The Most Unsettling ‘Christmas Carol’

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Over the past few years, I’ve reminded you of the best Christmas specials and talked about some classic Christmas music. This year, it’s time to clear the field for the greatest adaptation of the greatest Christmas story.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • The Colorado Supreme Court just gave Republicans a chance to save themselves.
  • The Colorado ruling calls the originalists’ bluff.
  • Trump insists he hasn’t read Mein Kampf.

The holidays are a time to look back on a long year, but also to look forward to the new one. Give an Atlantic subscription to someone close to you and they’ll get a year of the best coverage on the most important stories—to stay informed and inspired as we enter the new year.


An Actual Ghost Story

Christmas, no matter what your religious beliefs, is a wonderful time to cherish our friends and family but also, in the season’s spirit of reconciliation, to recognize and embrace our common humanity with people everywhere. In the approaching depths of winter, we can recommit to kindness, peace, and joy. That’s why I would like to take this opportunity, right before the holiday, to make you all mad one more time with one of my cultural takes.

There are some good adaptations of the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, and many bad ones, but only one truly great version, and it is the 1984 made-for-television movie starring George C. Scott.

Wait. Hear me out.

I know that many people are intensely loyal to the 1951 version (titled A Christmas Carol in the United States, and released in the U.K. as Scrooge), starring Alastair Sim. I understand why. It’s charming, in its way, but it is also enduring because so many of us grew up with it. For a time, it was like It’s a Wonderful Life, the black-and-white wallpaper always there in the background after Thanksgiving. And Sim is wonderful: He was only 50 when he filmed Scrooge but he looks much older; his Scrooge is so deformed by sin that his transformation later in the story is almost a physical change, wondrous and giddy.

But for me, too much of Scrooge is formal and stagey. And let’s not even talk about the other versions from the 1930s, or the Muppets, or Bill Murray, or the cartoons, or the more arty takes. Some of them are truly awful. (I’m looking at you, Guy Pearce.)

When I first saw the Scott version, however, I loved the tighter connection to the book, and especially the attention to detail and atmosphere. No, it doesn’t really snow that much in London, but the 1984 version is so evocative that you can almost smell Scrooge’s musty bedroom, the happy stink of the open-air butchers and fishmongers, and the scrawny goose roasting in Mrs. Cratchit’s tiny kitchen.

Most important, just as Sim carried Scrooge, this version is Scott’s movie, despite the outstanding actors around him. Scott was an American, and his British accent slips now and then—I always wince when he tries to get his tongue around “I wonder you don’t go into Parl-ya-ment”—but years of hard living gave him a face, a voice, and a stare that no other Scrooge could match.

And yes, he was fat. Scrooge, in most other iterations, is a scrawny geezer who doesn’t eat much or drink or “make merry” at Christmas. But Scott’s Scrooge is a barrel-chested bully, an imposing and nasty piece of work. He’s not particularly disciplined or monkish; he’s just a corpulent old bastard who can’t remember that he was once a human being.

Then there are the ghosts. They’re deeply unsettling apparitions, which makes Scott’s version a bit more PG-13 than most of the other adaptations.

Frank Finlay’s Marley, in particular, is not some old pal coming to issue a friendly warning. Marley is a damned soul, wailing and doomed. He’s a rotting corpse, for crying out loud. Angela Pleasence is a radiant and annoying Ghost of Christmas Past. At first, I found her off-putting, and then I realized: She’s supposed to be annoying. She’s not guiding Scrooge on a nostalgia tour of his youth; she’s taking acidic delight in showing Scrooge what a jerk he’s become. Every Scrooge loses his temper at these “pictures from the past,” but Scott’s anger seems especially justified as Pleasence smirks at him.

Edward Woodward, however, steals every scene he’s in as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Instead of some phantasmic simp gently reminding Scrooge of the need for Christian charity, Woodward is a striding giant, a knight of Christmas whose mirth barely conceals his moral rage. When observing Bob Cratchit’s family doting on Tiny Tim, he snarls to Scrooge: “It may well be that, in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child!” Woodward delivers it not as a rebuke but as a threat, and that moment still sends a chill through me.

I also have a very personal reason for loving Scott’s version more than any other.

My father was, if not a Scrooge, something of a Grinch, as my mother called him every year. He growled about how Christmas was a giant, expensive pain in the ass. But my dad was a churchgoing Christian, and he harbored a secret love for the holiday. Despite his bah-humbug approach, he insisted on a real tree every year, leaving the decorating to me and my mother. He wrapped his own presents, if you can count “rolling them through paper and tape” as “wrapping.” He and I would go to Christmas Eve services (in Greek Orthodox churches, they’re usually in the late afternoon or early evening) every year while my mother prepared dinner.

But my father was also a very difficult man, and my parents had an extremely volatile marriage. Like many men, my father carried his share of sins and secrets. And like most men of his generation, he did not often speak of them. Some, I know, weighed on him to the very end of his life.

So I was surprised when, one night in the mid-1980s, he joined us to watch A Christmas Carol. We sat in our dark living room with a small fire and no light but the blinking tree. He was chatty and seemed to enjoy it, but he became very quiet toward the end, when Scrooge realizes that at a not-so-distant future Christmas, he is dead and no one cares. Alone in the darkness and the snow, Scott pleads for mercy not like some accomplished thespian in the scene of his life but like an old man at the edge of the abyss, one who now fully understands how his own actions brought him to a desolate end.

I looked over at my parents. My mom was holding my father’s hand. And my father, quiet in the dark, had tears on his cheeks.

Until that moment, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen my father cry, including at his mother’s funeral—and certainly never at a movie. Scott got to him, perhaps because Scott’s Scrooge was a man my father could understand: loud, tough, and full of anger and regret, rather than the effete, pinched-face slip of a fellow played by Sim and others.

In later life, I sometimes feel the same tears welling in my eyes when Scott pleads for one more chance. These tears are not only for my father, who struggled with his own burdens to the end of his life, but for myself as well. It’s easy to hate Scrooge when you’re young and think you have plenty of time to straighten yourself out. When you’re older, you start to wonder how much time you’ve let get by you, and whether you and the elderly miser have more in common than you might like to admit.

Scott’s A Christmas Carol isn’t perfect; it has some especially cringeworthy and twee moments with Tiny Tim. But this isn’t Tim’s story. It’s about looking into the grave and realizing that on Christmas—or any day, really—it is always within our power to change our heart and to become, like Scrooge, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew.”

To borrow another line from Dickens: May that be truly said of all of us.

Merry Christmas. See you next week.

Related:

  • We need a little Christmas (music).
  • The most beloved Christmas specials are (almost) all terrible.

Today’s News

  1. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Egypt for talks with Egyptian officials about a possible new cease-fire in Gaza and hostage swaps.
  2. After three years of negotiations, the European Union reached a provisional agreement to overhaul its asylum and migration laws. Pending ratification, the pact aims to make it easier to limit the entry of migrants while still protecting the right to asylum, according to EU officials.
  3. The World Health Organization designated the new JN.1 coronavirus strain as a “variant of interest” yesterday because of its “rapidly increasing” spread.

Evening Read

Pablo Delcan

My Father, My Faith, and Donald Trump

By Tim Alberta

It was July 29, 2019—the worst day of my life, though I didn’t know that quite yet.

The traffic in downtown Washington, D.C., was inching along. The mid-Atlantic humidity was sweating through the windows of my chauffeured car. I was running late and fighting to stay awake. For two weeks, I’d been sprinting between television and radio studios up and down the East Coast, promoting my new book on the collapse of the post–George W. Bush Republican Party and the ascent of Donald Trump. Now I had one final interview for the day …

All in a blur, the producers took my cellphone, mic’d me up, and shoved me onto the set with the news anchor John Jessup. Camera rolling, Jessup skipped past the small talk. He was keen to know, given his audience, what I had learned about the president’s alliance with America’s white evangelicals … Polling showed that born-again Christian conservatives, once the president’s softest backers, were now his most unflinching advocates. Jessup had the same question as millions of other Americans: Why?

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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