A Christmas Carol (1999)

Watching the 1999 made-for-TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol makes for an odd experience. It boasts an impressive cast, but the production values, script decisions, and effects are impossible to ignore. This really doesn't hold up at all.

The role of Scrooge is played by Patrick Stewart. Apparently, he was cast in part because of a one-man play he performed (incidentally, if anyone knows of a way to legally view a recorded version of said play, I'd be fascinated to see it). As a rule, I typically like Stewart, both as an actor and because he just seems like an all-around great human being. Naturally, I'd love to say I thought he works here.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case. His portrayal of Scrooge feels largely one-note, and - to be perfectly honest - more or less indistinguishable from Jean-Luc Picard. My guess is this is in part due to the version of the character created for the one-man show. If one actor's playing numerous characters, it's essential they each be distinct and quickly identifiable. In the context of a one-man show, you wouldn't want Scrooge to undergo multitudes of emotions in a single scene. Without having seen it, I can't say with any degree of certainty that the Scrooge he brought to stage is the same as the one appearing in this movie... but it sure feels that way.

The rest of the cast works better for me. I'd never have imagined casting Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit, but he brings a lot of nuance to the role. That said, he also delivers perhaps the single worst line reading in the movie when he remarks that he isn't sure how Fred knew Mrs. Cratchit was a good wife with somber reflection and uncertainty, as opposed to treating the line as the joke it clearly is. But let's chalk this up to bad direction or something: he's otherwise great in the part.

Same goes for Saskia Reeves as Mrs. Cratchit. It's a deceptively important role in any adaptation: despite limited time, Mrs. Cratchit is responsible for selling the emotional weight of the story. A good Mrs. Cratchit will convey gravitas; a bad performance would collapse the third act. The third act collapses for other reasons here, but it's certainly not Reeves's fault - she does her job.

Likewise Fezziwig (Ian McNeice) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Desmond Barrit) stand out as great actors in this production. Christmas Present in particular deserves recognition, if for no other reason than the vast majority of these completely fail the character. I think Barrit does a great job, as does his costumer. The Spirit of Christmas Past (Joel Grey) is good, as well, though the character is saddled with some extremely dated effects.

Dated effects plague a great deal of the movie, in fact. Marley features some truly awful morphing, and Christmas Present carries Scrooge around on a giant tornado that's among the cheesiest digital effects I've ever seen on TV.

I'm a little more torn on the visuals for the final spirit. On one hand, it kind of looks like a giant emo jawa. On the other, there are a couple shots where the piercing LED eyes shining through the black hood are weirdly effective. Overall, I think it comes up short more often than it works, but it's not as clear-cut as I expected. 

Overall the story stays close to the book. A few small moments were added and expanded, starting with the opening which is tangentially implied by the source material, in which Scrooge sees Marley's dead body seven years earlier. This version added a moment for Scrooge to vow the firm the two had built would prosper - I like the moment quite a bit, as it gives some motivation and humanity for the character. I don't think the movie did anything to capitalize on this later, but I still like the addition.

I can't say the same for the alterations to the dialogue. While the story mostly sticks with the original, a large number of lines are rewritten to be less antiquated and easier to understand. In theory, I don't have any problem with this approach, so long as they're careful not to lose the poetry of Dickens's writing in the process or sacrifice character. This fails on both accounts, particularly when the spirits are talking. They strip a great deal of the mystery from the characters' speech, which suggests a complete lack of understanding (or perhaps lack of caring).

One section I haven't discussed yet is the end, when Scrooge is redeemed and sets out to be a better person. This version has a very unusual spin on that, one that almost could have worked with more effort and time, but here just completely feels baffling and dull.

Instead of portraying Scrooge as overwhelmed and instantly transformed, this version shows him as restrained and tentative. He's discovered that he wants to be better, but he still needs to put in the work of repairing his relationships, a prospect that seems to scare him. Again, I think there's merit to this concept. The problem is... well, actually there are at least two problems. But the first problem is it's not at all clear what's going on at first. Scrooge wakes up, is overwhelmed for a second or two, then the typical series of events shown in every other version start playing out, only here they're not at all fun or interesting. There's enough to piece together what's going on in his head, but you'll have to put in the effort, which is a big ask given how boring this sequence is.

The other problem is the last scene in the movie, when Scrooge plays a joke on Bob Cratchit by pretending to be angry with his late arrival. This works in most versions, because we're shown a Scrooge who's overcome with emotion - the world is new and exciting, and he takes joy in shocking people with his new self. It no longer makes sense for this Scrooge, so it should have been replaced with something that does work (maybe have him stop by with a sack of gifts, like he does in the 1938, 1970 musical, and Mickey's Christmas Carol). But I guess they felt the Boxing Day scene was too iconic, so they did it anyway.

There are a couple stand-out performances in this, but they're nowhere near enough to make up for the subpar writing, the dated effects, the lackluster sets, and all the other shortcomings. I realize it's unfair to compare this to adaptations with significantly higher budgets, but... I mean... if you make yet another version of A Christmas Carol, you're essentially challenging everything that's come before. And there's nothing in this bland, dramatic version to make it feel at all essential or important.

Simply put, there is no shortage of good adaptations. There's really no reason to bother with this.