A Christmas Carol: Link by Link, and Yard by Yard
I’ve been dreading A Christmas Carol for a long time. Exactly how long? Thanks to the internet, I can find out! On July 9, 2007, news hit the trades that Jim Carrey would be playing not just Ebenezer Scrooge but all three of the ghosts haunting him in Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture 3D version of the Dickens classic. My snap response: “Anyone who goes to see this movie deserves what he gets.” I didn’t feel much better when the news broke, a year later, that Gary Oldman would be playing not just Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley but also Tiny Tim. (Reportedly, to maintain eyelines, he performed his scenes in a trench.)
It’s not that classics like A Christmas Carol are untouchable; one of the finest versions of Scrooge’s story is the 1992 Muppet one, which was hardly faithful to the original, inasmuch as it gives Jacob Marley a brother named Robert (!), and features, as the Marley ghosts, Statler and Waldorf. But the idea of sitting through Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Jim Carrey, and Gary Oldman in Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol just seemed like a horror. I assumed that Dickens’ tale would be not just adapted poorly but Carreyfied: overstuffed with the horseplay and rubber-faced baloney that Jim Carrey brings to his comedy performances.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol is, in fact, an extremely faithful retelling of the story, with nearly every single line of dialogue coming directly from Dickens’ original. It’s not at all perfect — in fact, it’s seriously flawed in some very important ways — but it’s not a fiasco, it’s not Carreyfied, and it delivers Dickens’ tale of midnight terror and Yuletide repentance remarkably effectively.
The first clue that this might not be the fart-joke-fest you’re fearing comes early, in a striking scene that expands on the book’s memorable opening lines. “Marley was dead, to begin with,” Dickens wrote, and Zemeckis shows us the dead Marley, rigid in his coffin. Ebenezer Scrooge stands in a funeral home, unwilling to respond to the undertaker’s open palm with the expected gratuity. When Scrooge finally, balefully, gives up a few coins, he immediately snatches the pennies off dead Marley’s eyes. The Victorian gloom, the shocking violation of a body, Scrooge’s callous parsimony — it’s all a bit overwhelming.
From there, we go on to the familiar story beats: Scrooge in his office, abusing his poor clerk Cratchit and declining an invitation to dinner from his nephew (Colin Firth). Scrooge at his front step, surprised by the door knocker assuming Marley’s face. And Scrooge before his meager fire as the ghost of Jacob Marley approaches, laden in chains. Marley, his hair wild, his teeth awful, his eyes rolling back in his head, is frightening enough (in fact, the whole movie seems far too scary for younger children); even more frightening is the afterlife Marley reveals, when Scrooge looks out his window and sees dozens of miserable ghosts floating through the air, each engaged in some hellish exercise as Sisyphean as hauling around a chain for eternity.
Zemeckis’s Carol, it turns out, is smart and scary in equal measures. Dickens’ story may be a cultural trope by now, but it still holds an elemental terror: Who doesn’t regret mistakes of his past, or fear onrushing death? Who isn’t forging his own chain, “link by link, and yard by yard,” even if it isn’t as long as Marley’s — or Scrooge’s? Zemeckis’s fealty to the original — in its language, and in its awestruck respect for the power of eternity — is striking in its seriousness.
Of course, it’s not long before Scrooge is flying through the air, whacking icicles with his face. Zemeckis seems to view a truly dramatic Christmas Carol as too tough a pill for family audiences to swallow, and so he does his best to juice things up with a couple of hyperkinetic action sequences, each more beside the point than the last. Kids in the theater — those who hadn’t already left, frightened — loved watching Scrooge shrink to mouse size and slide through a pipe, and if this is the trade audiences must make to avoid, whatever, a Scrooge who rides a skateboard and says, “Bah humbug, dude!” it’s a trade I’ll gladly make. But Zemeckis could well have cut nearly all of these sequences and had a better movie at the end.
Not to mention a movie that wasn’t so visually chaotic. There are still bugs in Zemeckis’s motion-capture technique, in which the performances of live actors inspire the movements of animated characters, first among them the fact that he still hasn’t traversed the uncanny valley: No matter how strong the technology, humans still look off-puttingly inhuman. CGI excels, though, in portraying grand spaces, and some of the film’s views of snow-covered 1840s London — its streets bustling with carriages but miraculously shit-free — are wondrous to behold. It’s too bad we speed through them so quickly, and so frequently, as to make 3D viewers headachy and miserable.
Jim Carrey, it turns out, plays a completely passable Scrooge, and excellent Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. (I hope Disney paid him scale for his performance as the Ghost of Christmas Future, as it’s just an enormous shadow that points a bony finger but never speaks.) Oldman has moments of charm as Bob Cratchit, and thank heavens, his performance as Tiny Tim is tiny enough that you might forget it’s a 50-year-old man on his knees in a trench. And Zemeckis, for all his directorial overenthusiasm, has taken a revolutionary idea — just faithfully adapt a classic story! — and made from it a film of A Christmas Carol that might even be better than the Muppets’. Charles Dickens, as played by Gonzo, would be proud.