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Film / A Christmas Carol (1984)

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"I decided that he was the loneliest man in the world, and that's how I played him."
George C. Scott on his interpretation of Scrooge

A Christmas Carol is a 1984 made-for-TV film adaptation of the novel of the same name, directed by Clive Donner. It stars George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, the man who thinks Christmas is "humbug" until he's visited by three ghosts with an agenda. It was released in cinemas in the UK, where it was also filmed.

David Warner, who spent most of his career playing villains and psychos, has a major Playing Against Type moment as gentle, kindly Bob Cratchit. Susannah York plays Mrs. Cratchit. Edward Woodward goes from avuncular to terrifying as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Roger Rees plays Fred, and also provides the opening and closing narration. A young Joanne Whalley appears in one scene as Scrooge's sister Fan, and Frank Finlay appears as Jacob Marley. Michael Gough is one of the businessmen soliciting for the poor.

Clive Donner worked as an editor in the famous 1951 version of the story.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Scrooge's father might be his Freudian Excuse, though Scrooge never relies on his actions to justify his behavior.
  • Acid Reflux Nightmare: Ebenezer initially is prepared to dismiss Marley's appearance as this.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • This version of Scrooge comes across as a great deal colder than the original. Rather than being indifferent he seems to find the suffering of others darkly amusing. He also makes more efforts to defend himself from the spirits than in most versions. All in all he is a great deal grouchier and more like his past self throughout nearly his entire time with the Spirits than in the book, where his transformation begins almost immediately on being transported back to the first vision of Christmas Past.
    • Scrooge's father also gets this. As in the book, Fan tells young Scrooge that their father has changed and wishes him home. When Scrooge meets him, however, he's still cold and dismissive of his son and only sees him for three days before making him work at Fezziwig's.
  • Adaptation Expansion: A lot of the changes to the story made by the '51 version are carried over.
    • The touching scene where Scrooge comes to Fred's house to accept his invitation for Christmas dinner at last, fearful that he would be rejected, only to find he needn't have doubted Fred's love.
    • This version also fills in some backstory. The reason why young Ebenezer was essentially abandoned at boarding school is because his mother died in childbirth and his father blamed him. (This required an Age Lift to make Fan Ebenezer's older sister instead of his younger as in the book.) Scrooge's feeling that he wasn't wealthy enough to support Belle is here presented as why he threw himself so single-mindedly into making money.
    • This version has Scrooge meet Belle at Fezziwig's Christmas ball. In the original story, we don't meet Belle until the breakup scene. (This particular change is so common to adaptations of the book that it verges on Canon Immigrant.)
    • There's a scene early in the movie where Scrooge meets Tiny Tim outside the office and rudely dismisses him as a beggar, not knowing that Tim is waiting for his father.
    • The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a little camp of homeless people that includes a desperate family of four. This serves as a segue to the scene with Ignorance and Want.
    • The movie includes a scene showing what a ruthless businessman Scrooge is, where he price gouges a group of other businessmen at the 'Change who are providing for the poor and need corn stocks he has purchased.
  • Affluent Ascetic: As in the novel, Scrooge is very wealthy but only spends the bare minimum to keep himself alive, and considers even basic comforts like good food to be frivolities. Lampshaded by his nephew:
    Fred: His wealth is of no use to him. He doesn’t do any good with it. He doesn’t even make himself comfortable with it‘
  • Age Lift: Fan was Scrooge's younger sister in the book, but his older sister here.
  • The Aloner: Scott's interpretation of Scrooge, which is consistent with the novel's descriptions of him and his house.
  • Bad Future: It certainly is for the Cratchits, who are mourning Tiny Tim's death when Scrooge encounters them in the future. Doubly bad since Christmas Present had threatened exactly that earlier. Also for Scrooge himself, who sees that unless he changes, he will die alone, neglected and unmourned.
  • Broken Tears:
    • Bob Cratchit, briefly, in the vision of Christmas Yet to Come.
    • Scrooge, when he brushes the snow off the gravestone and his worst fear is confirmed.
  • Carpet of Virility: The Ghost of Christmas Present's exposed hairy chest fits in well with his overt manliness and eventually serves to help make him more intimidating.
  • Christmas Carolers: Right before Marley shows.
  • Cobweb of Disuse: The ringer on Scrooge's doorbell is covered in cobwebs, implying that no one ever calls and Scrooge is too cheap to hire a maid.
  • Creepy Child: Ignorance and Want.
  • Creepy Monotone: Downplayed. While furious, Marley's lamentation of his wasted life has a slight, detached evenness; implying a near-deranged desolation.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: The motivations of the three spirits and Marley. The Ghost of Christmas Present in particular seems to almost enjoy throwing Scrooge's words back in his teeth.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • The Ghost of Christmas Present.
    • The Ghost of Christmas Past can also be snarky, and even cruel.
    • Scrooge has his moments, such as when he tells the third ghost, "You're devilish hard to have a conversation with."
  • Death by Childbirth: Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him, leading to a troubled relationship with his father.
  • Delicate and Sickly: Tiny Tim, who would have died if Scrooge had not made his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: God Bless Us Everyone is among the various songs the Christmas carolers sing, and is also the tune Scrooge's watch makes when it chimes.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: When Belle's husband tells her about Scrooge working alone and miserable, she's quite saddened by the life he has made for himself. Ebenezer snaps that he doesn't need her pity before Christmas Past helpfully reminds him that Belle can't hear him.
  • Dying Alone: Scrooge's fate without the Heel–Face Turn.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The Ghost of Christmas Present first appears to Scrooge in good cheer - as per his usual portrayal - laughing wildly and surprising Scrooge of his "family:" the ghosts of over a thousand Christmases hence. However, once Scrooge comments on his family in terms of business - "a great many mouths to provide for" - the tone changes and Christmas Present's manner instantly drops. Though he doesn't comment, he turns hard and cold and he immediately gets down to business, foreshadowing the nature of their conversations going forward.
  • Fell Off the Back of a Truck: The homeless father is adamant that he did not steal the potatoes he's feeding his family with. They fell off a cart into the road, end of discussion.
    Father: Your father's not a thief, girl. Not yet...
  • Foreshadowing: The last simile thrown out in Fred's game is "Silent as the grave," shortly before the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrives.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The film starts with a rather ominous tolling church bell, before more cheery Christmas bells are heard. Then there's the clock somewhere that tolls 1 and 2 o'clock ominously, to introduce the first two Christmas spirits.
  • Good Is Not Soft: The three spirits have Scrooge's best interest at heart, and are good, but in no way are they soft. Past and Present frequently criticize and debate with Scrooge, while the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come resembles the Grim Reaper personified and lets his future speak for itself.
  • Greek Chorus: The brass band carolers as Scrooge heads from his office to the London Exchange to his home:
    Brass band carolers: [singing] He strove for silver in his heart, and gold in all his days,
    His reason weak, his anger sharp, and sorrow all his pay,
    He went to church but once a year, and that was Christmas day,
    So grant us all a change of heart, Rejoice for Mary's son,
    Pray peace on Earth to all mankind, God bless us, every one.
  • Happily Married: After leaving Scrooge, Belle marries a kindhearted man and has many children. Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, Fred and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig are also examples.
  • Happy Dance: Scrooge dances around his room in delirious happiness once he realizes he still has time to change his life and avoid all the misery he would otherwise have caused.
  • Hearing Voices: On his way home through the fog; before his haunted doorknocker and in his dark chambers, Scrooge hears the distant voice of his seven-years-dead partner Marley.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The entire purpose (and result) of Marley and the Ghosts' visits.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Tiny Tim is the kind that exists to be a shining example of virtue and then die, although Scrooge's change of heart saved him from the second half of that.
  • Ironic Echo: At one point in the film, Scrooge states that it would be better for the poor to die and reduce the population. The Ghost of Christmas Present then uses the exact same statement Scrooge had said against him when they both witness how ill Tiny Tim is.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: One of Belle's reasons for leaving Scrooge. She realizes that the now-mercenary Scrooge will regret marrying a girl without fortune.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Scrooge dismissed Christmas as "a false, commercial enterprise." He said this in the 1800's, before Christmas was particularly commercialized. Considering what it's turned into today, he's pretty accurate.
  • Jump Scare: When Scrooge sits down with his evening gruel, he suddenly again hears Marley's discarnate voice.
  • Kick the Dog: The exchange between Scrooge and Tiny Tim at the beginning of the film:
    Tiny Tim: [as Scrooge comes out of the office into the freezing cold] Merry Christmas, Mr Scrooge!
    Scrooge: Don't beg on this corner, boy.
    Tiny Tim: I'm not begging, sir, I am Tim — Tim Cratchit. I am waiting for my father.
    Scrooge: [snorts] Tim Cratchit? Hm. Then you will have a long wait, won't you?
    Tiny Tim: Merry Christmas, sir.
    Scrooge: [walking off] Humbug.
  • Literal Genie: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come does this when Scrooge begs him to "take him home." He takes him to the grave he's buried in, since that's his 'home' now.
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: In this version, the reason why Scrooge's father has essentially abandoned his son at boarding school, as Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past. (This required making Fan his older sister, when Dickens states specifically that Fan is younger than Ebenezer.)
  • Mood Whiplash: At least twice. We go from hearing carolers to hearing Marley's creepy voice as Scrooge walks home. Then, in Christmas Present, we go straight from Fred's family Christmas party to a deserted part of London, where a family with two kids is living on the street.
  • Monochrome Apparition: Marley appears in an overall tone of deathly greyish blue.
  • Moral Myopia: Scrooge asks rhetorically "What have I done to deserve being abandoned like this?" when the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves him stranded alone at night in a strange, run-down, and possibly dangerous part of the city. In fact, the ghost had simply treated Scrooge with exactly the same sort of cold, callous disregard with which Scrooge himself treated all other people.
  • Mythology Gag: While walking home, Scrooge sees a ghostly hearse drive by him and vanish into the fog. This is very similar to a scene in the book, where he sees a hearse climbing the stairs of his house as he himself ascends.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Fred gets the last name Holywell; his wife who was not named at all in the story gets named Janet. The charity solicitors are known as Messrs. Poole and Hacking, while two of Scrooge's fellow merchants at the London Exchange are known in this film as Tipton and Pemberton. The credits name Scrooge's father as Silas.
    • Fred's last name becomes somewhat of a Meaningful Name; he is the only child of Scrooge's sister Fan (the Well of Holiness in Scrooge's life), and Scrooge finally realizes how much of his mother Scrooge sees in him.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Scott simply uses his own American accent. It works in favor of the film by averting the distraction of faking an accent.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The other wandering spirits aren't seen, but are heard in the form of shrieks coming from outside Scrooge's window.
    • The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is hooded, silent, and usually seen from a distance or by shadow. The only hint of its body we see is one of its hands, which has unusually long fingers.
    • A similar case happens with its seeming lack of arrival. Marley tells Scrooge that the third ghost "will come in his own due time", instead of the previous 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock pattern. Scrooge is not even returned to his bedroom when the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves, causing him to fear that the third ghost might not even appear and that Scrooge has been left to freeze.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • This reaction is clear in Bob Cratchit's expression when he realizes he's late to work on the 26th and Scrooge is in the counting house waiting for him.
    • Done subtly with Scrooge. When he sees the old lady selling the stuff she took from the dead man's room, he indignantly says "Those are my things!" Moments later, after the implications of that fact hit home, he backtracks, saying that they just look like his things.
  • Ominous Fog: A lot of this to set the mood, like when Scrooge is going back to his empty house and he starts hearing spooky voices and sees a ghost hearse.
  • Parlor Games: The guests at Fred's Christmas party are playing "Similes". Fred says the first part of a common expression, such as "Quiet as..." or "Tight as...", which the player then has to fill in ('a mouse' and 'a drum', respectively). The answer given, though, is "Tight as your Uncle Ebenezer's purse strings."
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present do not waste a single opportunity to blast Scrooge for his cruelty, delusions or stupidity. Past seems alien enough that she really might not be doing it on purpose, but Present seems to especially enjoy taking the piss out of him.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Scrooge's reasoning for not putting more coal on the fire is pure business, as clothes are practical, cheap, and made for warming oneself while coal burns, is finite, and expensive.
  • Proud Peacock: While Scrooge is at his nephew's house, his nephew plays a word game with his guests. One of the answers is 'proud as a peacock."
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Ghost of Christmas Present ends up delivering this to Scrooge.
    Ebenezer Scrooge: You use my own words against me?
    Ghost of Christmas Present: Yes! So perhaps, in the future, you will hold your tongue until you have discovered where the surplus population is, and who it is. It may well be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child.
  • The Remake: Well, all the many many versions of this story are working off the same original text. But this film has many points in common with the 1951 film Scrooge on which Clive Donner worked as an editor. It has a similar Off-into-the-Distance Ending with Scrooge and Tiny Tim as in the 1951 film. Both films have Scrooge younger than Fan (the reverse of the book) and both suggest that Scrooge's mother's death in childbirth is why his father abandoned him. Both include the idea that Scrooge set himself to work in business because he was Unable to Support a Wife and wanted to marry Belle. Both have Scrooge apologize to Fred's wife.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The man Belle ended up marrying after leaving Scrooge looks just like his past self.
  • Sarcasm Mode: The Ghost of Christmas Present really leans into this when throwing Scrooge's "Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?" line back at him, after Scrooge wonders why no one will help Ignorance and Want.
  • Scenery Porn: Location footage in Shropshire makes for an atmospherically Victorian setting.
  • See You in Hell: Inverted with Scrooge when Fred comes to his office to invite Scrooge to Christmas dinner:
    Fred: Please don't be angry, uncle. Come, dine with us tomorrow.
    Scrooge: [chuckles] Dine? I'd sooner see myself in hell first.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Unlike many other adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge doesn't wear a nightshirt and nightcap during his journeys with the ghosts — he just puts on a dressing gown and slippers over the shirt, waistcoat and trousers he wore during the day, which is very close to book’s description of his clothing during the ghostly encounters.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: A slight case, as the film begins with Marley's funeral procession, though we don't see anything more.
  • Stepford Snarker: This Scrooge uses humor, anger, and denial as defense mechanisms even as he's clearly shaken and softening by what he witnesses.
  • Suddenly Shouting: After being shown a homeless family, with the father making the grim resolution to go to the workhouse and his wife insisting that they remain together even without a place to live, Scrooge asks why he was shown this and what these people could possibly have to do with him.
    Christmas Present: ARE THEY NOT OF THE HUMAN RACE?
  • Timeshifted Actor: Mark Strickson, fresh off his run as Turlough on Doctor Who, plays Young Scrooge.
  • Truer to the Text:
    • Scrooge remembering the storybook characters he loved in the Past sequence is usually left out for brevity's sake, with this version being one of the few that keeps it.
    • This version also has the ghostly carriage Scrooge sees on his way home and Belle's scene with her husband and children, usually Adapted Out.
    • The shrieking voices heard from the street as Marley makes his exit out the window, are a nod to a scene from the book, almost always Adapted Out, in which Scrooge looks out his window and sees a whole bunch of ghosts walking about and dragging chains.
    • Much like the 1951 version, the film uses the tune and dance of "Roger de Coverley" at Fezziwig's party which is specifically noted in the book, but often replaced in adaptions.
    • This is one of the few versions that features Scrooge extinguishing The Ghost of Christmas Past with a giant candle snuffer. Other versions that include it are the 1971, 1977, 1999 and 2009 ones.
    • Scrooge confronting his shrouded corpse is also included in this adaptation.
    • As Scrooge begs to be spared, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come's hand can be seen trembling, a minor detail from the book usually left out.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: In this adaptation, Scrooge starts out in his pursuit of business success because he didn't think he had enough money to support Belle.
  • The Unintelligible: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come doesn't speak, but every time it "responds" to Scrooge, a metallic wail, possibly meant to evoke the screech of a graveyard's gate, is heard in the background.
    Scrooge: You're devilish hard to have a conversation with.
  • Younger Than He Looks: The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a scene where Belle and her husband mention Jacob Marley being on his deathbed, seven years before the present. Belle's youngest child looks to be no more than about 3-4, which means that Belle is at most in her early to mid-40s at the time. Assuming that Scrooge and Belle are similar in age, this implies that seven years later, Scrooge is still in early middle age and thus considerably younger than he looks.