It is said of Ebenezer Scrooge by his nephew that "his offenses carry their own punishment," but if they did, we wouldn't have a story. They don't, we do, and the gift Charles Dickens gave the world 141 years ago returns tonight to give again. George C. Scott makes a wonderful, cherishable Scrooge in the new "Christmas Carol" CBS will show at 8 on Channel 9.
The story is so familiar that it risks becoming the narrative equivalent of "Have a nice day" -- something one hears and yet does not hear. But the adapter, Roger O. Hirson, and the director, Clive Donner, have reinvigorated the tale, and Scott gives Scrooge the breath of life. This version is so splendid it is likely to become the preferred edition for years to come.
There is, indeed, life in the old boy yet. Scott offers a subtler Scrooge, a man in whom we can see there are possibilities for reclamation almost from the beginning, even when he is bellowing "Mist-tuh Cratchit!" a la Laughton's "Mist-tuh Christian!" at his worker Bob, as mistreated an employe as was ever exploited by management. Scrooge has remained the world standard for miserliness. Until David Stockman, of course.
In the first scene, at Scrooge's countinghouse, Scott puts his own stamp on the character. His Scrooge scoffs rather than scowls at the world's insistence on good cheer and generosity at Christmastime. Others who've played Scrooge were usually spindly sorts of fellows, where Scott is extremely ample of girth, but Scott makes that work for him, too, conforming to Dickens' observation of Scrooge that "No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him." He's an impervious hulk in becoming Victorian mutton chops.
Where Hirson deviates from Dickens he does so in perfectly acceptable ways, as in making the ghost of Christmas past a woman, and an ethereally pretty one (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald). Others, like the ghost of Jacob Marley (Frank Finlay) and of Christmas present (Edward Woodward) fit the traditional images, but give them new gusto. David Warner makes a hearty Bob Cratchit, Susannah York is his fitfully forgiving wife, and Anthony Walters, 6, plays Tiny Tim with dignity; he isn't just the ceaselessly chirpy tyke usually depicted. Roger Rees, Nicholas Nickleby himself, plays the nephew. All the characters are made to exist as people and not just shadows from a classic.
Donner kept a firm hand and used just enough special effects to make this holiday ghost story credible without letting it go high tech on us. Tony Imi, who has shot some of the best-looking TV movies ("Princess Daisy" and "Little Gloria, Happy at Last" among them) helped give the film a rich, warmly misty texture. Nick Bacat's music is melodically distinguished, and it's obvious producer William F. Storke treated the project with respect and care. All these people are worth mentioning (and others would be worth mentioning, too) because they serve the tale and the original teller of it so conscientiously.
Visiting the yet-to-come with the ghost of same, Scrooge sees those discussing his death and begs, "Let me see some tenderness, some depth of feeling." These are the qualities that mark this production. And it has its joyful, and funny, sides as well: Scrooge awakens if from a dream to discover he is throttling not a ghost but his bedroom rug. And Scott is particularly ingratiating once the transformation has occurred, merrily kicking off his slippers as he shouts exultantly, "I'm as light as a feather!"
What happens by the time we hear the final narration about the virtues of knowing "how to keep Christmas well" is that, indisputably, the Dickens story has woven its spell again. Its message is not just that the Lord loveth a cheerful giver, nor even that the love of money is the root of all evil, but also that every person, even the seemingly unreachable, has a better nature. It's an optimist's view, of course, but a beguiling one. Dickens' nothing-if-not-durable tale of redemption proves itself redemptive once again.