Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has been a beloved holiday favorite since its publication. The tale of mean-spirited miser Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmastime redemption thanks to ghostly intervention has been adapted for film and TV many times dating back almost to the birth of motion pictures — one of the earliest known instances of a movie version was in a film called Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost made in 1901.
The story’s built-in familiarity with audiences (and the fact that it’s in the public domain) continues to be part of what makes A Christmas Carol a tempting project for producers and actors to keep revisiting. But, the same long history that makes it so well-loved might also present a creative challenge for anyone looking to give viewers the comfort of what they expect while also trying to do something different from previous versions.
That was the task for Steven Knight when he wrote the latest screen version of A Christmas Carol, a BBC/FX coproduction.
Boasting Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy as executive producers, the original film finds Guy Pearce joining the illustrious ranks of past Scrooges in the lead role. Andy Serkis also headlines as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Charlotte Riley, in a deviation from the original story, plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of Scrooge’s deceased sister. Jason Flemyng rounds out the spectral trio as the Ghost of Christmas Future, a role originally intended for Rutger Hauer before his passing this year.
“What I wanted to do was to not set out to deliberately vandalize what the story is,” Knight said. “I know how precious it is to a lot of people. It’s precious to me, as well, and it’s part of our culture. It’s part of Christmas. What I wanted to do is to deepen it and give it maybe a resonance … [to] dig into what’s there and find out some of the things that a contemporary audience would be interested in. The main one is, ‘Why is Scrooge like this?’”
In answering that question, Pearce says the film takes “a darker sort of path to get there.
“Yes, you all know this story, you know where it’s leading to, but perhaps let’s take you on a more forensic [exploration]. I’m sure there are going to be some people who would go, ‘Oh, this is not very Christmassy.’ And then there’ll be others who will go, ‘Oh, thank God, this is what it really needs.’ There’ll be a variation of responses, I’m sure.”
Prominent among the spirits leading Scrooge along his dark journey to redemption is Serkis’ Ghost of Christmas Past. As Pearce explains it, this shape-shifting specter has a greater presence in the story than the other two ghosts and “reflects the character that is affecting [Scrooge] the most at any given point in the story … to prick and needle him into feeling certain emotions and reliving events that will hopefully crack open the potential real investigation of his soul.”
While Serkis’ face has become more familiar of late in live-action roles for films like Black Panther, he rose to fame with his innovative motion-capture acting for otherworldly CGI creations in movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the actor explained there is nothing quite like that here.
“What Nick Murphy, the director, wanted to do on this is to treat the supernatural in a very realistic way,” Serkis offered. “So, there’s a way of showing [Scrooge] in the past, which is not really [in the past]. So, yes, [the ghost] becomes other characters, but it’s all in-camera … to make it feel very real. Although it’s a spirit that can sort of teleport around … there are two people standing and talking to each other.”
And, on several occasions, there was apparently also just one person engaged in conversation.
“Scrooge talks to himself,” Pearce explained. “I had monologues, just pages of monologues. [He’s] physically talking out loud to himself. That’s just a lot of stuff to learn, and I’m not great at learning. I have to really give myself a long time to do it. So, there was no socializing for me on this job.”
Beyond that, Pearce says he found Scrooge to be “a really delicious character to play.” Though when it came to uttering the seemingly simplest — and certainly most famous — of Scrooge’s exclamations, Pearce admits, “I was nervous about [saying] ‘Bah! Humbug!’ to be honest, because we’re doing a different version of Scrooge. But, obviously, that’s the stuff people want to hear.”
A Christmas Carol premieres Thursday, Dec. 19, at 7:30pm ET on FX.
The film will have four encore airings: Sunday, December 22, at 7:30pm, with an encore immediately following; Tuesday, December 24, at 8pm ET; and Wednesday, December 25, at 4pm ET.