I don’t own many versions of A Christmas Carol. Don’t know why. I enjoy just about every version of it, but I only own two film adaptions: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and a 1999 TV movie starring Patrick Stewart.
Stewart had performed a number of one man performances of A Christmas Carol in London and on Broadway. The TNT TV movie utilizes a full cast made up by Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit, Bernard Lloyd as Jacob Marley, Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Desmond Barrit as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dominic West as Fred, and Ben Tibber (who’s done very little since) as Tiny Tim.
The lead role is played by Stewart and for someone who’s done countless stage readings, an audio book version, and is obviously passionate about this classic story, he’s not great. I feel bad saying that, because he’s one of my favorite actors and he’s usually brilliant. I even listened to his audio book numerous times as a kid and loved it. Here, though, he slips into overacting a few too many times. Maybe the director is to blame for going with worse takes or maybe Stewart was just off when he made this. Either way, he steps over the line in certain comic and dramatic scenes, and he should know better. He’s not terrible and has many great moments. Those scenes that work are just hurt by those that don’t.
What does work is the great supporting cast and the overwhelming feeling of somber and joyful Christmas spirit. It’s ultimately uplifting but along the way there are deep shadows occupying every frame and the film is not afraid to be haunting even in usually happy sequences like the Ghost of Christmas Present scenes. When the Ghost of Christmas Present angrily scolds Scrooge with the help of Ignorance and Want (shown in the form of two poor, starving children), it’s genuinely scary. It’s a Dickensian form of horror that pervades the original book. Some adapters forget that it’s a ghost story. It should be a little scary. The 1999 version remembers this element and implements it excellently.
This adaption also includes my favorite moment from the book. It’s an often cut moment where Scrooge is taken around the U.K. to see various Christmas celebrations during the Present section. The best of these celebrations is a group of people singing, eating, and having a great time in a warm lighthouse while a snow storm bellows outside. I love the idea of a few, half-forgotten people in the middle of nowhere finding Christmas cheer in horrible conditions. My wife is a big fan of an honestly beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” that’s performed during this travel section.
Stewart’s adaption doesn’t have the pure happiness and charity that The Muppet version succeeded so much in capturing. What it brings to the table is a Victorian and adult point of view to life and the festive season. One scene I particularly love is when Scrooge goes to church on Christmas day. People still have religious services on Christmas day, but this has an older feel to it that is more of the time.
And then there’s the scene where Belle leaves young Scrooge. You can’t have A Christmas Carol without remorse, it’s such a major theme of the story. The aforementioned scene carries so much regret and sadness that can only come when those involved in telling the story know what it is like to lose someone. I don’t know if a child can understand that in the same way as an adult. So dialing down these emotions in The Muppet’s adaption was appropriate. Here you can go further and more dramatic with it, which is nice to see.
This is a worthy adaption of Dickens’s classic. It has it’s problems, but while it’s not as joy filled as The Muppets, it’s cheerful in all the right places while maintaining a level of seriousness and Dickensian horror not present in that other version.