Not the best version of the story, but not the worst either.
This telefilmfilm, which first aired on The Entertainment Channel in the early 1980's, is a film of The Guthrie Theater's stage adaptation of the Dickens Christmas classic. This provides no small element of novelty since there are only a handful of such stage versions available on video right now and this novelty is desperately needed to combat the old "Not another version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL!" syndrome.
I'm one of those people who could sit through an all-chimpanzee adaptation of this particular story but I'm aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the tale. Since CAROL completists like myself will watch this version no matter what I'll try to keep the casual viewers in mind for this review.
THE GUTHRIE THEATER PRESENTS A CHRISTMAS CAROL is the film's official title and it was adapted for the stage by playwright Barbara Field. She shrewdly recognizes that Dickens' prose narrative provides many of the key emotional moments in the story and has Charles Dickens himself standing onstage serving as part narrator and part Greek Chorus throughout the play. Unfortunately, he's introduced in an irritating "wrap-around" bit that features Chuckie D(as I like to call Dickens)dealing with Christmas visitors who badger him into regaling them with his tale of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
The clever split-level set is well-used and provides the afore-mentioned novelty that is so crucial to keeping casual viewers interested in the well-worn material. All the familiar elements of the story are present, tweaked here and there by the playwright with varying degrees of success. Scrooge seems intriguingly "haunted" by his various spritual ills even before a single ghost appears, one of the charity fund-raisers has a hearing impairment that's played for a few laughs and an unnecessary story involving a paperweight is provided for Scrooge's nephew Fred.
The scene with Marley's Ghost is a real show-stopper and manages to steal this version of the CAROL away from the Christmas Present portion which is usually my favorite sequence. During Christmas Past too little time is spent on Scrooge's sad youth and too much time is wasted on Scrooge's lost love Belle, but that's a mistake almost all of the stage and screen adaptations make. In the novel the Belle segment is heart-wrenching but brief, and is shown as just one more way Ebenezer is divorcing himself from humanity. I don't mind the play putting Belle at Fezziwig's party since it is after all, a staged version with limited room for sets. I'm less charitable toward the "disco" look provided for the actor who plays The Ghost Of Christmas Past. I'm also puzzled by the way this and some other versions of the CAROL pass up the chance to cast a woman as this ghost since Dickens himself described the spirit as being of indeterminate gender. Using an actress in the part would be a quick and easy way to counter one of the frequent criticisms of the story - the scarcity of prominent female roles - without seeming self-consciously "politically correct".
The scenes during Christmas Present fall uncharacteristically flat despite the charming performance of the actor playing the Ghost. This segment of the story seems drained of all of it's usual emotional impact and is fairly disappointing. Another shortcoming is the way the stageplay tries to flesh out the Cratchits but instead makes them seem like a sitcom family. I think this whole Act of the play could use a rewrite.
In it's favor, the play includes many scenes of Christmas Yet To Come that other less-patient versions of the story forego in their mad dash to the tombstone bearing Scrooge's name. (Surely no spoiler warning is needed for such a well-known scene.) Scrooge's Christmas morning conversion is appropriately joyful and his horseplay with Cratchit the next day is also well-handled. Sadly, just when we're all set for the signature "God bless us, everyone!" the characters from the opening wraparound segment return for a closing bit which takes it's sweet time finding a way to work Tiny Tim's sendoff into the dialogue. I'd be willing to bet many audience members at the live performances were impatiently glancing at their watches and jingling their car keys during this scene.
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL that will likely entertain newcomers to the story without boring veterans of the countless other versions.
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