For three nights this December leading up to a Christmas eve finale, a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Wright aired on BBC 1. The gothic snow-drenched Dickensian London appeared in contrast to a disappointingly un-snowy Christmas for most of us, and despite some distracting pacing and story divergences in the first outing, the hour-long episodes were most certainly chilling.
The basic bones of the story remain the same. The humbugging Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce) receives a visit from his very dead former-business partner Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham). He is warned of impending visits from the ghosts of Christmas past (Andy Serkis), present (Charlotte Riley) and future (Jason Flemyng). If he cannot change his ways by Christmas day, then both Scrooge and Marley’s souls will be doomed for eternity. Most of the emotional tug-of-war is focused on Scrooge’s actions towards the Cratchit family. Scrooge forces father Bob (Joe Alwyn) to work late on Christmas eve and refuses to pay him any more to provide for his wife Mary (Vinette Robinson) and their children, including the very sick Tim (Lenny Rush).
In this iteration, however, the world and supporting characters have been expanded and explored, reading between the lines of Scrooge’s miserliness to explore exactly how he can perform such evil deeds. And the writing does not shy away from showing us that Marley and Scrooge’s business was built on evil deeds, taking advantage of the misfortunes of others for their profit.
Stretches of the show are pretty harrowing. We witness the deaths of men women and children in coal mine collapse caused by Scrooge and Marley restricting spending on support beams, a gruesome fire at one of their factories again caused by a stingy attitude to safety, as well as some haunting events in Scrooge’s past. The story does feel bloated at times, particularly early on as we make numerous trips down to purgatory with Jacob Marley, supposedly to give Graham something to do other than clanking around Scrooge’s living room.
The main advantage of expanding the story is it allows for brilliant performances. Pearce makes every stage of Scrooge’s development believable, while Vinette Robinson stands out in later episodes as Mary Cratchit. For a character usually given minimal characterisation, in this adaptation, Robinson gives her agency and helps cement this version in a gritty realism which explores the reality of poverty and trauma alongside family and love. Attempts to take the suffering of its characters more seriously are helped by using a familiar face from Scrooge’s life as the ghost of Christmas present rather than a Father Christmas figure, and by stopping any character referring to the Cratchit’s sick and disabled son as ‘Tiny Tim’.
Diverging so much from the source material will have ruffled more than a few feathers among viewers, but we’ve had so many relatively straight adaptations in recent years (The Muppets aside) that it’s refreshing to see such a bold attempt at uncovering something new in Dickens’ work.
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