New ‘Christmas Carol’ Doesn’t Think the Original Was Dark Enough

FX’s new production of A Christmas Carol mines all the darkness with which author Charles Dickens infused the original and then adds more of its own.

Nor is that even the most striking aspect of A Christmas Carol, which airs Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET on FX.

Guy Pearce as Ebeneezer Scrooge.

More striking is the performance of Guy Pearce as Ebeneezer Scrooge, the cold protagonist who scorns the whole notion of Christmas and the human warmth with which the season is widely associated.

While Scrooge forms the heart of every Christmas Carol production, Pearce takes him to another level here, at times turning the tale into almost a one-man show.

If that sounds critical, it’s not. Pearce makes Scrooge a fascinating character even when, for almost the entire length of the three-hour production, he’s waving off all compassion or understanding.

Joe Alwyn as Bob Cratchit.

His straight man, if you will, is his ill-treated clerk Bob Cratchit (Joe Alwyn), who seeks only a modicum of decency from Scrooge. Specifically, he would like to leave an hour early on Christmas Eve so that he could spend the time with his family.

When Cratchit finishes the day’s tasks at 3 p.m., an hour ahead of his normal 4 p.m. departure time, Scrooge finds a bit of make-work — a cruel and petty complaint about noise made by the poor in the streets outside — to keep him at his desk.

Pearce’s Scrooge is not, however, just the cartoonish boss from hell. He has personal and philosophical reasons for behaving as he does, and he outlines them to Cratchit and others.

While those reasons sound arrogant and cynical, rooted in Scrooge’s conviction that humanity is inherently uncaring and self-serving, they flesh out an intriguing portrait.

Dickens’s original Scrooge had a sheaf of unpleasant traits, all on display here. Creator Steven Knight and director Nick Murphy have dded a few new ones, starting with profane language not found in Dickens.

We also see a stark scene between Scrooge and Cratchit’s wife Mary (Vinette Robinson), whose content is brutally graphic though the filming is discreet.

The jarring scene reinforces both Mary’s devotion to her seriously ill son Tiny Tim (Lenny Rush) and Scrooge’s indifference to any such human suffering.

In the most benign interpretation, Scrooge is distant kin to Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, finding most of the world exasperating and annoying.

But where Higgins maintains his annoyance from an academic distance, Scrooge and his late partner Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) actively exploited these “worthless” people, sometimes working them to death to enhance their own riches.

The general plotline of this Christmas Carol follows, of course, the one laid down by Dickens in his wildly popular 19th century novella. The dead Marley returns in spirit and implores Scrooge to repent. When Scrooge declines, Marley is followed by the ghosts of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis), Christmas Present (Charlotte Riley) and Christmas Future (Jason Flemyng), who try to leverage the story of Scrooge’s own life into a convincing argument that caring beats the alternatives.

So extensively do we probe Scrooge’s lack of feeling — in Britain, this production is a miniseries, running over three nights — that any tiny crack in his shell startles us.

Considering that Ebeneezer Scrooge’s name long ago became synonymous in popular culture with cheap, small, petty and mean, it’s also something of a feat that this new production finds ways to make him even less likable.

Word of caution: Some of these changes do not make this version of a Christmas Carol more family-friendly. It tells the tale with adult trappings. Murphy also films most of the story in the haunting, often beautiful, but also harsh and bleak tones of a grey winter, matching the winter in Scrooge’s soul.

That said, the takeaway for most viewers here may be the way Guy Pearce keeps us watching someone we really don’t like for almost three hours.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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