was published before 1926, it exists in the public domain.)

Theater audiences and critics complained about the “ambiguous” ending of this play and the apparent lack of a “happy ending,” so Shaw wrote an epilogue, which is included in the Touchstone edition. In this epilogue, Shaw narrates the events of the years following the close of the play. Eliza marries Freddy. He drops the “Eynsford” from his name and—with financial assistance from Colonel Pickering—opens a green-grocer shop. Eliza, also with Pickering’s help, opens a florist shop next door to Freddy. The couple remains close friends with the Colonel and Higgins, neither of whom ever marry.

In 1938 (after that key 1926 copyright date), Shaw adapted his stage play for the screen. This film version of Pygmalion starred Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza. There are several notable differences between the 1913 stage play and the 1938 screenplay. While the stage play has a decidedly Victorian flavor, the screen play is definitely twentieth-century. Whereas in the stage play, Higgins and Pickering intend to take Eliza to an ambassador’s garden party, in the screenplay, they take her to an embassy ball.

The movie also depicts the scene of Eliza’s triumph at the ball, which the play does not. To do so in the play would have required an additional set change, costume changes, and a host of “stage extras,” all of which Shaw and his producer apparently deemed unnecessary.

Probably the most significant difference between the 1913 stage play and the 1938 screen play, however, is the ending. Shaw’s epilogue must not have satisfied the public because, at the end of the 1938 movie, Eliza returns to Higgins.

It’s kind of funny that, during my 25+ years teaching British literature to high school seniors, most of the anthologies I used included the full text of Pygmalion—the 1913 stage version, with Epilogue. The text was then peppered with stills from the 1938 film! (Talk about confusing the poor student!)

It is the 1938 screenplay that served as the basis for the 1956 stage musical and the 1964 movie musical, My Fair Lady. Again, however, there were significant changes. The visit to Mrs. Higgins’s home in Act III becomes a visit to the Ascot Racecourse. The role of Eliza’s father and his marriage in Act V are greatly expanded. How Eliza spends the night after the embassy ball is expanded, and so on.

Those, therefore, who call and write to wonder about the absence of a “party scene” in Shaw’s original (1913) play are probably more familiar with the 1938 movie (or the 1964 screen musical). Many of these callers also express concern about the “different ending.” For Eliza to return to Higgins, however, was not Shaw’s original idea of a “happy ending” for the play. Shaw’s notion of Eliza’s happy ending is explained in considerable detail in the epilogue to the 1913 play, which appears in most anthologies and in the Literary Touchstone.

Perhaps noting the difference(s) between the 1913 stage play (the Literary Touchstone) and the 1938 screenplay (and the musicals it inspired) presents the opportunity to do a play-to-movie-to-movie comparison/contrast, taking into consideration the limitations of the genre (the inconvenience and expense of additional set and costume changes in a live performance) versus the expectations of the audience (added and expanded scenes, altered endings, etc.).

Eliza and Higgins, like Scrooge and Tiny Tim, touch something deep within the hearts and souls of those who encounter them—whether in a public-domain text, a black-and-white classic film, or a lavish costume-extravaganza that probably should have starred Julie Andrews.

But that’s another post for another day.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Where does the “Old King Cole” nursery rhyme come from?
  2. Which book did Dr. Suess write on a dare?
  3. Ghosts appear in how many of Shakespeare’s plays?
  4. What is the shortest complete sentence in the English language?
  5. Where does the phrase “often a bridesmaid, never a bride” come from?

Last Week’s Answers

In 1097, Trotula, a midwife of Salerno, wrote The Diseases of Women – a then legitimate text book for medical students. How many years was it used before it was considered outdated?

It was used in medical schools for 600 years.

In the classic fairy tale, what were Cinderella’s slippers originally made of?

Cinderella's slippers were originally made out of fur, but the story was changed in the 1600s by a translator.

Who was the author of the first detective story in 1841?

Edgar Allan Poe
introduced mystery fiction's first fictional detective, Auguste C. Dupin, in his 1841 story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

Which was the first American novel to sell a million copies?

Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published March 20, 1852. It was the first American novel to sell one million copies.

What is the origin of the phrase, "United we stand, divided we fall"?

Aesop's fables. It's from “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” written in the sixth century.

Join Prestwick House at the 2009 NCTE Convention!

This year, in conjunction with the 99th Annual NCTE Conference at the Philadelphia Convention Center, we would like to invite you to visit our booths, number 334-337, and receive your free copy of a Literary Touchstone Classic book and a $5.00 off coupon for a free downloadable eLesson! So if you're planning on attending, stop by to meet with us, ask questions, and see what’s new!

Here's a few of the products we'll be featuring at the conference:


Using technology is quickly becoming a way of life in the classroom, and our new PowerPresentation line of products takes advantage of PowerPoint™, Adobe Acrobat™, and SMARTBoard™ technology to make sure you’re on the cutting edge.

Visit to find out more, or stop by our booth to see demonstrations of these products and to hear more about how you can introduce a novel, teach difficult grammar and writing topics, and get your students actively involved in what you're teaching by using these exciting presentations!

Literary Touchstones

We are constantly expanding our line of classic paperbacks and invite you to click here or stop by to see for yourself why Literary Touchstone Classics are the books teachers demand for their classroom libraries.

The best selections of world literature — unabridged, unadapted, and complete with helpful pointers and glossary notes — are made even better by our unrivaled Educator’s Discount of at least 50% off the list price. Stop by our booth and get your free copy of either Romeo and Juliet or A Christmas Carol!

Vocabulary Programs

This year, in addition to adding engaging PowerPresentations to our best-selling Vocabulary Power Plus for the New SAT books, we've also expanded our popular Vocabulary from Latin and Greek Roots series! Growing Your Vocabulary: Learning from Latin and Greek Roots is especially for 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade students to help develop skills to improve their vocabulary, not only because your state's standards require it, but because nothing will make students better readers and communicators than having the ability to understand new words.

Also new this year, our Standards-Based Vocabulary program for grades 7 through 10 is proven to help struggling students conquer state standards and gain lifelong vocabulary skills. This series provides a framework to expand students’ vocabularies, while also teaching crucial vocabulary-building skills, including discerning word meanings through context, recognizing roots and affixes, and recalling word origins.

Click here to find out more about our selection of vocabulary programs or visit our booth to speak with us, and we'll help you find exactly the right program to fit your students' needs.

Global Competence and Literacy

As our world becomes smaller and we grow closer together every day, the importance of understanding and having an appreciation of our neighbors is becoming the greatest skill we can offer our students.

It is more than simple tolerance — it is critical that we educate and connect our students using powerful practices, so that they can obtain the ability to be self-motivated and adapt and respect each other. The value of this knowledge to a child’s growth is immense. We have the ability to make authentic change and begin to systematically tear down the digital divide that keeps growing. We can use video conferencing, social networks, global media outlets, and countless other connected resources to reach this goal.

Our students can build a tool kit of relevant skills that will ready them for lives and careers without boundaries, where problem solving, communicating, and knowing how to find the answer are even more important than the content of the traditional classes that they are taking in our high schools at present.

Of course, there are opponents to this globally connected growth, and they do have relevant points to make. There are real concerns and questions in moving public education towards a mobilized, global curriculum: When will we have time? How will this impact testing?

What if the students know more about the technology than we do? All of a sudden, we back down from dreams of the globally connected classroom, but the evidence of success is too strong to let the traditional constructs and fears in education hold us back. We don’t have the luxury of choice anymore; global education is our responsibility and a service we must provide if our students are to compete in a global society.

Where does literacy fit in? Clearly, the impact on digital literacy is evident, but traditional literacy may be a bit more disguised when trying to find it in “the bag” of global education learning outcomes. So, how did I find it? Well, I didn’t go looking for it; I just felt obligated to bring a connected classroom with a multicultural perspective to my students.

I started inviting students to participate in social networks, guided them to use tools for video communication, and promoted the value of creative thinking and choice in a globally focused manner. In time, I began to see some very captivating and energizing byproducts. It started with a few students connecting to a community that partnered English speakers with Japanese speakers in order to teach each other the “foreign” language.

During class, I would see kids on Google Translate or using grammar sites to get the perfect communication with their Japanese partners. Several times, I have had students come to me and ask if they could meet with their English teacher to review a blog post before publishing. I even had a student ask me how he could build his own blogging site with a spell checker! If you haven’t seen the terrain of a modern American high school lately, I can tell you that finding students who are intrinsically inspired to make revisions to better their work is quite rare.

Furthermore, motivating children to develop inherent value and take ownership of their school projects is nirvana for any educator.

Consequently, I have decided not to worry about the tests, or if I have enough time in the day, or any other fear that might creep into my paranoid teaching mind. Of course, I will be faced with those fears again, but not with any fears about global education. Students’ actions are confirmation enough for me to subscribe to this new world, and their success is testimony that traditional literacy can be nurtured in a digital literacy curricular area.

I also am confident that any good teacher will say the same thing – when you find the delicate convergence of instructional strategies that inspire, you embrace it and don’t change a thing!

Special Thanks to Guest Blogger, Rich Kiker, for his contribution to the Prestwick Café Blog.

Rich Kiker is the department chair for the Media Technology Academy at Palisades High School in Kintnersville, PA. His work in PA includes being a Keystone Technology Integrator, a Classrooms for the Future Technology Coach, and a PA professional development instructor. His latest ventures include bringing virtual classrooms and global competence to the students at Palisades.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Building Something New: There’s Always Demolition Required

I can hear them now, the collective groans and complaints of our staff as they walk zombie-like down the hall in the direction of the office with one motive: braaaains!

Teaching is a difficult job; it’s no surprise that we have a lot to complain about in any given day. Administrators have no shortage of rotten opinions spoiling in their inboxes. The staff lunchroom reeks at times of foul language, maybe not unsuitable for television, but certainly unpleasant and cringe-worthy. When teachers lose control of things they feel responsible for, it’s easy to become bent out of shape. We want our kids to learn, we want our principals to listen, and we want our school boards to argue in our favor.

When we feel cut-off from our community, ignored, shut-down, and unimportant, we all revert to communicating through our innate language of complaint. This is an unavoidable part of the adult world because there are always things to complain about. How negativity is dealt with in your school is one of the most important factors to consider when looking at the broader picture. If you want useful data on your school’s stability, don’t snip a few petals off from the prettiest branch— take a core sample.

Whom do your teachers complain to? What stays behind closed doors, and what really gets reported? Do people generally shy away from speaking out, in favor of generating gossip? Is there a system in place that people feel welcome to participate in? What happens if departments disagree on vital educational tenets? To whom do teachers go when they feel the administration is ignoring them? When should you worry about going over someone’s head or about cutting in?

Most of us simply want what’s best for our school and do not want to make our neighbors angry or flood our principals with n
eedless work. The hard part is going about finding what you want while also not damaging your relationship with others around you at the same time. It’s like demolishing a building in a crowded city block. If you’re a city employee who wants the old abandoned warehouse replaced by a shiny new apartment building, you’ll have to do two things: remove the old one and then put in the new. Making changes in schools is fairly similar: people need to be led away from the old ways and convinced the new is better.

No matter how “right” you are about change needing to take place, you’ve got to be careful and deliberate about communicating your ideas. No matter how much dynamite the construction crew has available to destroy the current structure, they have to take very strict precautions before depressing that plunger. Otherwise, the grocery store a block away, the day care center across the street, and the bank next-door are put in considerable danger. Simply letting loose the explosions would certainly make a mess of what’s there and the casualties would be so costly, you’d never be able to afford the new building.

If dissent is not welcome and encouraged in a safe and constructive fashion, then any potential improvements will suffer. Is there something worth changing in your school? If so, then it’s probably worth complaining about to someone. Just consider how and where you place your charges. You may destroy more than you hoped to build.


Special Thanks to Guest Blogger, Steve J. Moore for his contribution to the Prestwick Café Blog.

Steve J. Moore heads his high school's reading department and teaches literacy skills to incoming freshman. His blog is an account of his first year as a teacher, and is being pub
lished in a series through the Missouri State Teachers Association's publication Teacher U. Full of energy, optimism, and frankness, Moore's posts mean to uplift and encourage anyone with a stake in education.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. In 1097, Trotula, a midwife of Salerno, wrote The Diseases of Women – a then legitimate text book for medical students. How many years was it used before it was considered outdated?
  2. In the classic fairy tale, what were Cinderella’s slippers originally made of?
  3. Who was the author of the first detective story in 1841?
  4. Which was the first American novel to sell a million copies?
  5. What is the origin of the phrase, "United we stand, divided we fall"?

Last Week’s Answers

Which 16th century Italian painter was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest poets of all time?

Though it is not widely known, the Italian painter Michelangelo was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest Poets of all time. About 250 of his poems and sonnets have come down to us today and are still read by scholars, historians, and fellow poets.

Which of Shakespeare’s close friends and fellow authors is buried in a standing position in Westminster Abbey?

To save costs, the body of Shakespeare’s friend and fellow dramatist, Ben Jonson, was buried standing up in Westminister Abbey, London in 1637.

Which 20th century French Journalist wrote an entire book one letter at a time — indicating the next correct letter by blinking only his left eye?

Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist suffering from “locked-in” syndrome which paralyzed his body but did not affect his mind, wrote the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly solely by blinking his left eye. When the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again, Bauby would blink to indicate his choice —composing and editing the book entirely in his head.

Which is the shortest stage play on record?

The shortest stage play to date is Samuel Beckett’s “Breath” – 35 seconds of screams and heavy breathing.

Who coined the term “Beat” — a slang term to symbolize the literary movement created by writers such as Ginsberg and Burroughs?

Jack Kerouac first used the term in the late 1940s, but was not until the 1950s that it would begin to describe the literary movement by writers such as Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

October's Top Ten Best-Selling eBooks

  1. The Crucible Teaching Unit
  2. The Scarlet Letter AP Teaching Unit
  3. The Crucible AP Teaching Unit
  4. Frankenstein Teaching Unit
  5. Hamlet AP Teaching Unit
  6. Of Mice And Men Teaching Unit
  7. Canterbury Tales Teaching Unit
  8. Night Teaching Unit
  9. To Kill a Mockingbird Teaching Unit
  10. Lord of the Flies Teaching Unit

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hurling Insults: Just Another Form of Literary Flattery

— Stephanie Polukis

Not everyone can enjoy the subtle wit and social criticism of Jane Austen. Few more can appreciate the convoluted stream-of-consciousness in the writing of James Joyce. Some dislike Poe; others hate Dickens. Many think Chaucer is antiquated and dull. However, no one finds certain authors’ styles more intolerable, more deplorable and repulsive, than other writers.

The following are some of the most scandalous insults one famous writer has made about another:

“Mr Eliot is at times an excellent poet and has arrived at the supreme Eminence among English critics largely through disguising himself as a corpse.”
– Ezra Pound on T. S. Eliot

“This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.”

– Dorothy Parker on a book by Benito Mussolini

“[A book by Henry James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string.”

– H. G. Wells on Henry James

“One could always baffle Conrad by saying ‘humour.’”

– H.G. Wells on Joseph Conrad

“Jane Austen's books, too are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it.”

– Mark Twain on Jane Austen

“There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.”

– Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope

“Never did I see such apparatus got ready for thinking, and never so little thought. He mounts scaffolding, pulleys, and tackles, gathers all the tools in the neighbourhood with labour, with noise, demonstration, precept, and sets— three bricks.”

– Thomas Carlyle on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“He was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.”

–Mark Twain on Henry James

“the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with.”

–Charles Lamb on Percy Bysshe Shelley

“That's not writing, that's typing.”

–Truman Capote, on Jack Kerouac

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Ghost Story for the Ages

Mr. Magoo did it. So did the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart. In fact, Stewart did it on television and live on stage in an award-winning one-person performance. Jim Carrey’s doing it right now (in 3D). Matthew McConaughey did it at a wedding, and Henry Winkler did it in Depression-era New England.

It’s been done on bare stages with no set or costumes, in colorful and elaborate period film extravaganzas, in black and white, with puppets and two-dimensional cartoon figures. It’s been at least two operas, a ballet, no fewer than twenty-one films, and fifty television shows—including episodes of such favorites as Sanford and Son, Sesame Street, The Flintstones, The Odd Couple, Family Ties, and Northern Exposure. (Set during Yom Kippur, the episode was titled “Shofar So Good.”)

It was, however, first (and to many purists like me, first and foremost) a novel. A beloved novel.

It is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the extraordinary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas-season visits with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

First published in London in 1843 (in desperate need of cash, Dickens wrote the book in a mere six weeks), the book began a tradition of Dickens Christmas tales and virtually invented the modern Christmas. Drawing on the popular European custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve (some say to coincide with the Winter Solstice—the longest night of the year), Dickens wove a parable of ghostly visits, human benevolence, social responsibility, innocent childhood, and spiritual redemption.

It was an immediate bestseller—selling out the entire first printing of six thousand copies in a mere five days. (This first printing was released on December 19 and sold out by Christmas Eve.) Unusually high production costs (gold-stamped front cover, gilt-edged pages, expensive hand-colored illustrations by the nation’s premier book illustrator) and a low sales price of five shillings apiece (Dickens wanted the poor he celebrated in the novel to be able to afford a copy) meant that Dickens earned less than a quarter of what he had hoped. Some sources claim he actually lost money in the transaction.

What he lost in coin of the realm, however, he gained in immortal fame. Is there a character in all of Western literature so unanimously despised as Ebenezer Scrooge, so universally pitied as Bob Cratchit, so unconditionally beloved as Tiny Tim?

Is there any person in the English-speaking world who, when confronted with one of the dozens upon dozens of remakes, imitations, and recasts, does not recognize the conceit and know the source?

Imagine what it must have been like to be among the first generation of readers to witness Scrooge’s dismissing his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner as “Humbug!” or Tiny Tim’s plaintive prayer, “God bless us, every one.”

Imagine being the creator of such a work! (If only Dickens could have any idea how ubiquitous his concept and his characters have become

This is not to suggest, however, that all Christmas Carol adaptations and derivatives are equal. Probably the best film adaptation in “recent” years is the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol. It is the most faithful to the original text; Gonzo the Great appears as narrator Charles Dickens and quotes verbatim from the novel. Except for the addition of songs (quite nice songs, actually) and a little twentieth-century-American humor, there are no significant changes to the plot, theme, or characters (well, Dickens doesn’t specifically say that Bob and Tim Cratchit are frogs, but one can certainly infer…) Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf play the Marley Brothers, Jacob and Robert (get it…Bob Marley?), but this is actually a minor and forgivable change. This is definitely a four-and-a-half-star effort.

One of my all-time favorites is Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). First of all, I would have just turned seven when it first aired (a most impressionable age), and it was probably my first exposure to Scrooge and company. Second, it also has some very nice songs (why did they never release the soundtrack?). It does, however, make a few unaccountable changes to the story. First of all, in Magoo, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears before the Past. Odd. Second, at the end of the story, instead of going to his nephew’s house for dinner, Scrooge shows up at the Cratchits’. Odder still. Four stars.

Many people love the 1951 Alastair Sim film, and this is indeed an entertaining adaptation with interesting time-travel effects (a running hourglass and a tunnel of clouds), but there are some purposeless changes that I simply cannot fathom: Scrooge’s fiancée, Belle, becomes “Alice” in the film. She does not marry and have a family (as Scrooge is shown by the GCP); instead, she has become a spinster, spending her Christmas tending to the ill and destitute. Finally, there is also no suggestion in the novel that little sister Fan died while giving birth to Fred—as she does in the film—or that she entrusted the infant Fred to her heartless big brother’s care—as she does in the film. There’s really no need to make these changes, either. (At least, though, Scrooge actually goes to his nephew’s house for dinner instead of crashing the Cratchits’ party). Still, I can’t give this effort more than three stars.

Albert Finney’s 1970 musical, Scrooge, is fun. There are a few changes—more expansions and elaborations than changes. For example, there’s a long sequence of Belle’s and Scrooge’s courtship before she dumps him, and in the graveyard scene, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come uncloaks his face to reveal a skull. Scrooge falls into his open grave and meets Jacob Marley in hell. (This scene is cut from most television viewings and many DVD editions.) These sequences don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, so they add little beside length to the story. As in Magoo’s, Scrooge shows up at the Cratchits’ house, but at the end of the film, he does say he is going to have dinner with “[his] family.” Something about the way Finney says it chokes me up every time. Three and a half stars for an attempt at faithfulness and originality and for emotional appeal.

I’m not even going to address Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)—probably my least favorite—in which Scrooge (Scrooge McDuck) gives Cratchit (Mickey Mouse) his laundry to take home, and a cigar-smoking Big Bad Pete laughs devilishly as Scrooge falls into the flaming pit of his grave . . . Two stars.

Perhaps, though, as a colleague of mine—for whom Mickey’s… is the Christmas Carol—suggests, it’s the first Carol of our childhoods that we love. For him it was Mickey, for me Magoo.

And therein lies, I think, the wonder of A Christmas Carol — the secret of its immediate success and its lasting appeal. It’s not the Ghosts. It’s not the Miserly Curmudgeon. It’s not the virtuous Poor Family or the Sick Child. It’s not even Christmas (as fictional Scrooge knock-offs Connor Meade and Dr. Joel Fleishman have shown us).

It’s the undeniable psychology of hope that flows through every telling, retelling, or revision of this immortal tale. We cannot change the past; as the ghost of that name tells Scrooge, “these are the shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me.” But we do not have to allow the past to determine the present—or the future:

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends . . . but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Things can work out all right.

And, ultimately, isn’t this what we want from the literature we love and study and teach? Don’t we want to know that Prospero will be restored as Duke of Milan? That the Younger family will be allowed to move into their house? That Heathcliff and Catherine have been united in their afterlife?

Don’t we want the assurance that, whether the Ebenezer Scrooge of the day is a computer-enhanced human, a nearsighted cartoon character, or a duck, we can rest assured that he—or she—will see the error of his ways before it’s too late?

Mickey won’t have to do McDuck’s laundry. Magoo will bring jars full of razzleberry jelly.

And Tiny Tim will not die.

Whatever any of us may think about adaptations, revisions, and translations—and I say this as an obsessive-compulsive who has read A Christmas Carol every year since 1974 (this year will be my thirty-fifth reading)—you have to admit that something that is so adaptable, that is so tempting to adapt, that invites so many creative persons across generations and art forms to take it and make it their own . . .

. . . is a pretty awesome piece of literature.

— Douglas Grudzina

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday Trivia

  1. Which 16th century Italian painter was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest poets of all time?
  2. Which of Shakespeare’s close friends and fellow authors is buried in a standing position in Westminster Abbey?
  3. Which 20th century French Journalist wrote an entire book one letter at a time — indicating the next correct letter by blinking only his left eye?
  4. Which is the shortest stage play on record?
  5. Who coined the term “Beat” — a slang term to symbolize the literary movement created by writers such as Ginsberg and Burroughs?

Last Week's Answers

Which was the first novel ever sold through a vending machine?

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was sold from a vending machine for the first time in 1989 at the Paris Metro. Interestingly enough, the first vending machine was invented in Alexandria, Egypt around 215 BC. When a coin was dropped into a slot, its weight would pull a cork out of a spigot and the machine would dispense a trickle of water.

The oldest surviving daily newspaper is the Wiener Zeitung of Austria. When was it first printed?

It was first printed in 1703.

Where does the “Hey Diddle Diddle” nursery rhyme come from?

This Nursery Rhyme originated in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The queen is said to have teased her courtiers (not unlike a cat teases mice) and was very fond of dancing to fiddle music. One of her courtiers was called "Moon" and another "Dog," and there was also a gentleman of the court called "Dish" who eloped with Mistress “Spoon.”

And thus the rhyme was born: “Hey diddle, diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon, The little dog laughed to see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon.”

There are 10 million books in the Russian Public Library in Leningrad — enough to supply every person in the city with two books. If the books housed in the United States Library of Congress were doled out to those living in the city of Washington, D.C., how many books would each person receive?

If the 72,466,926 books housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. were doled out to the 591,833 people living in the city, there would be approximately 122 volumes for each person.

Why was part of Lewis Carroll's classic, Through the Looking Glass, featuring a giant wasp wearing a wig omitted from the original publication and only made known to the general public 107 years later?

The section, which featured a giant wasp wearing a wig, was left out because Carroll's illustrator, John Tenniel, refused to illustrate it. "A wasp in a wig," said Tenniel, "is altogether beyond the appliances of art."