2019 saw the release of a new television version of A Christmas Carol which was, like those before it, eagerly anticipated. The joyous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey to redemption never fails to bring a smile to the faces of those who so cherish and love the story and I’m sure many settled down to watch this new offering with a sense of excitement and warm familiarity: but if they were expecting traditional fare they were in for a shock.
The new version, featuring Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge, was made produced by Ridley Scott and the team behind the gritty UK gangster drama Peaky Blinders. The BBC described the series as an ‘unique and original take on Charles Dickens’ iconic ghost story and a haunting, hallucinatory, spine-tingling immersion into Scrooge’s dark night of the soul.’ which might have started to ring warning bells. The screenplay for the three hour production was written by Steven Wright who has previously credited Charles Dickens as a major inspiration and who plans to adapt a number of the major novels in a similar style. There was talk of a ‘…timely interpretation of a timeless story.’ and of following plot lines that were signposted by short sentences or observations from the original text although never yet fully explored.
Clearly this adaptation was going to be quite a challenge to those who relished the flickering candlelight, the beautiful prose and the heart-warming familiarity of my great great grandfather’s ‘ghostly little book’.
For my part I made the decision not to watch the first instalment until my own 2019 tour was completed, for I didn’t want any new ideas to cloud or confuse my current version. Much better to have a year to reflect and ponder and to carefully weave any new influences into my telling for next year.
The first thing to notice about the show is that it is NOT billed as ‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’, it is titled ‘A Christmas Carol. Based on the novella by Charles Dickens’ The opening scene is in a grey, neglected graveyard and we see a youth urinating over Jacob Marley’s headstone. OK, time to reset Pickwickian perceptions.
I took the decison to watch the three episodes not as a remake of A Christmas Carol but as a drama in its own right, in the way that ‘West Side Story’ is not a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Return to Forbidden Planet’ is not a performance of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’ is not a recital of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’.
Goodness the production tested me in my resolve! Why did Marley die only 1 year before the action, not 7? Why did Jacob announce that the spirits would come at midnight, not at 1? Why did the Cratchit family have only two children? Why was Scrooge’s sister called Lottie (more on her later!)?. Each and every time I reminded myself that all of these details existed in this story and must be accepted as such. Once I had got myself into the correct state of mind the drama came alive and I found myself leaning forward on the edge of my seat.
The central plot is familiar, of course, with the non-caring and somewhat OCD Ebenezer Scrooge working in his office on Christmas Eve. His clerk Bob Cratchit has promised his wife Mary, who seems to have a remarkably passionate hatred of her husband’s employer, that he would be home early, but Scrooge demands that a letter complaining to the authorities about extreme displays of jollity in the streets be copied in duplicate.
OK so far.
Nephew Fred appears and invites Scrooge to dinner and the invitation is rejected.
Still a safe telling of the story, but all of the time there are ghostly goings on, a ledger mysteriously opens having been closed and the words ‘Prepare Ye’ are scrawled across the page.
Meanwhile in the world of the dead Jacob Marley finds himself cast in chains forged in a red hot foundry before being hauled behind a horse-drawn carriage to purgatory (which seems to be a Christmas tree farm, although to be honest being in such a place on Christmas Eve probably DOES feel like purgatory), with a jet of Hellish flame soaring into the sky. This land is presided over by The Ghost of Christmas Past who tells a somewhat confused Jacob that if he is to be released then he must assist the ghosts of Christmasses Past, Present and Future in forcing repentance from Ebenezer Scrooge.
In the counting house of Scrooge and Marley, which company seems to have a reputation for skimping on its health and safety commitments, shop is finally shut up and Scrooge marches into the streets and runs into two gentlemen collecting for charity and strangely it was this that really grated, for Steven Wright used Charles Dickens’ own words: ‘Are there no prisons?’ ‘Plenty of prisons.’ ‘And the union workhouses, are they still in operation?’ ‘They are. Still. I wish I could say they were not.’ ‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?’ ‘Both very busy sir.’ ‘Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.’ This exchange comes early in the novel but so successfully had the television adaptation created its own world that the original words seemed out of place in it.
I wont go through the entire three hours scene by scene but the atmosphere became darker and darker, bleaker and bleaker as the story moved on leaving one with the impression that it would be impossible for Scrooge to repent.
Interestingly the cinematography reminded me of the illustrations one of my favourite editions of A Christmas Carol, the one illustrated by Roberto Innocenti with is muted, drab palette.
Apart from the familiar plotlines Scrooge’s place in Hell seemed assured thanks to the business dealings of his company: a mine shaft had been improperly secured leaving to a collapse that killed many men and children as well as, and this is what seemed to affect Scrooge more than anything, pit ponies. A failing mill that had been purchased by the two businessmen, had been stripped back to its bare bones with most of the staff having been paid off on Boxing Day, before being sold on at a huge profit
These scenes were shown to Ebenezer by The Ghost of Christmas Past who cleverly morphed between different figures: Ali Baba from The Arabian Nights took him back to school, a worker from the mine took him underground, an industrialist from the mill showed him the looms printing nothing but money. These characters always come back to the grizzled figure who presides over the Christmas tree farm played by Andy Serkis. The changing faces of The Ghost of Christmas Past pays homage to Dickens’ confused description of the character:
‘It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions……
….Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’
When the ghost takes Scrooge to the schoolroom scene there is one particular memory that is truly awful that being the suggestion, no, the confirmation, of the sexual abuse he suffered when he was there and this brings us back to the ‘signposts’ in Dickens’ text that the producers had spoken about.
The original scene is written thus:
‘He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Scrooge looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “Dear, dear brother.”
“I have come to bring you home, dear brother!” said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home, home, home!”
“Home, little Fan?” returned the boy.
“Yes!” said the child, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man!” said the child, opening her eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.”
“You are quite a woman, little Fan!” exclaimed the boy’
I have always thought that the mention of the father ‘being so much kinder than he used to be…’ and that ‘he spoke so gently to me….that I was not afraid to ask….’ screams of some sort of abusive home life for both Ebenezer and Fan which has never been properly explored. In the television adaptation that plot thread is taking further suggesting that Scrooge’s teacher is sexually abusing him, as he alone is left in the school when all of the other boys have gone home for the ‘jolly holidays’
Whilst I am mentioning Scrooge’s sister I should point out a remarkable change to the story that reminded us that this was made by the team behind Peaky Blinders: In the book Little Fan is described as being much younger than Scrooge and as ‘a delicate creature’ In the adaptation she is somewhat older, called Lottie, and like a good gangster confronts the schoolmaster with a gun!
Lottie becomes even more important for it is in her adult shape that the Ghost of Christmas Present appears and this is another interesting take on the language used in the original, another following of a signpost. As soon as the ghost appears in the book it is clear that Scrooge trusts him and almost begs him to teach him more, the John Leech illustration shows Scrooge in a penitent pose but with the wisps of a smile on his features.
By making his sister the mortal figure of the spirit that sense of trust is portrayed beautifully. Throughout the scene Lottie guides Scrooge like an angel might and constantly calls him ‘dear brother’, which mirrors Dickens’ description of Fan ‘…and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “Dear, dear brother.”
The story takes us to the Cratchit’s house where we are forced to witness another vile moment in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. Seven years before Mrs Cracthit, desperate to save her son Tim, needed money desperately and unbeknown to her husband visited Mr Scrooge begging for a loan. Ebenezer told her to come to his chambers on Christmas day and if she performed whatever task he asked of her then she could have the cash as a ‘gift’.
On the Christmas morning she presented herself and as Ebenezer looked dispassionately on she began to remove her clothes ready for the debasing act. Eventually Scrooge tells her that his experiment in understanding human need had been successful and he knew what depths a woman would go to in order to save her child. He dismisses her with disdain (and the cash).
Mrs Cratchit had been emotionally raped, and that completely explains her violent response when Bob toasts ‘Mr Scrooge. The Founder the of the Feast!’ in the original work: another signpost.
Even as Scrooge travels with the spirit of Lottie it is impossible to imagine how he could possibly repent or reform for even though he is effected by much of what he sees, he still manages to justify everything that has happened to himself..
Once the corpse ghost of Christmas Yet To Come leads Scrooge to the churchyard and he slumps against his own tombstone (also urinated over), he is unrepentant. He is joined by Jacob Marley (whose release from purgatory relies on Scrooge’s conversion, remember) and in answer to the question ‘Well? have you changed?’ he says simply ‘No. I refuse. I refuse to change. All their efforts were in vain for I refuse redemption.’
‘But, why?’ asks Marley
‘This fate, this piss covered second class grave is exactly what I deserve. If redemption is to result in some kind of forgiveness I do not want it.’
It is a huge anti climax, and as a viewer you think ‘No! surely not! Liberties with the text you can take, changes to the details of the plot are OK, but messing up the whole ending is just NOT ON!’
But our attention is held by the most beautiful bit of facial acting by Guy Pearce, the pause is long, so long, and we can see Ebenezer trying desperately to make sense of what he is feeling. He is watched not only by Jacob Marley but by the three spirits as well, still haunting him. On the other side of the Churchyard a funeral is taking place, the funeral of Tim Cratchit.
‘The only thing…..’ another long pause. ‘The only thing I want the spirits to do, the only change I want them to make is to spare the life of him!’ At that moment the three spirits disappear and Marley sinks back into his grave, a spirit at peace: they have succeeded for Scrooge cares about someone else and that is all that can be asked of him.
The final scene is sheer joy, running through the streets, slipping on the ice and declaring ‘I can FEEL!’ ‘What do you feel? inquires a concerned passer by. ‘At the moment, a pain in my arse!’ Its not quite ‘Im as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as giddy as a drunken man’ but it serves the same purpose.
Ebenezer runs to the Cratchits and the scene is truly, tenderly moving and brought a tear to my eye. As he leaves Mrs Cratchit follows him and says ‘Your £500 will be welcome but it shall not buy forgiveness’
‘Nor shall forgiveness ever be earned, or expected, or wanted,’ he replies. ‘My business now is the future. I will just be the best I can be.’ And with that he leaves.
The conclusion is just as uplifting and affirming and joyous as any other that has been committed to celluloid over the years.
I know that many people will not have enjoyed this adaptation and indeed will not have continued watching passed episode one. I know that on next year’s American tour nobody will say that their favourite version was the Guy Pearce version of 2019. In fact when I am asked which is my favourite version I probably will still say ‘Alastair Sim’, or ‘George C Scott’, or ‘The Muppets’, but that is not to say that I do not like the new version because I do very much. I think it is well considered, well scripted and very well performed.
Did I enjoy it? Enjoy is probably the wrong word for something so dark and at times disturbing, but I relished it and admired it. From me the BBC A Christmas Carol gets a very definite ‘Yay’.