Christmas Carol Movies, Stave VI: A Christmas Carol (1999)

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In the mid-1990s, Sir Patrick Stewart (taking a break from his Captain Picard duties on film) embarked on a successful run on Broadway performing a one-man stage version of “A Christmas Carol”. The rave reviews for these shows apparently attracted the interest of Turner Broadcasting executives, who came to the actor with what must’ve been an alluring pitch. Would Stewart be interested in playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a new film adaptation for the company’s TNT network? A large production budget was promised, along with the participation of writer/adapter Peter Barnes and director David Jones, names that Stewart knew from the London theater community. 

And a promise was made: this version would be the one that was “The most faithful film to Dickens’ original book ever created.” 

After the jump, but is that a good thing?

Charles Dickens cranked out “A Christmas Carol” in a frantic six week writing binge in the fall of 1843 in order to meet a self-imposed deadline of getting the book into shops by Christmas day that year. That pace and compacted schedule forced Dickens to cut corners on his traditional processes of revising, drafting, and editing as needed. The result was a timeless, inspired story that still resonates almost two centuries after it was written. 

But as anyone who’s read – or tried to adapt – the story can attest, it isn’t without some minor technical flaws here and there. There are bits of story and character that are simply left hanging in the air in the book, never to be explained or resolved. It’s all very atypical of Dickens, a consequence of the unique circumstances surrounding the book’s creation.

For the 1999 Christmas Carol, those issues would end up on screen, which causes some issues with the narrative flow. That confusing schedule of ghost visits set by Marley? Good luck with that. The visits to the miners, the lighthouse, and ships at sea? Yeah, those bits are usually cut because filming them convincingly is a budget-busting proposition, if they’re done too quickly they feel like an unnecessary diversion instead of key story piece. And the final chapter – the Christmas morning when Scrooge wakes up – feels very perfunctory and too-quickly resolved in the published version of the story. The reader can almost see Dickens laying creative tracks down just in front of the publishing deadline train in that final bit of the book.

Most adapters tasked with bringing the story to stage or screen find that those issues are easily dealt with. All the versions since the MGM 1938 adaptation have come up with satisfying patches on the original prose. But for 1999’s Christmas Carol, however, that “most faithful” goal creates problems that are at least a bit distracting, and at worst threaten to derail things completely.

Spooky factor: 5 Marleys out of 10. 

1999’s Christmas Carol was promoted to audiences and critics with a claim of “State-of-the-art computer generated special effects.” What was actually delivered on screen, however, is almost painfully bad. Marley starts out OK, and even has a fantastic, frightening effect when he unties his bandage. The phantoms in the street are also generally solidly done. 

But then there are the often unadapted scenes with Christmas Present taking Scrooge to view the lighthouse tenders, the miners on the moors, and the sailors at sea. Here, the graphics look like what you’d get in a cheaply made mid-1990s FMV video game or Nickelodeon Network game show for kids. These scenes are unintentionally hilarious in how poorly they’re realized. If the 1984 version was lavish enough to warrant a theatrical release, this 1999 incarnation practically shouts its low-budget, made-for-TV ethos. As a final slap at the lack of production skill here, the poor Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is too-frequently shown head-on. He (it?) looks like nothing so much as an overgrown jawa from Star Wars.

Canonical Factor: 8 Dickenses out of 10. 

In the question of “most faithful to the original” onscreen adaptation, 1999’s Christmas Carol probably succeeds. After a short, non-canonical scene at the very beginning at Marley’s funeral, the movie quickly snaps quickly into lockstep with the original prose of Charles Dickens. That includes the weird schedule of ghostly visits (in the book, Scrooge is seeing the final spirit on the morning of December 27th, which helps to explain his amazement on waking that it is still Christmas morning). It includes the full, scolding lines about Want and Ignorance, the two children under Christmas Present’s robe. If you’re a Dickens purist, this version sounds all the right notes.

With that said, though, there are some omissions and divergences from the text. The film completely skips the Christmas Present spirit’s denunciation of organized religion, which if you’re going to be pure to the original, feels kind of cowardly. And where it does selectively stay close to the novella, it also leaves intact the same vague and hanging story details that are also present in the book, leaving some of the same dangling plot details unresolved.

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): incomplete.

There’s not much to score here, so no real score is given. The Marley’s funeral beginning is fine for what it is.  And though the CGI-heavy scenes at the lighthouse and moors are technically canonical, the atonal and clumsy way that they’re executed is not, and feels like a weird Scrooge In Space parody.

Scrooge Factor: 7 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Patrick Stewart is one of the great actors of his generation. And the role of Ebenezer Scrooge is one that Sir Patrick was well-acquainted with from his stage production, and a part he clearly relishes playing. And yet…there’s something missing here. Perhaps it’s the choice to not have Stewart wear any sort of wig or hair appliance. Our first glossy-bald Scrooge on film (OK, other than Mister Magoo) is one of the most instantly recognizable pates in modern popular culture.  We never fail to notice that we’re watching Patrick Stewart playing Scrooge. Perhaps it’s just a case recency bias – any actor might seem less sharp when compared to Scott’s 1984 performance.  

Notably, the supporting cast is quite exceptional for this adaptation, it should be noted. Richard E. Grant is a fine Bob Cratchit, and just a few years before he was patrolling the streets of Baltimore, Dominic West is solid as Fred. Even the bit roles are well-cast. Underused actors such as Saskia Reeves and Laura Fraser stand out, and Ian McNeice is perhaps the best Fezziwig captured on film.

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 5 crutches out of 10.

Tiny Tim – played by child actor Ben Tibbert—is good enough in the role, as far as that goes. The script doesn’t overburden him with too many lines, and he seems old enough to have a good grasp of what’s going on. 

And so this adaptation cooks along, and in the audience we’re thinking “Most normal Tiny Tim ever!” And then with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come we visit an upstairs room at the Cratchit home and OH MY GOD. There’s Tiny Tim laid out in bed, motionless; he’s either very sick or already dead. It’s never quite clear, but I assume it’s the former, which is still off-putting; if it’s the latter, then it’s just yikes all around.

Final thoughts:

Other than the dodgy, clunky special effects, there’s nothing really wrong with this version of Christmas Carol. The cast is good and Patrick Stewart is a good Scrooge. And the story doesn’t go delving deeply into any non-canonical tangents, either. 

This version earned stellar, glowing reviews on release, but time has been unkind to it. It just feels a bit cold and underdone. 1999’s Christmas Carol is so interested in coloring within the lines and painting by numbers that it never gives itself a chance to be anything more than a good holiday TV movie digression.

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