A Christmas Carol (the Ross Kemp version)

"Ooh, are we telling ghost stories? Let me put on my scaaariest face."

“Ooh, are we telling ghost stories? Let me put on my scaaariest face.”

We’ve looked before at various traditional versions of A Christmas Carol, so why don’t we talk about the modern adaptations? The ones which take the basic framework of the story and place it in the modern time, like Sherlock did for Sherlock Holmes, West Side Story did for Romeo and Juliet, and She’s the Man did for Twelfth…okay, a lot of these types of movies/tv shows/books/what have you aren’t that good. Most modern versions of Carol have been pretty solid, however, with Scrooged and the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special successfully using Dickens’ story while making it their own.

With a story as widely adapted as this, a new adaptation should really be judged on what changes it makes and whether or not they service the story, rather than how faithful it is. ITV’s A Christmas Carol uses plenty from the original story but also makes plenty of changes along the way to make it fit better into a modern setting. It was intriguing on a first viewing to see how they incorporated the differences while still keeping Dickens’ message, but sadly, a rewatch does bring up some niggles here and there.

For example, here Ebenezer Scrooge is replaced with “Eddie Scrooge” (played by Eastenders’ Ross Kemp), which is a bit of an awkward name. Scrooge here is not an old man in Victorian London, but rather a middle-aged loan shark in a modern day housing district, so “Eddie” would fit better than “Ebenezer”. “Scrooge”, however, is still the archetypical Dickens villain surname, itself being a synonym for “squeeze” (you know, he squeezes pennies from you). True, this is set in a universe where Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was presumably never written (which is odd, as their Christmas is exactly the same as ours, when they say Dickens did a lot to shape our modern Christmas), but the juxtaposition is a little more jarring than it should be. I kinda wish they had gone the route An American Christmas Carol and Scrooged took and just gave whole new names to the characters.

Most of the basics between the Christmas Carols of 1843 and 2000 are the same. Scrooge is a disagreeable man with no Christmas spirit – Christmas, according to Eddie, is “when the stupid and the bone-idle join forces to celebrate the birth of catalogue shopping”, not one for subtlety, that Eddie – who has recently lost his partner Jacob Marley (Ray Fearon), refuses nephew Fred’s invitation for Christmas dinner and abuses his worker Bob Cratchit (Michael Maloney). Though in this version, Bob can’t get out of working for Scrooge as he’s trying to pay off a debt, Fred is a policeman, and Marley was the victim of a violent crime, which Scrooge is reminded of thanks to Marley’s mother (Shezwae Powell) and the good old-fashioned Flashback-Nightmare. I call them Flightmacks.

The original Christmas Carol began with “Marley was dead to begin with”, and this special begins with Marley being shot to death, which foreshadows one of this special’s most significant changes;  the added appearances of Marley. Once you see Marley’s end, you know Scrooge had a part to play in it, and of course, part of his redemption is him confessing to Marley’s ghost. This doesn’t really hurt the story, for Marley has always been one of Carol’s more interesting characters – as Scrooge’s only friend, he is not only a reminder of Scrooge’s possible fate, but a reminder of Scrooge’s loneliness and the fact he does have a decent, more social side. Fearon’s Marley has chains – “bad things I never put right” he calls them – but he seems more focussed on helping Eddie than moaning about his afterlife. Fearon is one of the better actors here, casual and conversational with a stern side to him.

Not only that, but Marley also does double-duty as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which makes Scrooge’s visitations feel all the more personal and it works; this is a personal journey of self-growth Scrooge is embarking on, after all. Likewise, the Ghost of Christmas Past is the ghost of Eddie’s father (Warren Mitchell), who Eddie blames for his current behaviour, thus he can have a more direct confrontation with the past while still keeping the whole “they can’t see or hear us” thing Carols are supposed to have. Sadly, I kinda felt Scrooge’s past could have been expanded upon a bit; maybe if this special were longer they could have done something like the Alistair Sim version did. The Ghost of Christmas Future’s connection to Scrooge is pretty clever, not to spoil anything, even if it links to a problem I have with the special.

The biggest difference between the 2000 special and the original novel is what Scrooge experiences between hauntings. After each ethereal visitation, Eddie gets to re-experience the same Christmas Eve over again Groundhog Day style. The Christmas Eve that opened the show, where Scrooge trashes televisions and sneers at Fred, is cancelled out, giving him a chance to re-do it better. Now, I like the idea of Scrooge having time between each ghost rather than just having them one after the other. It makes his conversion more believable, for people cannot change overnight, and gives Scrooge time to think over what he has been shown. Scrooged utilised something like this, and did it well.

After Eddie is haunted by his dad, he goes through the timeloop still in disbelief, though showing signs of a better Eddie trying to get out – he does mention his sister Fan when talking to Fred. After Christmas Present, we see a Scrooge who is trying to be nice without a genuine reform – he’s attempting to delude everyone and himself he’s changed by throwing presents at problems until they go away. He gives Marley’s mother what she calls “blood money”, but is still reluctant to confess what he had to do with Jacob’s death. He does nothing to really help Tiny Tim’s condition ( yes, Tiny Tim is here, and he has cystic fibrosis, marking one of the few times they actually say what is wrong with Tim), but just hopes he gets better and gives him a football. It’s certainly an interesting reinforcement of the story’s message – change is better when it’s genuine, not when you’re trying to save your own ass. Then when he confesses to Marley during Marley’s third and final appearance, and meets Christmas Future, he reforms for real and does Christmas Eve how he should have done it.

A problem with this is that it makes his redemption feel like a video game. Like he got the “bad ending” after Christmas Present, consulted a walkthrough and then used what he learned to get the good ending. For example, during Christmas Present, Scrooge learns about two homeless kids – who seem to be based on Want and Ignorance from the original novel – who are dying near where he lives. On his second loop, he doesn’t do anything about them until late evening, and seems more interested in impressing his lost love Bella (Angeline Ball) then saving them, and thus they don’t make it. On the final loop, POP! They’re alive again and Scrooge takes them to the hospital first chance he gets. This re-do cheapens the impact the kids should have and feels a little cruel too.

But let’s talk about Bella. In the original Carol, Scrooge is shown what his greed cost him when he is shown his love Belle breaking up with him and settling in with a new family. Most Carol movies really fumble this character – see the Muppet version where she sings a song so boring it’s cut from the DVD release – and I can’t really say this is really any exception. Eddie and Bella’s scenes together are more awkward than tragic and romantic, and she contributes to how overly-sugary the finale feels. I get what they were going for; at first, Scrooge wants to change just so he can get back with Belle, and thus he has to get taught to actually care. When he reforms, he and Bella get back together, a change to the story I’ve never liked in the adaptations where it appears (Christmas Carol: The Movie, A Flintstones Christmas Carol). A Christmas Carol is sentimental, yes, but it feels a little too sentimental. I did like how it all connected to Christmas Future though.

Wait a minute…this movie has an Edward, a Bella and a Jacob. Oh fucking god.

There are some moments of this special that don’t sit right with me and the acting isn’t the best, but this is still a decent reinterpretation of a classic story, with some good ideas for how to restage it in the modern day. There are changes that are troublesome, but there are also changes that are actually refreshing. It is a shame, then, that it hasn’t seen a DVD release, though it is currently on ITV player and Youtube.

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About jabberw

A writer of short stories and reviews, who likes to dabble in other creative media as well.
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