A Christmas Carol (1984)
Directed by Clive Donner; screenplay by Roger Hirson; cinematography by Tony Imi; production design by Roger Murray-Leach; starring George C. Scott, David Warner, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasance, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Susannah York and Anthony Walter. 100 minutes.
So familiar for so long to so many is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that most people won’t bat an eyelash at the various types of artistic license taken in its many film and television adaptations. After touching on all the main plot points, the producers and directors can choose to amplify some of the more obscure occurrences in Dickens’ detail-crammed “ghostly little book”, invent whole new scenarios or transport the entire story to a different time and place. All three methods have been widely practiced since the first known film version in 1901; in recent years PBS devotees may have caught the 2000 edition featuring “Eddie Scrooge”, a brutal loan shark who intimidates the residents of a contemporary London housing estate. But early on in director Clive Donner’s masterful (and often underappreciated) made-for-TV version from 1984 there’s an invented moment that indicates that this will be a more keenly humanistic take on a story that most of us know by rote.
George C. Scott’s Scrooge, who we’ve already seen dress down his humble clerk and brush off his kindly nephew, emerges from his counting house to head for the Exchange and passes close by a boy leaning on a single crutch.
“Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge!”
“Don’t beg on this corner, boy.”
“I’m not begging, sir. I’m Tim Cratchit, I’m waiting for my father.”
“Then you’ll have a long wait, won’t you?”
Maybe it’s not surprising that Scrooge is unaware that his only employee has a handicapped child. Donner’s underlying symbolism is not hard to fathom: on this narrow street corner the gap between the two could be as wide as the English Channel. The youngest Cratchit faces a future with little or no prospects if he is to have any future at all while the wealthy Scrooge is under no societal pressure to pay even lip service to the underprivileged. This is a crucial point and one that is often overlooked in the many retellings of “Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge is not the sole miser in an otherwise merry old London Town. He’s a product of the cruel economic Darwinism of England as it experienced the growing pains of the new Industrial Age. It was an England of high unemployment where the debtors’ prisons and workhouses kept untold thousands a half step ahead of starvation if they were lucky. Donner and screenwriter Roger Hirson don’t over-emphasize the political subtext of the story but they do keep it pretty close to the surface, a reminder of the growing disregard for the needs of the less privileged that marked the “greed is good” Reagan/Thatcher era that echoes straight into our own age of gaping income equality.
At the Exchange, we find Scrooge willing to let a whole warehouse of corn go to rot unless he can bluff an extra 5% onto his previously quoted price (it’s not fair, but “it’s business”). We then meet the two gentlemen seeking donations so as to provide “slight provisions” for the poor. When Scrooge declares, “if the poor be like to die they had better do it” Dickens’ outrage lies more with a ruling class where the notion of a “surplus population” was actually advanced at the time. Thus the stage is set for the otherworldly intervention. For only moments after his detestable comments, Scrooge is walking to his house down a desolate side street, already half-spooked by a disembodied voice calling to him from a hearse and now by the transformation of his doorknocker into the face of a certain ex-business partner, dead seven years ago that very night.
With its monomaniacal skinflint, spectral visitations and abundance of Victorian local color, “A Christmas Carol” will always be an irresistible public-domain title for filmmakers, animators and theatre companies. The quality of Scrooges’ portrayal is naturally going to be the key. At once you have this vivid personification of an economic system with a lost conscience but also a person who came into this world like any other. Even a little empathy for Scrooge in the story’s first section goes a long way to a better appreciation of the happy denouement to come. Scott seems to sense this and he delivers the famous bit about how Christmas revelers should be “boiled in their own pudding” with a laughing hesitancy, as if to suggest he’s really just a curmudgeon who somehow got walled up in a room of greed and misanthropy with no exit visible. In fact, his other early comments about the season, that it’s “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket” and a time “for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer”, almost sound like a rallying cry for stressed-out holiday shoppers in our own day and age.
The main strength of Donner’s adaptation is in Scrooge’s interaction with Jacob Marley’s ghost and the three Christmas spirits. In a daring move, he directs these visitations as an ongoing opportunity for intellectual sparring and quiet soul-searching. It’s a refreshing approach although subtle enough in its nature to be not to every viewer’s taste. Donner served as an editor on the 1951 film version of “Carol”, which in recent years has been deemed the definitive version by the forces of conventional wisdom. While Alistar Sim is ferociously convincing as the bad-guy Scrooge, he is soon betrayed by scriptwriters who give him little else to do in the presence of the three spirits aside from moaning with apprehension or repeating choice phrases like “show me no more!”
Other Scrooges of Christmas Past
A glass of holiday cheer for:
To be boiled in their own pudding:
By contrast, Scott’s Scrooge remains his own man and finds ways to stick up for himself even as his harsh worldview begins to soften. The spirits will prove to be more than his debating equal but Scrooge nonetheless seems to relish the give-and-take and is even disappointed to find that the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is mute (“You’re devilish hard to have a conversation with”). Using this tack, the chance for reform offered by Jacob Marley begins a convincing tale of personal redemption and not a long, spooky night to be endured before receiving the existential equivalent of a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Speaking of Marley, one can’t say enough about his depiction here by Frank Finlay, the veteran British character actor. Sheathed in the bluish-gray pallor of Dickens’ dead-man-walking netherworld, Finlay cuts a memorable figure. His dramatic line readings place equal emphasis on Marley’s deep despair at his own sorry fate and the gravity of his mission to save his old partner.
This highlight reel has a decent excerpt from the great Scott-Scrooge/Finlay-Marley scene.
This is the best-written part of the book and screenwriter Roger Hirson wisely leaves it be, save for trimming a few extraneous lines when Dickens’ dialogue gets a bit verbose. Faithful to a small detail in the book, Hirson does include the two instances when Marley emits his “frightful cry”, the first after Scrooge’s glib suggestion that “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you”. Finlay nearly topples the set with that unearthly scream but it is the second one that is key. It comes at the end of his despairing monologue on being “doomed to wander through the world” after death, utterly unable to share in happiness or otherwise make amends for his lack of good deeds when alive.
Angela Pleasance is a luminous but not especially otherworldly presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past. This is a good thing—Donner has her play the role as a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who acts as a wise tour guide through Scrooge’s checkered past. It is a past not without some close human connections and you can sense the old geezer’s heart beginning to thaw out at the first sight of his long-deceased sister Fan. The ghost casually but importantly mentions that Scrooge’s nephew Fred bears a strong resemblance to his beloved sibling, an element introduced for this film. This theme will keep popping up, implying that part of Fan lives on in Fred and that those connections need not stay cut forever.
This kind of additional background also enhances the importance of young Scrooge’s broken-off engagement to Belle. Donner places their breakup scene in a twi-lit park and creates a fateful scene brimming with tension and regret. The financial insecurities that may hang over their marriage are not lost on his fiancé, who has no dowry to bring to the table. Yet Scrooge’s growing obsession with “the golden idol” is not without its reasons. His memories of the dumping-ground school (the type of which Dickens featured prominently in the early chapters of “Nicholas Nickleby”), probably only a step above the poorhouses themselves, had to be fairly fresh.
Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present is the robust and hearty, bearded and be-robed behemoth we have come to expect for the part. Christmas Past was subtle enough to even use classical irony at one point, calling Fezziwig “a silly man” in order to dig out Scrooge’s buried conviction that his mentor was an admirable boss who truly cared for his workers. Woodward takes full account of the two righteous monologues where he gets to use Scrooge’s words against him, turning them into textbook examples of populist anger. This is especially true in the first instance when Tim is revealed to be part of the “surplus population” by the clairvoyant spirit. It does cast the necessary shadow over the Cratchit’s otherwise joyous Christmas dinner scene. David Warner’s excellent turn as the mild-mannered Bob comes into sharp relief here as the beleaguered clerk we met earlier is seen in his element as a loving and attentive family man. The reliable Susannah York makes the most of her big moment as Mrs. Cratchit, unleashing a colorful barrage of insults against Scrooge when Bob dares to propose a toast to “the founder of the feast”.
At the end of the book’s Stave Three, they stand by a cavernous bridge underpass where a homeless family sits around a meager fire, trying to cook some potatoes that have fallen off a cart. This grim episode can be seen as a nod to Dickens’ revulsion at Britain’s Poor Laws, which had been amended a few years before he wrote his Christmas book. No longer would able-bodied men be eligible for public assistance of any kind, regardless of circumstances. In times of widespread joblessness the options boiled down to taking “employment” at a dead-end union workhouse (which often separated families), succumbing to a life of crime or, as this family decides, literally scraping together a life on the streets. Even Scrooge is appalled. After causing him to see the evidence of uncaring society, and speaking the gloomy prophecy that awaits it, the middle spirit leaves Ebenezer to ride out the evening in the care of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Donner spices up this segment with some phantasmagoric imagery and eerie sound effects, but without any conversational company it’s up to Scott to dig in and complete Scrooge’s long night’s journey into day on his own. Even with a creeping premonition of his own unlamented demise he will not take lightly to the idea of petty thieves robbing him of the curtains surrounding his deathbed (“I’ll have them before a magistrate!”). There is a heartbreaking return visit to the Cratchit’s house and then the mortifying confrontation with his own headstone, making the transformation complete. Scrooge has learned it’s no use to learn these lessons piecemeal but to exist with the spirits of Past, Present and Future “striving” inside of him, the three divisions of time representing the importance of “memory, example and fear” (in the words of Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson) all pointing the way to the life well lived. Some viewers may be less than fully taken with the more subtle celebration that Scott plays out when Scrooge finds himself still alive on a brilliant Christmas morning. But Scott has delineated the director’s intentions perfectly. His Scrooge is still his own self at the end of this tale, someone who has been convinced to retrieve his own innate goodness and not some giddy fool who has replaced the meanie we met when the film began. This is the especially true of the immensely rewarding scene when he shows up at Fred’s house before the party. With a mid-December deadline bearing down on him, Dickens rushed through this scene which in Clive Donner’s hands becomes a poignant family reconciliation.
It is, in fact, typical of this version of “A Christmas Carol”. With Donner’s pitch-perfect direction and Hirson’s intelligent and entertaining script, it’s one of those rare movies that feels like an improvement of a literary classic. (Donner, who died in 2010, would only direct three more films after this). Also of note is Roger Murray-Leach’s production design which takes great care to mold the historic English town of Shrewsbury into a worthy stand-in for the vibrant and gritty streets of 1840s London. As for George C. Scott, who died in 1999, it’s not hard to view his performance as a late-career highlight for one of America’s most highly regarded actors. It all makes for an impressive and inventive retelling of a story whose underlying concerns remain relevant to this day. Although the debtor’s prisons and workhouses of Dickens’ day may be gone that will be of little comfort in a time where the same problems of poverty, homelessness and widespread economic insecurity are papered over with a thin sheet of modernity. Meanwhile, the bloated salaries and greedy transgressions of executives seen in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse make the penny-ante grasping of an Ebenezer Scrooge look positively benign. Where are you when we need you, Jacob Marley?
Wow, fantastic review! Historically, I haven’t really been a fan of “A Christmas Carol” for many of the reasons you listed above. I even recall a particularly horrible Mary Kate and Ashley “re-telling” of the story in mystery-book format that I read when I was in 3rd grade.
However, this movie interpretation sounds more than excellent. And thank you for emphasizing the book’s original purpose as a piece of social criticism– not a Hallmark-type fluff fest that emphasizes “seasonality” over any real, meaningful message about the dangers of a system built on greed and designed to create an underclass. Well done, indeed.
Thanks for your feedback. I thought it would be a good angle to look beyond the well-known surface of “Carol” to a message that ehoes down to our own day. Especially, as you point out, with a work that has been done to death. The other day I saw a “Barbie’s Christmas Carol” DVD. God help us, everyone.
The social commentary in this is uncanny. How little things have changed from Dickens’ day — more than 150 years ago. Even today, men in their counting houses would choose who will live and who will die — how might they profit from the cheapness of human life? It strikes me that we have not made much progress in loving strangers as ourselves.