Saturday, 19 December 2009


When Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol way back in 1843, he could have had no idea that his tale of an old miser beset by a quartet of ghosts would be as well loved today as it was by his original audience. The story of Scrooge is as much an integral part of the festive season as holly, snow and Father Christmas himself, and many scholars have asserted that Dickens’ work is the foundation of the modern Christmas. But also, aside from pioneering our Yuletide celebrations, A Christmas Carol is surely a contender for the title of ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’.

Certainly A Christmas Carol is one of the few classic novels that is nearly always faithfully adapted, and the story is so well told it is pretty much director proof. And the tale is so timeless its themes and its message so universal, that A Christmas Carol will work even if you do tamper with the text and change its setting or characters. Indeed you really have to go out of your way and mount a thoroughly shoddy production to mess this one up.

And so, how well any given adaption works is largely a matter of personal taste, and I suspect in many cases, a person’s favourite retelling of A Christmas Carol will be the one that they first saw many Christmases ago. Over the years we’ve seen such stars as Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, George C Scott, and Sir Michael Caine don Scrooge’s nightcap, and we’ve even seen the likes of Mickey Mouse and Mr Magoo essay the role. We’ve also have seen the tale told in modern times (Scrooged), performed by puppets (A Muppet Christmas Carol) and as a musical (Scrooge). And now Robert Zemeckis has entered the fray with a sumptuous 3D, sorry Disney RealD production… And has received a somewhat mixed reaction from critics.

And to all those who have given a “Bah!Humbug!” verdict, may they be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their hearts. A rather harsh view admittedly, but this is a very fine adaption and I think several factors are befogging their views.

Firstly, I think the decision of releasing the movie to theatres at the start of November was a little too early, provoking that same sense of annoyance one has when one finds the shops full of Christmas tat at the dawn of the eleventh month. Secondly, I suspect that for many the mere presence of Jim Carrey has blotted the productions copybook before they have even seen a single frame – a view I can sympathise with, but with the right director Carrey is capable of subtlety. And A Christmas Carol is one of those cases where his irritating zany energy has been reined in and he actually does some acting rather than just exuberant gurning.

But the major source of the humbuggery appears to be the fact that this is in 3D, and currently it’s very fashionable to moan about Hollywood’s current love affair with the old cardboard specs. And not without justification either; indeed, a great many of the 3D offerings that have flooded theatres this year have failed to set cinema audience’s imaginations alight. Either we’ve had a lot of unnecessary poking the audience in the eye, or films that have been released in the new RealD but haven’t been made with that medium in mind. To take a recent example, Up was trumpeted with much sound and fury as being Pixar’s first venture in the medium yet seemingly there was no thought involved in the decision, with very little use of the 3D effects throughout.

However A Christmas Carol is a horse of a different colour. Having previously dabbled with RealD and Imax 3D previously with Beowulf slightly before the current boom, director Robert Zemeckis has clearly thought long and hard about how to best utilise the third dimension. And this is readily apparent from the outset – the opening ten minutes of A Christmas Carol contains more and better use of the 3D effects than the entirety of Up and co.

It’s also telling that he avoids all those annoying contrived shots that most 3D films sport and exist solely for the purposes of being pointy - no mean feat for a movie set in Victorian England where most of the gentlemen carry walking canes. Instead we have an altogether more subtle use of the technology with mist and snow wafting out of the screen and gorgeous panoramic scenes that use the illusion of depth in a vivid almost painterly fashion.

Now the received wisdom about this version of A Christmas Carol, is that Zemeckis had ‘ruined’ the story by going 3D crazy, inserting all manner of sequences and turning Dickens’ classic into an amusement park ride. But one should always beware received wisdom, as often it is nothing more than the thoughtless repetition of some one else’s opinion. And remember folks, the received wisdom asserts that Frankenstein is the name of the monster and Dr Spock accompanied Captain Kirk on his intergalactic travels!

And in the case of A Christmas Carol, the received wisdom is just as wrong. Now I am very familiar with the original text, and I have to say that this is one of the most faithful adaptions brought to the screen, with several scenes included that many other productions miss out. And some of these scenes that are often missed out, for example the monstrous children that lurk beneath The Ghost of Christmas Present’s robe, and the moment where Scrooge sees the night air swarming with benighted spirits, may well be interpreted as additions by Zemeckis by those who are not familiar with the book.

Similarly some familiar scenes might seem to be embellished for the sake of 3D, in particular Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past. In many productions, it is the norm for this first ghost to be portrayed by a woman, however in Dickens’ original this Christmas spirit is definitely portrayed as male and is described as being a bright and flickery as the Zemeckis screen conception. Additionally, the book has the spirit taking Scrooge flying too, however many other productions opt for another mode of travel into the past largely due to the constraints of budget and available special effects.

In truth, there are only two major instances where the movie embroiders the text for the sake of cinematics. The first is the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence; as in the book, an emotional Scrooge snuffs out the spirit with its own cap but then unlike the text the old miser is jetted skyward. Now this scene is the one most commonly cited by the humbuggers – “I don’t remember any rocket rides in Dickens” they sniff. But as we have already seen this spirit has already taken old Ebenezer soaring through the skies, so it can hardly be seen as breaking the spirit of the text.

The second comes in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scenes, where we have the hooded spectre pursuing Scrooge down the cobbled streets in a demonic coach. Now while this chase scene is unnecessary strictly speaking to the plot, it does add a burst of excitement to the last third of the film. And it does have a root in the original text – in the book, when Scrooge is on his way to bed before the appearance of Marley’s ghost, Dickens has Scrooge see a phantom hearse galloping up the shadowy staircase. It would appear that Zemeckis has lifted this moment and built an action sequence about its kernel, in the same way that in Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson transplanted the Old Man Willow attack from the unused Tom Bombadil material and wove it into the Treebeard scenes.

Now of the two, this second did feel a little extraneous to me, but I think would have worked better and felt more integrated with a couple of minor changes. To begin with if Zemeckis had had Scrooge glimpse the hearse in the gloom of the stair, that would have nicely set up the chase later. Secondly, I felt the chase should have occurred before Scrooge hears the business men discussing the news of his death. It’s a minor point but it would have flowed better in my humble opinion.

Of course there other minor changes, such as Scrooge being shrunk to mouse size to witness his maid clearing out his worldly goods, and the Ghost of Christmas Present presenting his tour of Christmas Day by making Scrooge’s floor magically transparent. However all these changes both minor and major do not meddle with the body or the spirit of the story. And it should be remembered that Dickens himself was something of a showman, endless touring performing readings of his works (see The Unquiet Dead), and somehow I feel that these touches of visual grandstanding would have won his approval. Especially as the movie is so close to his own words in all other regards.

And perhaps, the biggest potential problem with Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is that is it so close to Dickens. Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the page, with no quarter given to the modern ear. More importantly, a lot of the film is very dark in tone and indeed, at times rather frightening. But it has be said, this is how the original is. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, which in all honestly is the American nephew of Dickens’ tale, people often forget that these stories aren't wall-to-wall Christmas cheer; it’s not all snowball fights and festive cheer, most of the narrative is about loss and misery, and it’s only at the end that the seasonal joy kicks in.

I suspect that many may well be somewhat surprised at how dark it is, and having seen the Disney banner and the fact that it is an animated feature would be expecting a jollier, funnier and more child friendly piece. However the fact that the movie sticks close to the original, Victorian dialogue and leaves the darker elements intact is no bad thing in these days of dumbed down culture. Though that said I would stress that this film is not suitable for younger children, as if it doesn’t scare the living daylights out of them, they may find the Dickensian speeches hard to follow.

A bigger issue in staying true to the text however is the ending. Now this version plays out exactly as it was written, but after multitudes of other versions, some may be expecting a far more jolly finale. Countless other productions have beefed up the ending, with Scrooge visiting the Cratchits on Christmas Day and often delivering sack loads of toys as well as the prize turkey, and therefore some have felt that this version that shares the novel’s closing scenes to be a little of a let down.

Now long time readers of my reviews will know that I do favour the faithful adaption, and I really in all good conscience cannot hurl stones at Zemeckis for preserving the end Dickens himself wrote. But equally I must concede the point that it would have been nice to see an expanded ending, with Scrooge playing Father Christmas and tearing up his ledger of debts as he does in the Albert Finney version. But that said, the ending is satisfying enough – after all it worked well enough for the original – and we do get a rather cheeky call back to Back To the Future into the bargain.

As no doubt you’ll have guessed by now, I was very impressed with this version of the classic tale. Jim Carrey played Scrooge beautifully, and performed well in his other roles. Though as a Northerner, I have to say that the Yorkshire accent he affects for the Ghost of Christmas Present wasn’t quite perfect but certainly good enough to pass muster. And there were good turns from Gary Oldman and Colin Firth too.

However where it really succeeds is the animation. Just as Beowulf was a step forward from The Polar Express in the use of motion capture digital animation, A Christmas Carol is another leap ahead. And this time Zemeckis seems to have really nailed it. For me, Beowulf seemed to veer from looking like a video game cut scene at some points to near realism at others; which was somewhat jarring for me. But more importantly, at some scenes looked so near real it was somewhat creepy – the uncanny valley effect. However I had no such problems with A Christmas Carol, as all the characters, although rendered with an impressive amount of realism, were all caricatures in style to a greater or lesser degree. Wisely Zemeckis has limited the complete CGI verisimilitude for the sets and landscapes, bringing us a glorious rendition of Victorian London.

And the RealD process is used magnificently. So far I have been less than impressed with the current crop of 3D movies, which have either been mired in pointy pointy cinematography or made little use of the technology. A Christmas Carol manages to avoid both these pitfalls, presenting us with a movie that delivers breathtaking and imaginative 3D effects and yet won’t look weird when viewed in 2D (see Friday 13th Part 3). In fact, Zemeckis has done such a good job, now the much frothed about Avatar actually has a decent benchmark to be measured against. Indeed it’ll be very interesting to see how closely this 3D race arms will run when I eventually see Jim Cameron’s magnificent octopus*.

And so to conclude this somewhat epic review, I adored A Christmas Carol. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and it impressed me on many levels– I didn’t count on the 3D being as good as it was, nor did or that this version would concentrate on the atmosphere rather than kid-friendly hi-jinks. And I would have never guessed that this would be such a faithful rendition of Dickens’ original.

Of course it’s not the perfect adaptation, but as I stated at the beginning of this piece, what holds the crown as best version is largely a matter of taste. For every person that holds that the Alistair Sim version is the king of Carols, there’s another that will assert that the Muppets have it. And the true worth of any Christmas Carol is proven over time as audiences revisit it every Christmas time - for example, Bill Murray’s take on the tale, Scrooged, also received mixed reviews on first release but now is regarded as a classic by many. And I think that the passing years will be as kind to Zemeckis’ production, particularly once all the current griping about Hollywood foisting 3D movies on us whether we want them or not all has died down.

But finally, I’ll leave you with this – which probably is better testament to the quality of this Christmas Carol than anything else. At the packed screening I saw, when the credits began to roll something happened that is very, very rare, particularly for UK cinema audiences – the crowd broke out into spontaneous applause…

*’Magnum opus’ for those of you who don’t speak Blackadder

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