Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (performed by Patrick Stewart)

A Christmas Carol

A “Christmas Carol” for the 21st Century

Part of my annual Christmas ritual – and since this year I’m indulging by way of Patrick Stewart’s splendid audio version and the TV adaptation it inspired, here’s my review of the latter … with the added note that my comments on Stewart’s performance in the movie also apply to his reading, where he also does a splendid job getting under the skin (or whatever it is that ghosts have) of all the story’s other characters.

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Given the enormous potential for failure, it takes either a lot of guts or a big ego to remake a classic and step into a pair of shoes worn so well by the likes of George C. Scott and Alastair Sim — you don’t have to have grown up in an English speaking country to take those two names and their portrayal of Dickens’s miserly anti-hero for granted as part of your Christmas experience. And I suspect a good part of both guts and ego was at play in this production; but let’s face it: after years of bringing Scrooge to the stage in a much-acclaimed one man show and after also having recorded the audio book version of “A Christmas Carol,” a movie adaptation starring Patrick Stewart was probably due to come out sooner or later. Yet, while it does sometimes have the feel of another huge star vehicle for Stewart (even without the self-congratulatory trailer and brief “behind the scenes” features included on the DVD), his experience and insight into the character of Scrooge allow him to pull off a remarkable performance, and to make the role his own without letting us forget who originally wrote the tale. From a “humbug” growled out from the very depth of his disdain and his audible desire to boil “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips” with his own pudding and bury them with a stake of holly through their heart, to the “splendid” and “most illustrious … father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs,” coughed up and spit out after years of having been out of practice, this is the Scrooge that Dickens described; and Stewart obviously has the time of his life playing him.

This made-for-TV production is sometimes criticized for its use of special effects; I don’t find those overly disturbing, though — in fact, they’re rather low-key and for the most part used to show nothing more than what Dickens actually described. (This is a ghost story, remember?) Scrooge really does see Marley’s face in his door knocker; we all know that Marley’s ghost does indeed walk through Scrooge’s doubly locked door … and last but not least Dickens himself describes the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” (Granted, no gleaming lights for eyes, though.) The script could have spared a modernism here and there, but again, mostly the lines are exactly those that Dickens himself wrote. Even where the characters don’t actually speak them, they are part of their reflections — such as Marley being buried and “dead as a door-nail” (which, after all, is the tale’s all-important premise) and Scrooge’s rather funny musings how the Ghost of Christmas Past might be deterred from taking him for a flight (where citing neither the weather nor the hour nor a head cold nor his inadequate dress would do). Richard E. Grant, known to TV audiences as Sir Percy Blakeney in the recent adaptations of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” moves to the opposite end of the social spectrum in his portrayal of gaunt, downtrodden Bob Cratchit; and he is a very credible caring father and husband, albeit a bit too well-educated — unlike the rest of his family, who speak and come across as decidedly more cockney. Joel Grey, whose Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret” stands out as one of those “one of a kind” performances that are few and far between in film history, is almost perfectly cast as the Ghost of Christmas Past, combining the spirit’s wisdom of an old man with his child-like innocence, frail stature and luminous appearance. A great supporting cast and solid cinematographic and directorial work round out an overall very well done production.

Many actors are remembered either for one career-making role or for a certain type they have cast. No doubt Patrick Stewart, who as a teenager had to face an ultimatum between a steady job and the theater and chose the latter, will go into film history as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Treck’s “Next Generation.” But I would not be surprised if the other major role he will always be remembered for will be that of Ebenezer Scrooge — on stage, in audio recordings and in this movie adaptation, which successfully brings Dickens’s timeless tale of bitterness, sorrow, redemption and the true meaning of Christmas to the 21st century, and which before long, I think, will attain the status of a classic in its own right. I know that I, for one, will be watching it again with renewed pleasure next Christmas.

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26 thoughts on “Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (performed by Patrick Stewart)

  1. Great review! This is by far my favorite serious film adaptation of A Christmas Carol (I say “serious” because “A Muppet Christmas Carol” is probably tied for first). Not only is Sir Patrick brilliant, but many story elements that are frequently cut out of movie versions are retained: gotta love “Mr. Topper,” and the montage of people around the world singing Christmas Carols is truly heartwarming. The one thing that always bugs me is the spectre’s glowing eyes that make him look like a Jawa with a glandular condition :).

    1. Haha, I love that image! And thank you! Yes, so many great scenes — and great actors, too, in this movie.

      Hmmm, the Muppets … I need to revisit that one, too, I guess, so thanks for the reminder! 🙂

          1. case in point from Muppet Christmas Carol –
            Rizzo: that’s scary stuff! should we be worried about the kids in the audience?
            Gonzo: Nah, it’s alright. This is culture.

  2. Great post! This is my favourite audiobook for Christmas. I’ve got two versions, one with Tom Baker of Doctor Who as the narrator and one with Jim Dale of the Carry On Films. I don’t think I’ve come across this one before, although Richard E Grant as Bob Cratchit is very familiar.

    1. Thank you!

      Richard E. Grant is only in the movie — the audio I have is Patrick Stewart reading Dickens’s original story, so he’s doing all the voices there (including Cratchit’s). Totally worth it, though. It’s based on / inspired by a one-man “Christmas Carol” performance he used to do for a number of years.

  3. I’ve been missing your straight-to-the-core-of-things reviews…wonderful. Dickens is not one of my favourites, but you made me want to watch it…and read it…and listen to it…

    1. I think this one you might find your way to — for Patrick Stewart if for no other reason!

      FWIW, this is not a new review; I wasn’t done copying everything to WordPress when things got busy on a plethora of other fronts, so I figured now’s as good a time as any to bring over this one!

  4. Another Patrick Stewart adaptation of a classic that is worth watching if you can find it is his made-for-TV Moby Dick. The special effects are a bit cheesy, but the acting is superb!

    1. I can’t speak to any other audio versions and ordinarily I’d prefer to go for an unabridged version, but this one barely makes you feel it’s an abridged one, and Stewart knows his Scrooge (and Dickens) inside out, which in itself is a great pleasure to hear. Around the time the TV movie was first broadcast, Stewart did an interview on NPR which showed just how much he’d thought the whole project through and how enthusiastic he was about it — I knew then and there that I’d have to have both the audio recording featuring him and the TV movie.

      Maybe sample this and a few other audios to compare if you’re unsure which one to get, though?

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