A CHRISTMAS CAROL (12/17/1984)
Director: Clive Donner
Cast: George C. Scott, David Warner, Edward Woodward
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: No score (TV movie)
PLOT: In 19th-century London, a bitter old miser who rationalizes his uncaring nature learns real compassion when three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve.
[SPOILER ALERTS! (For anyone whose souls are so dead they have never seen or read “A Christmas Carol” before…)]
The TV version of “A Christmas Carol”, first aired on CBS in 1984, starring the legendary George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, is the best version of Charles Dickens’ story that I’ve ever seen.
Oh, but let me tell you why.
Without exception, every other version of “A Christmas Carol” that I’ve ever seen, including live theatre versions, have made humor and lightness their prevailing mood. The musical “Scrooge” (1970) does have its share of dark moments towards the end, but the darkness is derailed by an unnecessary detour into cartoonish humor (while in the depths of Hell, no less). I’m not saying that making the story fun is WRONG, necessarily. After all, it’s a Christmas story, with a strong message of redemption, so why shouldn’t it be a joyous experience? Right?
Ah…but this 1984 version takes a novel approach. It realizes what I’ve always known all along: that this is, above all, a ghost story with a Christmas message. And not all ghost stories are merry and bright.
Take the Ghost of Christmas Present, for example. In this version, he’s played by Edward Woodward, with a deep booming voice, an absurdly hairy chest, and hidden stilts making him upwards of 7 feet tall. His eyes twinkle, but something about his grin and hearty laughter give you the sense of a cat toying with a mouse. There are moments when he berates poor Scrooge for his vices, and his voice becomes intimidatingly intense, and the smile vanishes from your face, and he tells Scrooge that his life may be worth less than MILLIONS of other souls like Bob Cratchit, and…it’s quite a moment. It reminds you that this is, above all, a morality tale.
Another example, of course, would be the ever-popular Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. In every other version I’ve seen, this specter doesn’t speak, just points, usually with some kind of musical flourish. This version is no different, except the filmmakers ingeniously use an intensely creepy sound effect whenever this Ghost points or nods. It’s like someone pulling a violin bow across huge piece of sheet metal. The effect is not comic or melodramatic. It’s deeply unsettling.
Of course, yet another reason to love this version is the towering performance from George C. Scott as the proto-Grinch, a man for whom Christmas is just an excuse for “picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December.” He injects moments of sly humor if you watch carefully (to the mute Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he mutters, “You’re DEVILISHLY hard to have a conversation with”), but for the most part he plays the character completely straight with nary a grin to be seen except on the rarest occasions. This is an aspect missing from every other version. The prevailing wisdom seems to be to amplify and overdo the character of Scrooge, so he’s not as unlikable, I guess. Not this time. Scott creates a mean, heartless, ruthless businessman who would as soon bankrupt you as say two words to you. Even Albert Finney’s interpretation in “Scrooge”, as completely as he disappears into the role, is not as dark and merciless as George C. Scott’s version.
So, you see, it’s the DARKNESS that appeals to me here. Yes, yes, the ultimate scenes of happiness and redemption are all there – the boy on the street, Scrooge skipping around his room, “giddy as a drunken man”, the massive turkey – but I love this version because it remembers its roots. This is a gothic ghost story, and as far as I’m concerned, any version of “A Christmas Carol” would do well to remember that.