By the fall of 1984, the CBS television network’s golden years were starting to fade. Norman Lear was out, and Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing, Airwolf and Dukes of Hazzard were in. Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott’s career was on the wane, too; the glory days of Patton and Dr. Strangelove a distant memory. As for English director Clive Donner, about the best that can be said was that he was simply doing hack work. When he wasn’t helping to crank out TV movies, he was churning out feature film nonsense like “The Nude Bomb” or “Old Dracula”.
That’s an inauspicious creative foundation on which to build the best filmed version of A Christmas Carol. Yet somehow, that’s exactly what happened.
After the jump, made for TV magic
Made-for-TV movies in the 1980s were intended to be the ultimate network cash-in. TV execs liked to stockpile these cheaply made productions to give them the powerful flexibility to cancel a failing regular series as needed. Sub in a couple of TV movies for a few weeks in place of a canceled ratings loser, call it a “Network TV event” or something like it, and enjoy a ratings bump.
For whatever reason, though, when CBS greenlit production for A Christmas Carol, they clearly decided to put more financial backing behind it that what would normally be expected from movie-of-the-week fodder. This adaptation was filmed at Shepperton Studios, the big budget UK studio home of Oliver!, the Oscar winning Dickens adaptation from 1968. Money was also available for a first-rate supporting cast for this adaptation (David Warner, Roger Rees, Susannah York, and Edward Woodward, among others), and from the quality of costumes, sets, and original music it’s apparent that none of the checks the network was writing for this undertaking were bouncing.
In fact, what now seems clear is that by the start of the 1984 fall TV season, CBS execs who’d seen cuts of A Christmas Carol knew they had something rather extraordinary on their hands. Arrangements were hastily made to give the movie a full-blown holiday theatrical release in the UK. In the States, CBS wasn’t going to give up what they now saw as a potential ratings bonanza though…but they still worked out a way to give their TV movie some special treatment. It was decided to air the film with limited advertisements, with IBM being the sole commercial sponsor and having exclusive air time during those breaks. (If your family owned an IBM PCjr in the mid 1980s, blame this movie.)
On airing, 1984’s Christmas Carol received almost universal praise, and through the years it has only gained in standing. For many critics (and we’re on that train here), this at last is about as definitive a filmed version of the holiday classic as there’s likely to be.
Spooky factor: 6 Marleys out of 10.
One thing to reckon with for the 1984 Christmas Carol: it’s a step back on spookiness from the 1970 musical. Frank Finlay’s version of Jacob Marley looks positively tiny standing in the same frame with the big-as-life George C. Scott. Generally, with ghosts that are supposed to intimidate your protagonist, diminutive is not the attribute you’re wanting to achieve.
The other ghosts are good to great, however. Angela Pleasance seems kindly at first as Christmas Past, but reveals a remorselessly wicked twist to her personality by the end of her visit. Christmas Yet To Come’s ghost is suitably grim reaper-ish. And Edward Woodward is absolutely brilliant in the role of Christmas Present, deftly mixing jollity and menace with every line he’s given.
Canonical Factor: 7 Dickenses out of 10.
There are elements of the source material that 1984’s Christmas Carol production omit. There are bits in this adaptation that Dickens never wrote, too. But overall, no filmed version of A Christmas Carol has fully captured so well both the personal character study of Ebenezer Scrooge and the more general, pointed social commentary that’s ever present in the book. Though some of the details are a bit moved around, this adaptation hits all the major points that Dickens would have wanted them to hit and completely nails the tone of the master’s own writing style.
But perhaps it’s here that we should talk about one scene from the story that every adaptation I’ve seen gets completely wrong. It’s in the piece where Christmas Present reveals the two horrifying children under his robe. The boy, we are told, is Ignorance. The girl is Want. And the girl is the problem for 20th and 21st Century adapters. That word – especially in its mid-19th Century usage – is an auto-antonym; that is, it’s a word that has two meanings that are the opposite of one another. (“Cleave” is perhaps the most familiar anti-autonym in the language, meaning both “to separate” and “to bring together”.)
And so the word “Want” not only means “needy” or “in need of”…but for Victorian audiences, it also was roughly synonymous with “greed”. And therein lies the problem; the “greed” meaning of the word “want” has largely faded, and so pretty much every modern adapter struggles to figure out why Dickens is having a go at the needy in this sequence and just sort of zooms past this scene. In this 1984 version, for instance, Christmas Present tries to make a good show of things but utterly garbles both the message and intent of the story. Not a huge thing, and certainly not specific to this adaptation, but since it’s the first filmed version to try to get that whole piece of the story correct of any of the versions we’ve discussed, it’s finally worth bringing up here.
Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 9 Muppets out of 10.
This version is remarkably true to the 1843 source material, with one major – and brilliantly realized –exception. Stealing a page from the 1951 Alastair Sim incarnation of the story, the 1984 version also makes Fan the older sister of Scrooge. That not only allows this version to also posit the reason for Ebenezer’s estrangement from his family to be the death of his mother in childbirth with him, but it also adds a chilling continuance of the scene.
In this version, Ebenezer is not only told that his father has changed his attitude, but also that pops is just outside by the coach waiting for him. And senior Scrooge greets his son coolly and then tells him that he’ll have exactly 3 days at home with family before he’s shipped off again to begin his apprenticeship. It’s a brutal scene to watch. It also helps tie up a loose end that Dickens left hanging in the book, where we’re told that father has changed and wants Scrooge to come back home…but that’s it. This version thus strays just a bit away from the novella, without getting out too far over its own skis the way the Sim version does.
Scrooge Factor: 10 Bah Humbugs out of 10.
What really, really lifts this adaptation of A Christmas Carol to the highest of heights is the performance of George C. Scott in the title role. Scott absolutely owns the role, disappearing into the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Too often, Ebenezer is portrayed as this semi-frail, rickety-thin codger. It makes it hard to believe that Scrooge is the intimidating bully that he most certainly is. With George C. Scott scowling and lurching around the scenery, it is no stretch of the imagination whatsoever to imagine him as a looming, outsized malevolent presence in the lives of everyone he comes in contact with.
Scott also resists the temptation to have Scrooge immediately succumb to the messages of the ghosts. When we’re watching Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, and even Albert Finney as Scrooge, we get the impression that if the second or third ghost never showed up, Ebenezer might still undergo a pretty big transformation in character. Scott’s Scrooge is more self-aware than that; he seems to catch on that he’s being manipulated, and argues and debates with the first two ghosts throughout their visitations. And when Scrooge finally shatters apart in the churchyard with the final ghost, Scott’s breaking voice and delivery makes the desperation and lost time and realization of the poor life choices feel heartbreakingly real.
Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 10 crutches out of 10.
Here we can also stop the competition and award the trophy; Anthony Walters’ Tiny Tim is the stuff of nightmares. To be sure, it’s not really his fault – he must’ve been all of seven years old when this was made. But they coat the poor kid with ghoulish Walking Dead zombie makeup and then give him far too many lines, which results in the wee tyke looking directly with an unsettling gaze into the camera as he delivers them. Imagine Damien from The Omen movies as Tiny Tim to really appreciate that effect.
We’re at the end of this review, and it feels like there are still pieces of this adaptation that haven’t been fully captured, wonderfulness-wise. Although this incarnation of the Scrooge story rises to great heights on the strength of the lead role portrayal, there’s also David Warner playing the best Bob Cratchit we’ve ever seen. And there’s Roger Rees making for the best Fred ever with a wonderfully nuanced, three-dimensional performance. And Susannah York as Mrs Cratchit, and Edward Woodward as Christmas Present rise to equal heights of brilliance.
And in the end, that’s probably what makes this the definitive and best Christmas Carol on film. Dickens wrote the words and described the plot arc and settings beautifully, and only required the pedestrian, professional skills of the TV movie crew to not stray from the original book and screw anything up. Then you add in superlative acting, and you’ve got it sorted. Simple!