Monthly Archives: December 2013

Points of Light Christmas Edition: A Christmas Story

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Hello and Merry Christmas readers. As we close in on Christmas Day and I prepare for a short holiday break, I find the need to end this edition of Points of Light on a strong note. It requires one of the best examples of strong writing I can think of, and for this season, there is only one piece that holds up along with A Christmas Carol and The Grinch. It is a simple tale of years past known simply as, A Christmas Story.

The Plot

A Christmas Story is the childhood memories of author Jean Shepard, who narrates the film. The story focuses on his nine-year old self (here called Ralphie) and his quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. Along the way, he deals with bullies, childhood dares, and his family, who each deal with plots of their own. As Christmas comes closer, we see Raplhie’s father win a ‘major award,’ his brother’s odd habits, a secret decoder ring, and a mental break that eventually lead to a surprising Christmas morning.

What Writers Can Learn: Common Ground, Reality

As the plot indicates, A Christmas Story is fairly disjointed. There are numerous small subplots along the way to Christmas morning, and not all of them are resolved. The film did not revive acclaim on it’s initial release, and was considered a sleeper film for many years. However, it is now considered a holiday classic, and is shown each Christmas in a 24-hour marathon on cable network TBS. So what is it about such a disjointed, fairly simple story that has given it such praise?

To put it simply, the very fact it is so simple and disjointed. The movie may be set in Shepard’s childhood of the 40’s, but the events that transpire are familiar to everyone. Everyone has stories about how strange and crazy their families were as a child, and Ralphie is no different. Watching the Old Man eternally struggle with the furnace and the neighbor’s dogs, or Ralphie’s mom trick her younger son into eating like a pig bring to mind our memories of the strangeness of growing up. The scenes of dealing with bullies, idiotic dares, and heroic fantasies are all reminiscint of the baisic nature of childhood and with Shepard’s narration, it is further enhanced. We remember our own childhoods watching it and fall into nostalgia that manages to ring truly, but differently for everyone who watches it.

However, the holiday element is never abandoned. For every piece of childhood remembered, we also see Christmas through a child’s eyes. Ralphie’s desire for his BB gun is the desire of everyone that every wanted that one special toy at Christmas. We relive our own desires through him, and remember our feelings of hope, disappointment and/or relief on the big day. But watching the quiet moments, like Ralphie’s family gathered around the tree also remind us of the togetherness and near perfection the holiday brought us in our youth. And because no CS piece would be complete without mentioning it, Ralphie’s reaction to the horrible gift of his Aunt Clara reminds us how much we had to fake smile during the holiday as well (and still do even now)

Final Thoughts

The strengths of this movie are how well it resonates for people of any generation. For a writer, this is a vital skill for anyone that wishes to write about their life or a specific series of events. Writers always need to convey something that readers can see in their own lives- a struggle, an emotion, a mindset, that brings to mind something that they have experienced. Even a half-elf warrior can struggle with common concepts like family and isolation. A man that can punch steel can deal with wanting to be like everyone else. And while this movie may not hit such deep notes, it reminds us of our own lives while managing to be its own entity, which is something a great life-story should be.

On that end, Merry Christmas to my readers, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year.

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Points of Light Holiday Edition: How The Grinch Stole Christmas

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Happy Holidays once again, as we continue with the holiday edition of Points of Light. For the last two weeks, I’ve been examining different versions of A Christmas Carol. This week, I WILL be moving onto a different story, though I will again return with a familiar story of Yuletide cheer. So strap on your climbing shoes for the top of Mt. Crumpit, as I open up Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Plot

As this is also a well-told and familiar story, I will be brief. The Grinch, a green monster that lives above Whoville, is tried of the incessant noise and spectacle of Christmas, and makes up his mind to ruin it. Dressed as Santa, he ventures down on Christmas Eve, stealing decorations, presents, and everything associated with the holiday, intending to dump it when he hears the cries of the Whos on Christmas morning. However, the reaction he gets makes him realize that Christmas is much bigger then his stolen loot, and with a new perspective, returns to Whoville, gives back all the stolen items, and joins the Who in celebration.

What Writers Can Learn: Commentary, Hidden Meaning, Personal Meaning

The Grinch is well regarded as a Christmas classic because it works on a variety of levels. At the very least, it is an engaging children’s story, with a happy ending and a simple moral. However, it also works for adults as a commentary. Seuss himself has admitted that there is a part of himself in the Grinch, and he largely wrote it to reconnect with a holiday he felt he’d lost something with. Anyone that’s ventured out into the Christmas season can agree. Each year, we are bombarded with endless decorations, shopping sprees, preparations and celebrations, and enough forced commercialism to make anyone hate the day. That is largely why the book resonates so well. Everyone has been the Grinch at some point- tired of the spectacle, seeing the holiday as nothing more then an exercise in greed, forced cheer, and commercial excess. In fact, one of the few strong moments in the live action adaption is when the Grinch admonishes the Whos for driving themselves into debt each year to buy presents that largely end up in the dump where he lives.

However, the Grinch’s journey, as it should be for the reader, is about seeing past the immediate façade of Christmas. The Grinch sees Christmas as nothing more then baubles and parties, and so that is what he steals. And like those tired of the holiday, he fully expects the day to be ruined because there are no longer any gifts or food to be had, no decorations to moon over. However, instead of anguished cries, he hears joyful singing, as the Who come out to give thanks for the day. Though he is confused, he comes to the revelation that while presents and parties and decorations are a part of the Christmas season, they are not all of it. Christmas is shown as a time when being with friends and family, and experiencing their joy and togetherness is all that truly matters. That’s why the Grinch cannot steal it, and it is the moment that makes the book a work of genius- by turning around expectations and giving a lesson that we realize was evident from the very beginning. That is a trick that only the best writers can accomplish, and the reason Dr. Seuss and his work is so beloved.

Final Thoughts

The Grinch is both a great moral tale and a family classic, that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Writers that are looking to write clever lessons and surprise readers should study it, as well as anyone that wants to write for children the way Seuss did. And readers who want more need go no further then the classic Chuck Jones animated special, narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. The more recent live action version is impressive for the visuals and some of Jim Carrey’s performance as the Grinch, but it ignores the book’s subtlety for a sledgehammer approach to the moral (see the Nostalgia Critic’s video review (completely in rhyme) for a bigger picture). But it is entertaining enough, and does contain some well done moments. Come back next week, when I end the month and lead into a Christmas with a strong holiday masterpiece.

Points of Light Christmas Edition: Zombie Christmas Carol

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Welcome to the next entry of this Yuletide Points of Light. Last week, I divulged into A Christmas Carol and mentioned its many adaptations. Today’s entry is one of them, a recent comic adaptation of the last few years. However, this version adds in one of the more recent modern literary trends, with frightening results. With that, I present Marvel Comics’ Zombie Christmas Carol.

The Plot

While this story follows the basic outline of its source, it adds many new elements. England is in the grip of a zombie plague, with the people attempting to barricade and placate the ‘Hungry Ones,’ inside hospitals and workhouses. Unfortunately, the endless hunger of the zombies has drained resources, causing those in charge to beg for funds from Scrooge. He of course, recants, but is later visited by the zombified remains of Jacob Marley, who says Scrooge has a hand in both starting and ending the plague. The Three Sprits (suffering from the zombified world) show Scrooge how his past actions have played in the zombies creation, the current horrors, and the dark future that awaits. Scrooge eventually realizes that his abandonment of basic human kindness and belief in his fellow man is the very source of the ‘greed’ that infects the world, and it is only be reigniting that belief that he can save it.

What Writers Can Learn: Morality, Horror Elements

To begin with, I want to stress that this version DOES exist, and is not a fanfiction. Second, that despite what could be a rather gory and ludicrous story, this version still manages to capture the overall theme of Dickens’ novel. Of course there still IS gore and violence, but it serves as the backdrop for Scrooge’s redemption. The writers still use them well however, as they emphasize the darker nature of greed and selfishness that Dickens wrote against. And just like the novel, the comic shows Christmas under attack by these dark forces, not only through the zombies, but through the very Spirits themselves.

As I mentioned, each of the Sprits is affected by the horrors affecting their holiday. Christmas Past retains a feminine form with a connection to Scrooge, but is presented as a ragged corpse bride constantly dying and returning to life (a nod to the past itself, always leaving but never fading). Christmas Present begins much the same, but as he travels with Scrooge, his joy is slowly changed to melancholy and madness, as he shows Scrooge the happy world he should have entered into, and the world of death and endless hunger he is in. This version also contains the often-cut scene of Ignorance and Want, who literally spell the end of Christmas Present. Christmas Yet to Come, already a fearful specter, is little more then robe and jawbone, as he shows Scrooge a horrific zombie apocalypse where Bob Crachit’s beloved family devour him whole, Tiny Tim is damned to wander the earth, forever hungry, and Scrooge himself is shown a grave with a not quite dead occupant. Because of all these horrific twists, the often worn message of the story gains new and frightful resonance, even more so when Scrooge sets out to correct the world

Scrooge himself is shown with far more moral dilemmas then money. We see that his greed comes from an early misfortune of his youth, that hardened him to believe that man can never help his fellows, only starve them of love and life. As such, he has spread this sickness to other men and women, causing the very zombie plague his world is engulfed. This is an intriguing mix of Dickens’ original character and modern zombie elements, made more so by the revelation that Scrooge also carries the cure within him. His nephew Fred, originally a minor character, is given a major life, as he seems to carry a cure as well. (Spoilers Ahead!). It is through him, and his deceased mother, Scrooge’s beloved sister, that we learn the light of kindness and generosity is the only way to cure the zombies. When Scrooge ignites that within himself, we are again shown Dickens’ morals, but in an entirely light. For now, that basic human kindness and belief in goodness is enough to bring rest to legions of unhappy, hungry wanderers and save the very world. There are few who could read such a story and not look at their actions a bit differently as the holidays roll around.

Final Thoughts

Zombie Christmas Carol is a unique twist on a classic story, which would appeal to any who enjoy zombie gore and violence. However, it still retains the high minded ideals that Dickens originally set down, along with the requisite darkness and horror a good zombie story should have. The idea of love and goodwill restoring the dead is also a fresh, if slightly heavy handed spin, which seems to have gained ground in Hollywood (the film and novel Warm Bodies explores similar ground). While this is cannot be recommended for children, adults and teenagers looking for a fresh version of a Christmas classic should certainly pick up this volume.

Points of Light Christmas Edition: A Christmas Carol

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Welcome to the first post of December. As the Christmas season comes down again, I decided that since the first holiday month on the blog went well, that it was time to do it again, this time with a series of Christmas themed entries. Now have no fear, I have no intention of talking commercialized specials like Frosty and Rudolph. Instead, my desire is to examine genuine pieces of Christmas stories, be they literature, film, or another medium. Therefore, let’s begin with perhaps the greatest piece of literature in history- Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.

The Plot

As this is a story that has had multiple adoptions and retelling in the century plus time since it’s writing, I will be brief here. This is the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, a cold, money-obsessed man who care only for money and for none of the joy of Christmas. But a visit from his deceased partner, who is doomed to wander the earth for his greedy ways in life, precedes a trio of ghosts who show Scrooge the past, present, and future should he continue in his ways. This leads Scrooge to embrace change and become a fair and generous man to all those around him.

What Writers Can Learn: Morality, Symbolism, Social Commentary

There is nary a person that has not grown up hearing some version of A Christmas Carol. Its impact on the holiday cannot be understated- indeed, the book is created for returning Christmas to a more joyous time on both sides of the Atlantic, and giving the weight and meaning it has now. However, Dickens’ tale has deeper roots. Dickens felt for the hard life of poor children and workers in England, and wrote several pamphlets on the cruelty of life those workers had to endure. He himself had lived several months in a workhouse as a child, and had observed the men and women who slaved away there. However, Dickens realized he could accomplish more with his writing then he could with political fare, and created a Christmas narrative to send his concerns out to the masses. Scrooge therefore, and figures like Jacob Marely stand as a criticism on capitalism, and Scrooge’s transformation and the happiness of the poor Cratchits is Dickens’ hope for the redemption of mankind.

Indeed, Dickens fills the novel with symbols not only on mankind’s nature, but also on life itself. Scrooge and Marely clearly represents greed and its destructive ways, and the chance for redemption, while Bob Cratchit is obviously the working man Dickens saw in life and Tiny Tim the poor children he also saw. However, the three Sprits also contain deeper symbolism. The Ghost of Christmas Past is portrayed as bright and shining, often imbibed with the power of ‘truth’. The past itself is often seen through nostalgia, making it seem a far better and simpler time. Yet, it also carries the weight of our choices, and how we must accept what they have led us to.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is joyful and happy, showing not only the emotions we should hold at Christmas, but also how the present seems full of possibilities. However, as the Spirit proves, the present also forces us to look at things as they are now, and the things we must see and judge ourselves by in the world. Indeed, a forceful scene, often cut out of current adaptations, is where the Spirit shows how Ignorance and Want, shown as poor, malnourished children of Mankind, cling to him, and how if they are ignored, will spell they end of humanity. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is the least subtle- a dark, foreboding figure in the mold of the Grim Reaper. Because after all, the future is always shrouded in mystery, save that it contains one thing- Death, which every person fears, and the question of how a person’s life will stack up when they are gone. Therefore this Sprit’s part of the novel is the darkest, and the one just prior to Scrooge’s redemption. It also carries the most weight, perhaps best shown in, ironically, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, where the Spirit tosses Scrooge into his grave (which opens into Hell), laughing and calling out, “The richest man in the cemetery!”

Final Thoughts

The many adaptations of A Christmas Carol have worn out many of the messages, but that does not make it any less of a tool for writers. It takes the hardships of the poor, the evil of greed, and the hope of redemption, and wraps into a Christmas ghost story (a hard enough thing to write as it is). Writers wishing to convey any sort of social message, or a moral, should examine it and see how well these heavy issues can be wrapped in a holly wreath and hung in the minds of men.

As for the adaptations, people with genuine interest should view either the George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart versions, which are closest to the original novel. However, children would be well served by the afore-mentioned Mickey’s Christmas Carol or The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, and excellent comedic versions exist in Scrooged! or Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which reverses Scrooge into the nicest (and most taken advantage of) man in England, who learns to be greedy and mean. And of course, there is one rather recent version which I will discuss next week. Be warned though- this version carries with it a rather Halloween-flavored hunger…

Also, I will be appearing a the Cranford NJ Public Library this Thursday night for a signing and discussion on Lightrider, so any in the area, feel free to attend. And a congratulations to Emile Wilson, winner of the Lightrider Holiday Giveaway!