A Review of BBC TV’s 2019 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol [with spoilers]
Like many of you, I’m suspicious of any modern attempt to adapt old classics, especially when fond memories are held of prior adaptations and even more especially when such stories are Christmas favourites. Having watched The Muppet’s Christmas Carol only a few days before seeing this, I started off making comparisons which were always to the detriment of this latest version. But as the new Scrooge went on, I slowly began to accept it on its own terms. It was worth it.
Let’s get out of the way those things which I didn’t like about it, before concentrating on its real successes:
This was probably its major issue. The whole first of the three episodes seems to be largely spent dwelling on dark rooms and building suspense which is slow in stepping out of the shadows, literally. There are only so many distant footsteps or barely audible whispers a viewer can take before he or she starts to notice the BBC logo in the corner or wonder about getting a cup of tea. The entire trilogy could have been edited down to two parts and would have benefited from being condensed a little.
2. The ‘F’ word
About six or seven times, characters voice the ‘f’ word, which always seems to me to stamp a production with the mark ‘This is a modern adaptation, we’re being trendy, get over it’ but which always jars with me as a viewer, as I suspect it does with others too. No one expects an entirely faithful piece of historical drama these days, but things like this jolt the viewer out of the show rather than drawing them in, so the main reason for not doing it is aesthetic and dramatic rather than anything to do with prudery. Of course, people used the ‘f’ word in the nineteenth century too, but when one sits down to watch a Dickensian story, one brings certain expectations with one, and the best way to shoehorn someone towards whatever emotional effect you’re trying to achieve (in any story, not just this one) is to do so with such subtlety that they don’t even notice. ‘F’ing and blinding’ has the reverse effect.
3. The Back Story
This is both a minus and a plus. It’s pretty clear as you go deeper into this adaptation that the writer Stephen Knight sat back and asked particular questions of the original story: ‘Why is Scrooge the way he is?’; ‘Why does Jacob Marley arise when he does?’; ‘What initiates the visitation of the three spirits?’ In exploring answers to these questions, some interesting connections and suggestions are made. But the bit of back story involving Jacob Marley in Purgatory is probably best done without — it leaves the viewer asking more unanswered questions about the story, the framework of the narrative and even the philosophical background of the thing as a whole than it needs to. Dickens wisely left all that alone.
Other aspects of answering those questions work reasonably well: we get an insight into the cruelty and suffering endured by a younger Ebenezer and are handed some psychological motivations on a plate, which are then wisely put in their place. And there’s an original and powerful thread introduced regarding where the spirits come from and why they visit Scrooge (as opposed to any other Victorian capitalist) at that time.
Which leads into the positives. You can hardly watch this and not get the bitter references to very modern trends and events: there are shades of Grenfell Tower, austerity and asset-stripping capitalism which haunt this production with great potency. A great moral light is shone on Scrooge and Marley as individuals and as capitalists, and it feels right that, at the end, Bob Cratchit doesn’t just go on working for Scrooge as in every other adaptation, but leaves, while Scrooge determines to shut the whole edifice of his business down. That’s a much more powerful political statement, as well as a moral one.
But the main power comes from the performances. Watching Guy Pearce as Scrooge manage to maintain a coal-like hardness throughout led me to think that, as the story approached its climax, he wasn’t actually going to be redeemed at all. Part of me — the cynical part, made cold by so many modern adaptations — felt that perhaps this was going to end with one of those horrible modern twists and that Scrooge was going to reject redemption completely. In fact, he explicitly does so — but the point stabs you like a knife because of Pearce’s performance: here is a man utterly weary of himself, totally resigned to his own inner darkness, someone who knows (because he has been shown) that he is locked in a cell of his own making for eternity, but who looks out through a narrow window and finds himself redeemed anyway. The way the three spirits turn away smiling, their work done, leaves you with goosebumps at the end.
Pearce, who has carried the show on his thin shoulders for three hours —more than ably assisted by the magnetic Vinette Robinson, whose screen power has not diminished since her fantastic portrayal of Rosa Parks in Doctor Who last year— does not suddenly become manically happy at the end, like other Scrooges: he remains true to himself, hard, sharp. What changes is his philosophy: rather than being a contest of reason and fancy, the nature of reality is transformed by his redemption. At the end, having ‘seen the light’, the full force of his logic turns things to the positive, and all that driven darkness comes out of the tunnel into a new and brighter world.
I recommend this adaptation. It’s a potent Christmas drink, which seems to be intent on depressing you further and further, but, with a combination of some startlingly effective screen magic and intense acting, carries quite an after-kick. When you wake up the following morning still thinking about a show, you know its spirits have done their work — or have begun to do so.