There’s a moment near the beginning of the definitive adaptation of A Christmas Carol I thought about a lot as I watched Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) attempt at the Charles Dickens novella. In that 1992 adaptation, the citizens of London are wandering the streets, smiling at each other, going about their business noisily and with great spirit. It’s a joyful cacophony. Scrooge makes his entrance, stalking the streets in a foul temper, and they all scatter. And then, this. (I’ve got it queued up, but in case it doesn’t work, skip to 1:41.)
The greatness of that bit is two-fold. First, there’s the pivot at the end, the angelic singing to the “nah.” But there’s also the fact that, “nah” or no “nah,” they’re basically telling you what’s about to happen. He’s a victim of fear and of pride, look close and there must be a sweet man inside. Knight’s A Christmas Carol, originally intended as a three-episode miniseries but which aired instead as one long, long TV movie, misses the mark so badly it seems almost willful, but it’s not because he abandons that premise. It’s because the adaptation itself makes the same mistakes Scrooge does. It goes to extremes to convince us he’s bad. Hell, let’s extend it—this Christmas Carol is really a victim of fear and of pride. Look close and there must be a good adaptation inside.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is under 90 minutes long. This behemoth clocks in, sans commercials, at just under three hours—yet somehow, Scrooge doesn’t see his Ghost of Christmas Present until the third chapter, startlingly close to the end of the whole shebang. There’s room for shot after shot of a man in chains wandering an abandoned Christmas tree lot, but precious little for the actual events of the story being adapted. Like purgatory, it feels endless; even a guy reattaching his own jaw by kind of smooshing it into place doesn’t offer much excitement. This is a ghost story, but really, it’s the plot that’s the most dead.
That’s not to say this take on the Christmas classic is wholly without merit. It is, first and foremost, in possession of a uniformly strong cast; the list of people doing great work includes Blinders alumnus Charlotte Riley as a new kind of Ghost of Christmas Present, Stephen Graham of Knight’s Taboo as Jacob Marley, Andy Serkis as a dark, weighty version of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Vinette Robinson. Robinson, who is good in everything, makes more than one scene here work when those scenes should, by rights, be set ablaze like the London of Scrooge’s waking nightmares. She plays Mary Crachit, and the fact that anything about this version of that character works even a little bit is a testament to her skill. Well, hers and Guy Pearce’s.
What’s most frustrating about Knight’s Carol, aside from the fact that it moves at a glacial pace until it rockets through its ending, is that it’s very possible that this will be Pearce’s only at-bat as Scrooge, and that is a crying shame. Let’s hope that’s incorrect and Pearce finds or makes another opportunity to play the Hamlet of Christmas, because he’s great. Better still, he’s great at playing both the Scrooge viewers will recognize—the glacial being, the immovable force—and the Scrooge Knight conjures, a man still yet to even begin to deal with a horrific time in his life, an abused person who grows up to be an abuser, someone treated like currency who grows up to treat others the same. One of those characters is more interesting than the other (it’s the Dickens one) but he plays both with great feeling and even the odd moment of wit. It’s a thoughtful performance, but not an indulgent one, and it’s that last quality that saves the movie as a whole from tanking completely—not single-handedly, but undeniably.
[Warning: The following paragraphs address issues of sexual assault.]
Indulgence, you see, is not in short supply, which makes Pearce’s restraint all the more admirable and welcome. To be fair, my instinct is to be a little indulgent here myself, of Knight’s efforts. It’s easy to identify the ideas in play when you contrast Knight’s story to Dickens’s. Why the horrifying (and, it must be said, decidedly un-festive) childhood sexual abuse storyline? To ask what might make someone grow up to be so ruthless and cruel. Why the more active role for Marley? Because the company we keep says a lot about who we are. Why Scrooge’s assertion that he neither expects nor seeks forgiveness? Because part of doing right by the people you’ve wounded is by not putting the burden of your redemption on them; the least the offending party can do is apologize if the apology is welcome, and then get the hell out of the way. Why no scene with Fred at the end? Because Scrooge doesn’t deserve a cookie. Self-improvement takes work, self-awareness requires practice, and sure, maybe he goes to that dinner, but what matters is him walking away and leaving the Crachits to have their dinner in peace.
So there’s logic behind it. Mostly. But Knight and director Nick Murphy (The Hot Zone) don’t do anything by halves, and the halves themselves would probably be too potent. That’s not to say that every version of A Christmas Carol needs to be sunny-happy-cheer-time, but the unrelenting dourness isn’t just tonally off-putting; it’s actually alienating, somehow negating everything it sets out to do in its refusal to calm the hell down and simply tell the story.
Scrooge didn’t just have a bad childhood, he had the worst childhood, including the aforementioned rape at the hands of a teacher as orchestrated by a parent, the same parent who previously decapitated a pet mouse(!) And Scrooge isn’t just, to quote the novella, “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” No, instead he ruthlessly cuts corners, leading to the deaths of hundreds of men, women, and children in his factories, mines, workhouses, etc., and feels no remorse. And then he holds a kids’ life hostage, the price being that the wife of an employee debase herself; the fact that he doesn’t actually assault her physically does not make it somehow more acceptable. He blows up her world because he can, and calls it science.
At every turn, the added complexity actually makes things dumber. Yeah, Marley is there, but if he’s only acting out of self-interest, doesn’t it negate the whole thing? (This Christmas Carol actually addresses a number of philosophical ideas explored with far greater subtlety and thought on The Good Place.) Sure, hypothetically, this addresses the cycle of abuse, but only inasmuch as someone is abusive to Scrooge, and then later he abuses others; there’s no exploration there. And yes, Scrooge shows up at the Crachits to say he wants no forgiveness, just to be better from here on out, but he does so in a lengthy monologue about his feelings. “This is not about you, Ebenezer Scrooge! It is about her!” Andy Serkis’s Spirit bellows at one point, but guess who is in the frame at the time, and who isn’t?
If you’re just reading this review for kicks and haven’t seen the thing, at this point I should mention that the film begins with young man pissing on the grave of Jacob Marley; the piss seeps down and splatters on his dead face, and he sputters and coughs and storms about not being able to rest in peace. It’s a scene that feels increasingly poorly conceived as the film continues. Just as Knight and company seemingly failed to consider the implications of some of their choices with regard to Scrooge, neither do they seem to have pondered the wisdom of opening this adaptation with someone literally pissing on a grave. That’s all this is: piss, vinegar, and sputtering, with some good acting around to make it all just barely tolerable. FX seems to have wanted to let this thing slink off into the woods unnoticed. Better to have killed it all right, with shillings on the eyes, and decreased the surplus TV show population.
- If everything wasn’t so overwhelming, it’s likely that Knight’s increased focus on the economic and working realities of impoverished people would be pretty successful, actually. As much as I hated that peeing thing, the scene in the church was super effective, as was the whole “You tried not to think about the horses” thing.
- Vinette Robinson is so good that in another world, I might have loved that final shot. But wow, you make Mary Cratchit a black woman and then give her some kind of witchy ghost-commanding power? Was no one around to talk to them about how that might look?
- Another moment that works great as a descriptor of the show: “94 percent gravel and rubble, and the rest is his stupid head.”
- But if the head is Guy Pearce’s it’s not a stupid head. He’s a great Scrooge, and I hope he gets another shot at the role someday.
- Like everything else, there’s too much filmmaking, but there are some good moments. I especially liked the spinning top hat, and while I don’t understand why Tiny Tim needed to go full Amy March with those skates, it’s an undeniably cool image.