A Christmas Carol (2019)

In a world where multi-season series are now set during the holidays, an actual three-episode miniseries almost feels quaint and old-fashioned, but that's exactly what the BBC's 2019 take on A Christmas Carol is. We've been meaning to watch this for a few years now, but somehow never got around to it until now. And now that we've finally watched this, I can definitely say... it is not what I expected.

More specifically, it's completely different than it was marketed, and not just because the teaser made it look kind of good. From everything I'd seen about this, I'd assume it was going to highlight the horror aspects of its source material, which I've long felt get overlooked. But aside from a veneer vaguely mimicking that genre and a few jump scares, this isn't at all a horror in tone. First and foremost, it feels like a melodrama, with touches of horror and - surprisingly - comedy tossed in.

Even more surprising, it's kind of a stretch to call this A Christmas Carol, as the bulk of the story is completely new. The characters have the same names as in the original, and the outline is more or less intact, but the details, motivations, metaphysics, morals, and details are changed to such a degree that I'm not comfortable calling this an "adaptation" at all. In a real sense, this resembles A Christmas Carol less than any other movie or special using that name I can think of. Hell, Scrooged has far more right to consider itself a straight retelling of A Christmas Carol than this does.

To be clear, deviating from source material isn't in and of itself a bad thing. I don't even think it's inherently bad to "trick" your audience with misleading marketing. But if you're doing either, you need to deliver something that comes across as a pleasant surprise, and - for me at least - this doesn't come close to clearing the bar.

The story this time opens with a teenager peeing on Marley's grave. The urine then trickles through the earth, permeates the coffin, and drips on his face as we discover he's still conscious. For better or worse, this scene does a pretty effective job setting the tone for the miniseries to follow.

The narrative jumps around quite a bit, following Scrooge in his adventures, Marley's ghost as he's enlisted to help redeem Scrooge's soul (with his own hanging in the balance - a major deviation from the original, where he's beyond hope), and the Cratchit family, whose role is significantly increased. In particular, Mary Cratchit (Bob's wife) turns out to be vastly more important to the story than before, due to... well... we'll get to that.

First, let's talk spirits. They mixed things up a bit, shifting the "Father Christmas" spirit to Past, so they could establish Scrooge's sister then make her the Ghost of Christmas Present, a decision which abandons Dickens's original meaning of "spirits" here, but whatever. Let's discuss that Past bit...

We get a few sequences here, none of which are from the original, and all start story arcs that carry through the series. First, there's a bit teaching us that Scrooge's father was a terrifying, sadistic man who was cruel to animals. Contrast this with Scrooge himself, who we discover actually has a soft spot for animals. Also, his father sent him away to a boarding school, where...

Oh, boy. So, in this version, Scrooge hates Christmas because three trained Dalmatians murdered his mother by pushing her over a cliff.

Obviously I'm joking. But I wanted to open with that in order to lower your expectations far enough that the actual twist, which is somehow even less subtle, doesn't come off as too much of a shock. Scrooge actually hates Christmas because his father arranged for Scrooge to spend Christmases at boarding school being sexually abused by the headmaster. Like, his father knew and basically agreed to the deal in exchange for tuition being waved.

The year the spirit takes him to is the one where Scrooge's older sister shows up to rescue him. The spirit shows him a bit of the story he wasn't originally present for where his sister pulls a gun on the headmaster. The movie tries to sell this as repudiating the philosophy of Scrooge's father, who believed all gifts are given with an ulterior motive, but any musings on the nature of ethics sort of go out the door when his sister turns into an action hero. It's all incredibly silly in a moment that probably shouldn't have been silly at all.

We're also whisked away to a few other eras illustrating the damage Scrooge's ideology had on others, most significantly when a mine Scrooge and Marley bought and mismanaged collapses, killing numerous workers and horses. And if you're thinking this version of Scrooge sounds a bit beyond redemption... wait until I tell you about Mary Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

So, when Tiny Tim was young, he desperately needed an operation to survive. We've already gotten some allusions to this in the present, where we're shown Mary has been lying to her family about the existence of a rich cousin who covered the costs. Thanks to the Spirit of Christmas Past, we finally get a look at what happened. And if you're worried you already know the answer, you're unfortunately at least close.

Years before, Mary goes in secret to ask Scrooge for the money, since they had no other way to get it. She offers to pay it off slowly through Bob's salary, but Scrooge dismisses the idea. Instead he tells her he'll give her the money if and only if she sneaks away to his house on Christmas Day and does anything he tells her to do.

I don't think it makes this any better as a plot point, but for what it's worth he doesn't actually sleep with her. He gets her to take her clothes off and say out loud she'll have sex with him, but the point turns out being that Scrooge wants to "prove" that good people will do anything for money. He also threatens to tell Bob in the event that Bob ever quits, effectively blackmailing her. Mary is naturally furious and vows to use her powers as a woman to summon a spirit to bring Scrooge's crimes to light, and...

Ugh. Did I mention this adaptation was written by a man? Because it suddenly feels relevant. I feel like if you're going to rewrite A Christmas Carol so a solid half of the story is an allegory for the #MeToo movement, you should probably have hired a woman to do the damn writing. Because this doesn't feel authentic or emotionally effective - it mostly feels like a gimmick.

We spend quite a bit more time in the past than in the present, future, or the ending, though we continue with the established plot threads. We see how Scrooge's cruelty towards Mary continues to hurt her family (the Cratchit's Christmas isn't quite as perfect as in traditional versions). A lot of this is due to tensions around Bob announcing he's found a new job and is planning to resign, a situation Mary is less excited about than he expects.

Then, in the future, we discover that Tiny Tim will die as a result of [checks notes] falling through some ice while skating.

Wait, what?

To be fair, Tim's interest in skating is established early on - he's adamant about proving he's capable - so this isn't entirely out of nowhere. But given the movie's willingness to demonstrate Scrooge's culpability in the deaths of the miners, as well as the way he humiliates Mary, having Tim's death be completely unrelated is an odd choice. This didn't happen because Scrooge didn't pay Bob enough to afford better doctors or buy enough food: it was just a weird accident. Maybe they thought having him take responsibility for something that he didn't cause would have more of an impact? I don't think that works, because we never see him do much about the things he did cause - you kind of need to cover that first.

They do have a really cool sequence where Scrooge has a vision in his office where the ceiling turns into the surface of the lake and he watches Tim break through, but one neat visual effect doesn't make up for bad storytelling.

Regardless, preventing this particular tragedy becomes the one thing Scrooge cares about. He doesn't care that he's also going to die, he doesn't mind that the same guy who comes around peeing on Marley's grave is going to do the same to his (it's someone who lost several family members in the mine collapse, incidentally), and he doesn't even want salvation. All he wants is a chance for Tim to survive. And of course, that's what the spirits need to hear to send him back, so he immediately spreads gravel on the pond Tim was going to drown in to keep anyone from skating on it.

I mean... okay, that's an unusually efficient solution. Sort of breaks the flow of the whole "The spirits did it in one night" thing, but whatever.

I should mention this part gets pared down quite a bit, anyway. Scrooge doesn't catch up with the people collecting for charity, and we don't find out if he goes to his nephew's Christmas party. All that gets cut, presumably to avoid detracting from resolving matters with the Cratchits. Scrooge's relationship with them has been the central one throughout the miniseries, so that's going to more or less represent the entirety of the conclusion.

This scene probably goes about as well as it could have. He barges in, and Mary starts demanding he leave at once. She doesn't really stop, either, even when everything falls into place. Also, he's not there to make amends with Bob, only to wish him well and promise him a substantial monetary gift. In between her shouts for him to leave, Scrooge also manages to allude to Mary's vow to summon spirits, so she'll understand he's a changed man and has her to thank for it. This does get her to relax a bit - she'd been terrified he was going to reveal how she got the money - but she still wants him gone. She tells him his money is welcome but he isn't, and he leaves. Mary whispers something to the spirits, and that's about it.

So. That was weird as hell.

I hardly know where to start - there's a lot to consider. As I said before, this thing really only bears a superficial resemblance to Dicken's Christmas Carol - this is a very different story with different themes. Granted, those themes are related to the ones Dickens explores: if you want to be charitable, you could even say they're updated versions of those ideas. The movie is essentially making Scrooge irredeemable (or nearly so) in order to move the focus away from his salvation. He himself concludes he's undeserving of redemption, and frankly I think we're meant to agree. The idea is that the wealthiest among us today are getting off too easy when they're compared to a more traditional version of Scrooge: the ultra-rich, as a rule, do more evil than can ever be answered for. The idea we should ask them to reconsider and become more giving is frankly antiquated.

For the record, I like those themes, both in isolation and as applied to A Christmas Carol. In fact, I explored the same idea a decade ago in a short story I wrote for this blog. I'd be shocked if dozens of other writers haven't done so, as well (hell, there's a case to be made that's basically the premise behind It's a Wonderful Life).

Here's the thing, though - if you make Scrooge unredeemable, the corollary to that is the story should probably end with him unredeemed. Whether you do this as a satire (as in my short story), by changing the POV character (if you buy my theory on It's a Wonderful Life, that's what they did there), or even turning the whole thing into a tragedy is an open question, but there's no real way to make this work with the original ending intact. Dickens's premise is that it's never too late to change - you can't throw that away and keep the happy ending.

Yes, they make that "happy ending" less bright. The damage Scrooge did remains, his joy is more muted, he's never going to be widely loved as he was in the original... but he still finds a sort of peace of mind, and the implication is he's been redeemed. Arguably, it's even a little happier in some ways, since Marley escapes his torment this time around.

I don't think the direction they took the story was necessarily too dark, but it was certainly too dark to justify the end.

On top of the structural issues, this thing was just too drab and slow for my tastes. I used the term "melodrama" earlier, and I think that's the best word. It's going for a dark, gothic feel, with tension based in emotion, but I really don't think they sold those emotions. It feels almost campy at times, almost stumbling into unintentional parody. If it had done this in ninety minutes instead of three hours, it might even be so-bad-it's-good.

That's not to say it's all bad. While the visuals grow tiring after a while, there's no denying this achieved the look it was going for. And, as should be obvious with even a cursory glance at the cast list, this thing is packed with talent. Some of the casting comes across as a bit gimmicky (Andy Serkis is fun as the Ghost of Christmas Past, but he's extremely distracting), but overall everyone does good work.

Same goes for Guy Pierce, who plays Scrooge. He's good in the role, but like Serkis is a bit distracting. His old-age makeup is significantly better than what he wore in Prometheus, but it's still clearly an actor playing someone who's supposed to be older.

I do think the actress playing Mary deserves some recognition. I know I complained about the scenes with her and Scrooge, but I need to contradict myself a little. While I found a solid 90% of it painful to sit through, the moment where Mary vows supernatural vengeance works for me. And the reason it works - the only reason - is Robinson knocks it out of the goddamn park. She can't salvage this really stupid plot point, but damned if she doesn't come close.

The weirdest casting choice by far is Kayvan Novak, who steps in briefly as an alternate incarnation of Christmas Past. It's distracting, but I can't deny it was fun seeing Nandor the Relentless show up for a couple scenes.

There's a lot more we could talk about. At three hours, this things is packed with stuff that fell flat and occasionally with a few things that were neat. I'm not going to go through everything, but there are a few more details I at least want to mention.

This thing made the decision to humanize the spirits. They're not just abstract entities driven by moral duty: they have real emotions and motivations behind them. I respect the attempt, but I think it was a mistake. Making the spirits into more rounded characters robs them of their mystery and power. They're just kind of people doing a job in the afterlife. Think Beetlejuice minus the self-awareness.

Next, there's a running idea where - contrary to the rules of the original - people can occasionally see or feel Scrooge's presence. This only occurs in moments of high emotion, and it's never so clear it can't be dismissed as a hallucination or daydream, but the whole "no one can see or hear us" rule is off. I'm honestly torn on this change. It makes for an interesting twist, both in terms of story and theme (it mirrors the ways an abuser's presence lingers and haunts survivors). But it also continues the thread of making everything feel melodramatic and at times silly. Given the weight of what's going on, that's not a good thing.

This definitely isn't something I'd recommend. I really do appreciate the effort, and I honestly hope someone manages a dark version of A Christmas Carol someday. But this just isn't it. There are some good visuals, solid performances, and even some cool ideas, but it doesn't come together into anything remotely compelling. You're left with a three-hour miniseries that oscillates between absurd and dull, and unfortunately tends towards the latter. "Too short" isn't a complaint I've ever had watching an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and this is the longest version I've come across yet.