On A Christmas Carol

What would Christmas be without Ebeneezer Scrooge? There are many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, however, this version featuring George C. Scott can be considered “the definitive version of the beloved literary classic.” According to Salon‘s article, “The best “Christmas Carol” ever” regarding George C. Scott’s Scrooge:

Well, Cratchits and ghosts come and go, one might argue, but every “Christmas Carol” must rise or fall with its Scrooge. And on this point the 1984 version most emphatically ascends.

We can talk, if we must, about George C. Scott’s technique. Start with the accent: not an immaculately Streepian production but an internalized Englishness that commands from the first note. There’s the lovely underplaying of Scrooge’s villainy, which has lured many an actor into the slough of hamminess. The charm of the closing scenes, in which Scrooge’s newfound joy seems to be stealing up from behind him and grabbing him by his collar.

But in my mind, this particular Scrooge rises to greatness in the graveyard scene, where the sight of his name on a gravestone prompts the famous cri de coeur: “I am not the man I was! I will not be the man I must have been! … I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me … Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

Here it is: the dreaded “moral,” in which all of Dickens’ didactic chickens come home to roost. But in the hands of the classically trained Scott, it is the wail of a wasted soul. And not just a soul. With due respect to the motion-capture technology of Jim Carrey’s 3-D theme ride, what makes this scene so riveting is that we’re watching a real face — a face like a ruined abbey — and a lived-in body and a burnt-out voice. A human being with a history of passion.

Scott, unlike Alastair Sim, was a tragedian at heart. And perhaps it’s not too much to suggest that, at some half-conscious level, he used Scrooge’s dilemma to relive the tragedy of his own life: the missed opportunities, the squandered potential. Hadn’t he once supped at the table of the gods? Hadn’t he once had the force and imagination to play King Lear, Prospero, James Tyrone, Willy Loman? Where had it all gone? And how?

Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” quickly — in six weeks, in a fever of inspiration. He said afterward that he felt the Cratchits “ever tugging at his sleeve, as if impatient for him to get back to his desk and continue the story of their lives.’ And it is because the Cratchits and the other characters were so real to him that they remain so real to us. “A Christmas Carol” succeeds not because of its message (which Dickens recycled to markedly less effect in his later Christmas tales) but because, through all its supernatural agentry, we feel ourselves in the presence of flesh and blood. And that is just what George C. Scott, in his last great performance, gives us. An Ebenezer Scrooge with hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections. A Scrooge who, when you prick him, bleeds.

The film features Angela Pleasence (Queen Elizabeth I in Doctor Who‘s “The Shakespeare Code”), David Warner (Star Trek V: The Final FrontierStar Trek VI: The Undiscovered CountryTitanic, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Chain of Command” story), Mark Strickson (Vislor Turlough in classic Doctor Who), and Michael Gough (BatmanBatman ReturnsBatman ForeverBatman and RobinSleepy HollowThe Corpse Bride).

According to The New York Times review:

The very first scenes of the new adaptation of ”A Christmas Carol,” on CBS at 8 this evening, are reassuring for those of us who love and treasure the Charles Dickens classic. Filmed in the English town of Shrewsbury, on the Welsh border, the production beautifully evokes a sense of period and place, washed in misty pastel colorings. Care has obviously been taken. The story is clearly in good hands.

George C. Scott stars as Ebenezer Scrooge and, not surprisingly, the rather forbidding character of the miser dominates the production. Glowering and growling, Mr. Scott turns the old fellow into a formidable misanthrope who firmly believes that he is in the right while the rest of the world is out of step. Roger O. Hirson’s teleplay underlines the fact that there are mitigating reasons for Scrooge’s single-minded devotion to the pursuit of money. He was scarred in childhood when his mother’s death turned his father against him, and again later when his beloved fiancee ended their engagement. This Scrooge is a tough old codger, not undergoing a transformation until the final moments of the tale.

Written in 1843, ”A Christmas Carol” was published by Dickens himself – his editors were not enthusiastic about the story’s prospects – with the subtitle ”A Ghost Story of Christmas.” The illustrations were done by John Leech, and they provide the inspiration for many of the visual details in this television production, which was designed by Roger Murray-Leach with costumes by Evangeline Harrison. Mr. Scott’s Scrooge does not traipse about in the familiar nightshirt and sleeping cap of the pictures, but many of the other characters are striking Leech look-alikes. Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present, in particular, is the very image of the book’s rather bacchanalian figure in flowing royal robes and crown.

Employing what might be called a mid-Atlantic accent, neither here nor there in its mildly clipped cadences, Mr. Scott is the only American in the otherwise British cast. Needless to say, Mr. Scott gets impeccable support. The gentle Bob Cratchit is played with the most reasonable sympathy by David Warner, and Mrs. Cratchit by Susannah York. Tiny Tim is brought to heartbreaking life by one of those adorable English children, this one named Anthony Walters. And consider some of the other talent: Nigel Davenport, recently of ”Barchester Towers,” as Scrooge’s father; Lucy Gutteridge, once of ”Little Gloria: Happy at Last,” as the lost fiancee; Roger Rees, a Tony- Award winner for ”Nicholas Nickleby,” as Scrooge’s kind nephew; Frank Finlay as Marley’s Ghost, and Angela Pleasance as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

In a previous television foray into Dickens territory, Mr. Scott took an embarrassing flop on a curiously perverse interpretation of Fagin in ”Oliver Twist.” In trying to make the nasty old moneylender sympathetic, Mr. Scott ended up queasily with something of a dirty old man. His dissecting of Scrooge makes far more sense. He uses no special makeup. The hair and whiskers are his own. The face, except for a cold right eye that suggests malevolence, is frozen into a mask of disapproval and suspicion of the world around him. A simple twitch of the shoulder speaks chillingly. The voice is used to sure effect, managing to inject new life even into ”Bah, humbug!” with a reading that includes a tired laugh. In short, the Scott method and mannerisms have found a most rewarding subject to explore.

Finally, of course, there is the Dickens story, still enduring, still transcending the stickiness of its ”God bless us, everyone” sentiment. The book grew out of the author’s concern for the human misery he saw about him. He was always pleading for education for the poor as the wisest investment in the future. One of the most striking images in the book, and in this television adaptation, occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the homeless masses living on the streets and suddenly reveals two scrawny waifs huddled in a fear that is both pathetic and menacing. Their names are Ignorance and Want. This crucial aspect of the always heartwarming ”Christmas Carol” has been preserved eloquently for television. Clive Donner is the director and Tony Imi the director of photography.


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