The recent TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol faced the same problem as Dracula in that there are already so many different adaptations of the story out there – so how is a new one going to stand out? The trailer seemed to provide the answer: by turning the dark and creepy angle up to eleven, even more than the Robert Zemeckis animated film. That seemed an interesting take – and the final production is indeed very dark and creepy. Unfortunately, it also seems to forget that A Christmas Carol is meant to be an ultimately positive story that will “haunt you pleasantly“, and while it tries half-heartedly to retain the themes of redemption and generosity, they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of gloominess within. There is nothing that will haunt you pleasantly about this version.
It was clear from the trailer that plenty would be changed. Barely any dialogue is taken from the book: it takes 43 minutes into the first episode for Scrooge to even say “humbug”. The three ghosts are completely transformed: Christmas Past is a sinister, bearded old man, Christmas Present takes the form of Scrooge’s sister, and Christmas Yet To Come is an undertaker with his mouth sewn shut. However, keeping the title, the Victorian setting and the character names creates the false expectation that the adaptation doesn’t want to totally distance itself from Charles Dickens’s work, and will at least remain true to the spirit of the classic story. Changes don’t have to be a bad thing: the 1951 film, for example, invents a lot of new scenes expanding upon Scrooge’s backstory. But so much is changed here beyond the basic plot outline that it might as well be an original story, and these changes don’t teach us anything new about the characters or the message, because neither are the same as those of Dickens.
When you look beneath the skin, past the expected miserly habits, Guy Pearce’s Ebenezer Scrooge is not the one we’re familiar with. Rather than having no interest in Christmas, he is interested enough to point out that the Bible never refers to the date of Jesus’s birth, and wax philosophically on how it’s the one day of the year that people pretend to like each other. Rather than being apathetic towards his fellow man, he is instead deliberately cruel, playing mindgames to experiment with human nature and swindling a mill owner to make a profit. Not only that, but he’s been responsible for the deaths of many people, thanks to factory and coal mine accidents that were caused by his penny-pinching and neglect. By the time he offers Mrs Cratchit money for Tiny Tim’s medical care in exchange for sexual favours, only to reveal he just wanted to see if she would abandon her principles by agreeing to that, I was wondering why I shouldn’t want to see this Scrooge dragging chains for all eternity. Other characters resemble their familiar counterparts in name only: Bob Cratchit isn’t afraid to talk back to Scrooge (who, for some reason, doesn’t sack him for doing so) and openly tells his family that he despises the man; while Scrooge’s nephew Fred, far from being cheerful and optimistic, tells his uncle that if he doesn’t come to dinner this Christmas, he will never bother asking again.
This is definitely not A Christmas Carol for kids: the f-word is dropped twice in the first episode, and Jacob Marley is graphically missing his jaw when he first appears to Scrooge. The grim atmosphere permeates everything to the point that you can’t see anyone in this world deriving happiness and goodwill from Christmas at the best of times. Fezziwig and his Christmas party are totally absent from the Christmas Past sequence, and even the Cratchit family Christmas doesn’t feel joyful. Most shocking and dark is the revelation that as a child, Scrooge was molested by his headmaster – and his sister Lottie (not Fan) selflessly coming to rescue him from this horror is, according to Christmas Past, supposed to represent the spirit of Christmas. Yes, that is the most positive, heartening, Christmassy thing in this story: a boy being rescued from abuse.
When we get to the start of the final episode and we’re still on Christmas Past, you’d expect that the rest of the story would be pretty rushed – and you’d be right. Christmas Present covers what the Cratchit family is doing, followed by a memorial service for some coal miners whose deaths were caused by Scrooge; while Christmas Yet To Come covers the deaths of Tiny Tim and Scrooge himself equally briskly. Scrooge is given little time to get attached to Tiny Tim – so when, later, he is horrified by Tim’s death and wants him to be spared above himself, it doesn’t feel convincing. To be fair, the altered emotional journey that Scrooge goes on is fairly interesting and would make for a good story if it were one with original characters: rendered emotionally numb by his childhood experiences, he is made to confront his pain and understand what makes love worth giving and accepting. But with more emphasis on repentance rather than self-improvement, it’s still all too depressing to work as a moral, and certainly not motivating. Scrooge is ultimately judged to have learned his lesson when he tells Marley that he won’t change because a miserable death and afterlife are no less than he deserves.
So, what about the ending? Well, there’s no description of Scrooge performing various charitable works and becoming well-loved about town. Instead, he closes down his company, parts ways with the Cratchits on grudgingly peaceful terms, and says that while he neither wants nor expects forgiveness, he will try to do better with the time he has left. Maybe this is more realistic than the familiar version – especially considering all the terrible things this Scrooge has done – but this conclusion which only permits a glimmer of hope and inspiration doesn’t exactly make you feel that all the negativity was worth it.
If this was the story that the people behind this adaptation wanted to tell, I feel they should have gone further and used a similar concept to Scrooged: something obviously inspired by A Christmas Carol, but at a safe enough distance from the original story that they could do what they wanted without it seeming out of place. The approach that they chose is just another example of how not to adapt something.