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Reinventing A Christmas Carol

Most of us were probably introduced to Dickens’ famous tale by watching The Muppets Christmas Carol, unless you managed to avoid it as a last-day-of-the-term Christmas film. And it’s really quite good. A Christmas Carol is a story about good people, grumpy people, magical weirdness, and optimism: things very safe in the felted hands of The Muppets. At the end of the day, this story, as with many of Dickens’ books, is not that complicated, from its three-part structure to its one-sided characters. Yet despite its simplicity, its important messages of community and the ability to change still affect you. It is the perfect story for everyone at Christmas.

This is why A Christmas Carol is remade and remade again. The BBC’s three episode version of it couldn’t be more different to what The Muppets made of it. If the latter takes Dickens’ Victorian greyness and injects it with singing watermelons, The BBC’s A Christmas Carol embraces it, and wipes its face with the soot of a chimney sweep. Both are true to the book in their own way. The Muppets Christmas Carol is more faithful to Dickens’ writing, which might be surprising given that children probably don’t give a stuff for the accuracy of a film to its original text. But The BBC’s take on it brings out a darkness that I can’t help but think that Dickens would have appreciated.

Episode one begins with a boy pissing on a grave. With that, the tone is set. Everything screams Gritty Realism. There is actual grit in many scenes. The script has undergone a makeover: Scrooge’s conversation with Cratchit on Christmas Eve reveals an ideology based more around his hate of inauthenticity than pure selfishness, as he wonders how many “Merry Christmases” are really meant. It follows the trend of updating old stories by making them character based, woke, and giving everyone a back-story. As much as I wanted to roll my eyes, it works. My modern yearning for plausibility and exploration of motivations was met. Scrooge’s transformation always struck me as far-fetched, and his gloominess excessive. But the series makes him sound invitingly convincing at times.

Scrooge is not just hard to persuade; the painful slowness of his transformation is made more interesting and tense by his active determination not to change, championing his reason and logic. He sees it as a challenge, but Marley’s eternal peace hangs on what he does. We become Marley, watching Scrooge’s every move.

While the series takes itself more seriously, the message is less self indulgent. Scrooge cannot redeem himself purely through his desire to change himself. He is never forgiven, and does not want to be. It would have been a cop-out to forgive him, after so vividly watching the effects of his actions on people he has never and will never meet. The series steps past the “Merry Christmases” and expands its reach beyond London, England, and Scrooge’s purchase of a big turkey. It feels distinctly socialist, in a Victorian, naturalistic kind of way.

Not quite a jolly, joyful Christmas film, but maybe we have enough of those around.

Image: Stephen McKay via Wikimedia Commons