Remake from Hell
“Drag out the Dickens… even though the prospect sickens,” Tom Lehrer sang exasperatedly in his song “A Christmas Carol.” The Victorian holiday classic is a classic for a reason, but it’s been done and redone so many times now that ya gotta have a schtick — ya gotta have something new to make your particular Carol stand out.
That was true even back in 1970, when Albert Finney (Simpatico, Erin Brockovich) took on old Ebenezer. The gimmick here: music. Song-and-dance numbers. And the result? Well, it’s a little odd.
Scrooge follows the basic tale somewhat faithfully, at least in the beginning. But it rapidly morphs into something Dickens probably wouldn’t recognize, a production that suffers from its theatrical roots and its need to not only make its antihero see the error of his ways but go way overboard in making up for his past.
Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars) as the ghost of Jacob Marley is an oddity, the white makeup meant to make him look spectral obviously a leftover from the stage… as, perhaps, is his slow, ponderous walk, which is intended to show the weight of his chains, I suppose, but only makes him look like someone faking walking in zero gravity.
Finney plays the young as well as the old Ebenezer, which means that for most of the film, he is globbed with latex to make him look old. That might work seen from the distance of a theater patron to the stage, but on film, aging an actor with makeup is usually a mistake, and it isn’t terribly convincing here, either.
This isn’t anywhere near my favorite version of A Christmas Carol for a lot of reasons, but most of them have to do with the music. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse, are fine, but their mostly cheery tenor just doesn’t sit right with the tone and setting of this story. (The Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t particularly faithful to Dickens, either, but you can get away with a lot more when your Bob Cratchit is a sock-puppet frog.) Bob Cratchit (David Collings) and two of his brood sing excitedly of Christmas, way happier than a proper Cratchit should be. “Won’t it be exciting if it snows?” his little daughter sings — or, rather, lisps — while they attempt to make Bob’s meager earnings buy a pleasant Christmas; okay, okay, they’re just trying to make the best of their dire situation, celebrating the simple joys of the season — I get that. But they also sing of Santa Claus and stare at fancy toys they could never afford in shop windows, and Bob sings that “Christmas is for children young and old.” Now, I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think Christmas was that big a deal in the early Victorian era — in fact, I think it was Dickens’ novel that gave it a huge boost in popularity. Not that you can’t alter a classic for your own purposes, but Scrooge has a jolly, happy feeling that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the story. Even Ebenezer’s signature song — in which he sings, “I hate people, I hate people / And I don’t care if they hate me” — is played for laughs. I think it’s weird / And I don’t care who knows it.
(Also, the ghosts are not spooky. Christmas Present is like Heston in a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic, only singing. Bizarre.)
But the alteration that bothers me the most concerns Ebenezer himself. Christmas Present tells Scrooge he’s the most deserving person on Earth to be sent to Hell — which seems unlikely. Miserliness is worse crime imaginable? If only the world were actually in such good shape. And Christmas Future gives Ebenezer a glimpse of his Eternal Damnation, which is finally what convinces Eb that he’d better mend his ways. Dying lonely and unmissed just isn’t enough motivation for changing, I guess, and Dickens’ own theme of exploring how we damn ourselves to our own personal hells was just too humanistic, which apparently has always been a dirty word.
The upshot of it all is that we get to watch Scrooge overcompensate for his meanness in unintentionally hilarious fashion, cavorting through the streets of London dressed as Father Christmas and handing out prezzies to everyone. I guess the threat of hellfire will do that to a guy.