A New ‘Christmas Carol’ Explores the Roots of Scrooge’s Scorn12/13/2019
BOVINGDON, England — “I’ve never done a mouse decapitation before,” the actor Johnny Harris said, standing before a canopied bed in a gloomy, almost empty room.
“Her name is Brenda,” the mouse-handler said helpfully.
There was silence as Brenda was carefully placed in Harris’s hand, and cameras began to roll, moving in on a close-up of the actor’s ferocious scowl. With a guttural grunt, he mimed a swift slicing stroke of a knife.
“Cut,” called out Nick Murphy, the director of FX and BBC One’s new three-part “A Christmas Carol.” “And well done, Brenda!”
Rodent murder doesn’t generally figure into adaptations of Charles Dickens’s perennial Christmas favorite. But this new version, which debuts Dec. 19 in America via FX, was created by Steven Knight, who conceived and writes “Peaky Blinders.” As anyone familiar with that gritty, violent period series or Knight’s other work (“Taboo,” “Eastern Promises”) might imagine, his “Christmas Carol” isn’t the usual sentimental tale of exaggerated miserliness vanquished by seasonal good will.
Instead, there is a relatively young, embittered Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce) with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a history of family trauma. When he revisits his youth with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis), the memories mostly hinge on a terrifying and neglectful father, played by Harris, who abandoned Scrooge to an abusive schoolmaster — but not before killing young Ebenezer’s little white mouse in a wanton act of cruelty.
“A Christmas Carol” is the first in a projected series of Dickens adaptations by Knight to be produced by the BBC and FX. Such coproductions, as well as a growing appetite stateside for British television, have allowed the BBC to become more ambitious with its literary adaptations. “Now that we have the luxury of the eight-hour box set, there is a real opportunity,” Knight said.
He began with “A Christmas Carol,” he added, because its story of Scrooge, Jacob Marley and the three spirits is shorter and simpler in structure than the complex novels he hopes to take on next (“Great Expectations,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “David Copperfield”).
“I knew it could be three-parts, not eight,” Knight said, adding that the story has been so popular for so long that “there is clearly something in there that is universally appealing.”
That’s for sure. Within a year of the 1843 publication of the 66-page novella, there were several productions of the story on the London stage. Public readings of the tale were also popular, with Dickens himself performing in both England and America. A New York Times account of his appearance before a packed crowd at Steinway Hall in 1867 reported that he gesticulated freely, making “a face of infinite wonderment and exultation when shouting, in the piping tones of the two youngest Cratchits, ‘There’s such a goose, Martha!’”
In addition to the countless theater productions, screen adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” have appeared almost as regularly as Christmas itself, starting with the 1901 British silent movie, “Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost.” To date, over 20 feature films and around 30 television versions have been made. The Muppets, Mr. Magoo and Bugs Bunny have all had their own — there has even been a “Doctor Who” episode based on the tale.
So what did Knight feel he could bring to “A Christmas Carol” that made it worth yet another retelling?
“Every generation needs its own interpretation,” he said, adding there were issues that Dickens couldn’t have raised explicitly but his audience would have understood, like the sexual abuse of children and women, which feature in Knight’s version. “I wanted to look at these things, not to disrupt or be shocking, but to say the things one can say now,” he said. “I am trying to make some suggestions about why Scrooge is Scrooge.”
Murphy said that although he initially hesitated in directing the series (“the Muppets had done ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and who could top that?”), he was attracted by Knight’s approach.
“I liked the idea of examining not just why Scrooge is a bad person, but why do bad people become like that. At this time, there are people on the international stage who seem to live in a moral vacuum, and it’s important to think about how people can convince themselves they are doing absolutely nothing wrong.”
It’s a big step away from the more usual caricature of Scrooge as a wizened old miser who is frightened into repentance. “He is usually a bit like Santa Claus in that you don’t really think about him,” said Pearce (“The King’s Speech”), who is almost never offscreen during the three-hour show. “It’s just one of those Christmas things: tree, figgy pudding, presents, Scrooge.”
When Pearce first talked to Knight and Murphy about the part, he said they made it clear to him that they wanted a young, robust Scrooge, in the prime of his working life.
“This Scrooge is actually someone with a puffed-out chest, who has swagger and arrogance and a cynicism that is in some ways very healthy,” Pearce said in a telephone interview. “He is depressed by the hypocrisy in the world, he has his own very high moral standards, and it has turned him into a warrior, although he uses his weapons in all the wrong ways.”
Knight and Murphy follow the traditional outlines of the story, beginning with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn) in his office, a visit from Scrooge’s nephew and two men seeking donations for the poor. But their interest in the principal character’s psychology keeps the focus tightly on Scrooge throughout the series. Even the settings feel reflective of Scrooge’s personality; his office and home are large but palpably cold and devoid of color.
“I wanted his surroundings to be an expression of the emptiness of his soul,” Murphy said, adding that he had been inspired by the bleak interiors in the work of the 19th-century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. Scrooge, he added, “is independent in the frame in those early segments, and gradually, as the story unfolds, it becomes a little more cluttered until we end up tight and close together in the Cratchit house.”
Scrooge’s journey through his past and toward a more hopeful future involved a rethinking of the role his sister Lottie (Charlotte Riley) has played in his life, as well as a subplot involving Mary Cratchit (Vinette Robinson), the wife of his clerk and mother of the disabled Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush). Both women are minor, almost voiceless characters in the Dickens story, but they have significant roles here.
“I think you need that in a story you are telling in 2019,” Robinson said in a telephone interview, adding that her character’s new prominence also helped reveal aspects of Scrooge’s character. “She has her own power and importance,” Robinson added. “Perhaps she is even the one who summons the spirits?”
The suggestion of supernatural forces at work — and a question-mark over Mary’s possible powers — is “part of the fun,” Knight said. “It’s very much part of the book, and I hope I’ve retained some of the Dickens chocolate-box warmth about that spooky element.”
Murphy said that he had set out to make the supernatural elements — ghosts, miraculous changes of time and place, fantastical events — feel “handmade” rather than through impressive visual effects. “I don’t want audiences to think, ‘Oh, cool,’ and admire the director’s ideas during the film,” he said. (“I don’t mind if they give me awards afterward though,” he added, deadpan.)
“It’s a world informed by a child’s imagination,” he added. So while computer-generated imagery is used, Ali Baba’s palace, for example, is evoked in the style of Arthur Rackham illustrations. “It has a naïveté and clunkiness, like something dreamed up by a Victorian magician.”
Even though the story ends, as it must, with Scrooge’s remorseful realization of the wrongs he has done and his newfound desire to make amends, he does not seek forgiveness. Unlike the near-total redemption Scrooge enjoys in most adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” in this version he clearly understands that the sufferings of his childhood don’t excuse the behavior of his adult self, and that the consequences of his past behavior can’t be changed.
“We shouldn’t exist in a world where we say, ‘Oh, O.K., you’re forgiven,’ and crack on; it’s about what actions we decide to take after that," Murphy said.
“I think that’s Dickens’s message in the book,” he added. “I feel that the old guy would have liked what we’ve done.”
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