December 17, 2019

Hello, I’m Gemma and I joined People United a couple of months ago. In keeping with the season I’d like to use my Kindness Column to talk about one of my favourite Christmas stories – A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous works of fiction in the world. In addition to the original text it has also been adapted for the stage and performed worldwide for 150 years, the first film version was made in 1901. Today there are graphic novels, operas and cartoons based on the story of Scrooge and the spirits of Christmas who visit him one Christmas Eve. The first play to be performed entirely in Klingon was a version of A Christmas Carol set on the Klingon homeworld of Q’onoS.

When a book is adapted into a film or a TV series there are often people who are of the mindset that the book is infinitely better, that a film could never do it justice, that you should always read the book first to experience it the way it was intended by the author. I used to be one of those people. I honestly can’t remember how it came about, I expect as a child I heard other people insisting that “the book was better” and I imitated them. But I also really believed it. I was absolutely certain that there were no film adaptations of books that fully did justice to the original text and as a teenager I would refuse to see films until I had read the books they were based on.

But as I got older, I found it harder to read books. At first it was just very dry non-fiction and old philosophy texts that were written in incomprehensible old English. I relied heavily on secondary texts during my degree because I couldn’t keep Nietzsche’s words in my head long enough to work out what he was trying to say; and I was so embarrassed about that. I thought it meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. Over time I started struggling with all non-fiction and eventually I struggled to even concentrate on my beloved fiction books. I felt ashamed, I thought I was just lazy, that I had gone so long without reading properly that my brain was out of shape.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia that things changed for me. A symptom of fibromyalgia is cognitive dysfunction – problems concentrating and remembering things. And as I learned about my condition I met people with other chronic illnesses and neuro-divergence who also found it difficult to read traditional books. I met excellent disability advocates who made me realise that there is no right way to consume media, there is no hierarchy. You don’t have to feel bad if you haven’t read the original text and just because you’ve read the book and someone else hasn’t doesn’t make you a more dedicated fan. That’s not to say there isn’t a value to being able to read books, to reading the originals – especially if you’re engaging with something academically – but it’s not the be-all and end-all of consuming media.

I said at the beginning of this column that A Christmas Carol is my favourite Christmas story, and it is, but I didn’t read the original all the way through until earlier this year. Imagine what I’d have missed out on for 32 years if I still felt like I had to read the book first. Not only would I not know the important moral of kindness that A Christmas Carol imparts to readers, but I wouldn’t have gotten to see the fantastic Patrick Stewart and Richard E Grant TV film version, the gender-swapped A Carol Christmas with William Shatner as the ghost of Christmas Present and, of course, the wonderfully musical A Muppet Christmas Carol.

I’d like to think that I would have come to understand that all media consumption is equally valid regardless of whether I had developed a chronic illness that affected my ability to read or not. We all grow as people over our lifetimes and realise that some of the beliefs we held when we were younger were problematic. But I’m also glad for the way that I learned this particular lesson, because I learned not to be judgemental or make assumptions, and that was possibly the most valuable lesson.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts: whichever medium you choose to access the arts – books, audiobooks, film, television, graphic novels – they are all valid; kindness, understanding and tolerance of others is absolutely imperative, and as Klingon Scrooge would say “Christmas Quch Daghajjaj” (May you have a happy Christmas).

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