Having recently read Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, which Jacqueline has often recommended, I’m wondering about an apparent exception to the “save the cat” rule in classic literature. Snyder lays out the principle that the protagonist should do something early in the story to make the reader (or viewer) like and root for him or her, to hint that even if the central character looks like a bad guy, he is redeemable. As an extension of this principle, Snyder says that if the protagonist appears to have no redeeming traits, the same goal can be achieved by introducing another character who’s even worse.
So how does Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL fit into this pattern? In the opening scene, he does nothing whatever to win our sympathy or display any redeeming characteristics. Everything he says and does in that scene, in fact, seems designed to demonstrate what a lost cause he is. He bullies Bob Cratchit, rudely dismisses two gentlemen collecting for charity, drives off a boy singing Christmas carols, and picks a quarrel with his nephew who drops in to invite him to dinner. Scrooge does perform one positive act, giving Cratchit Christmas Day off, but it’s done so grudgingly I have trouble seeing it as a “save the cat” moment. The Scrooge figures in some of the many film adaptations behave even worse. The singing star in A DIVA’S CHRISTMAS CAROL makes her entourage work on Christmas. In AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, the Scrooge analog even fires the Cratchit analog on Christmas Eve. Returning to Dickens, some readers might suggest that Scrooge’s bleak, solitary lifestyle is meant to evoke sympathy, but I think any tendency to feel sorry for him is undercut by the evidence that he’s perfectly content with the way he lives. (“Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”) And in no case does the author (Dickens or later adapters)—in the opening scene—present a character worse than Scrooge to make him look less unappealing by contrast.
The latter technique appears to striking effect in a modern novel, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. While Dr. Hannibal Lecter isn’t the protagonist and shows no sign of being redeemable, the author gives him audience appeal by implicitly contrasting him with characters who make him look good by comparison. Dr. Chilton, head of the institution where Lecter is incarcerated, makes a strongly negative first impression on Clarice Starling and on the reader. The inmates of cells adjoining Lecter’s are crude, violent men who verbally abuse Clarice. Lecter, in contrast, apologizes to her for the ugly treatment she receives. Moreover, he helps Clarice by giving her cryptic but useful clues in her investigation of the “Buffalo Bill” killer. Also, while we’re TOLD about Lecter’s horrible crimes, what we SEE at first glance is a brilliant, cultured man suffering harsh imprisonment. In fact, Thomas Harris’s strategy is so effective that, when HANNIBAL came out, some fans actually insisted in online comments that Lecter wasn’t such a bad guy after all! So one of the villains of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS comes across as more attractive than Scrooge, a much less evil character who’s the protagonist of his story and destined for redemption.
When the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up, we begin to witness a side of Scrooge that’s worth saving and capable of being saved. That happens quite a way into the story, though. Of course, a genius such as Dickens can get away with breaking “rules.” Still, is there any way the reader’s first meeting with Scrooge can be interpreted to fit into the “save the cat” pattern? Maybe Dickens’s strategy of making old Ebenezer, although grotesquely unattractive, an irresistibly entertaining character (his dialogue includes many examples of dry wit, though that impression might be more attributable to the acting skills of stars such as George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart rather than to the character as written) fits the criterion. But that seems like a bit of a stretch to me.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt