A Darker Scrooge, Faithful to Dickens


There was, as Charles Dickens would say, a “piercing, searching, biting cold” on the East London set of “A Christmas Carol” that morning in early March when Patrick Stewart appeared in an overcoat and top hat as the post-epiphany Scrooge.

The chill added to the authenticity of the wintry street scene, which featured fresh vegetables at the P. Bateman & Sons Greengrocer of Quality and not-so-fresh smelling pheasant, geese and rabbits hanging outside of the John Perkins Poulterer.

Only the snow was artificial, but even that sounded real under the weight of Scrooge’s Victorian boots as he made his way down the block hailing shoppers and shopkeepers with Christmas cheer.


“Good morning! Merry Christmas! Good morning!” Scrooge shouted to the amazement of those who had never heard such words from him or seen his lips parted in smile.

Farther along, Scrooge promised a generous donation to a man who collected for charity, gave coins to a beggar and paused to admire a snowman that children were finishing. They bombarded him with snowballs and he fired back with a handful of snow and a laugh that was both rusty from Scrooge’s disuse and deep with Patrick Stewart’s baritone.

“Cut. Good,” said David Jones, director of the two-hour $10-million Hallmark production that is to air on TNT Sunday.

“OK. Let’s do it again,” Jones said.

“That’s good for me,” executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. shouted from the sidelines.

“Is it?” Jones asked as he prepared another take.

“I hate a perfectionist,” Halmi muttered--playful banter between colleagues who clearly love what they are doing.

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the oft-told 19th century tale of a mean-spirited miser, Scrooge, who treats poorly his faithful clerk Bob Cratchit (played by Richard E. Grant), spurns his good-hearted nephew and says, “Bah, humbug,” to any celebration of Christmas. But on Christmas Eve, he is visited by the “three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future” and undergoes a metamorphosis into a kind and happier man. He even becomes a second father to Cratchit’s crippled son, Tiny Tim.

Halmi, 75, a Hungarian-born New Yorker who loves the classics, was just back from overseeing the filming of “Arabian Nights” in Turkey.


“Ah, the carpets. It’s a wonder what I can do with flying carpets in ‘Arabian Nights’ and still be true to the story. Nobody who has told ‘Arabian Nights’ was true to the story,” Halmi said. “The same goes for ‘A Christmas Carol.’ In the past, people wanted to change the dialogue, the story.

“It’s Hollywood sickness. Why? You have the book. You have to stick to the dialogue in the book. The words here are as Dickens wrote them. And that is especially because of Patrick. That’s how he did it in his one-man show, and I am filming that way,” he said, referring to the stage production of “A Christmas Carol” that Stewart has performed for more than a decade.

Indeed, the screenplay by Peter Barnes takes much of its dialogue right from the book.

“With special effects, I can tell this story as Dickens dreamed it, with the spirits,” said Halmi, who used the British company Frame-Store, which also supplied the 875 special effects for “Alice in Wonderland.”

Stewart, one of many on the set to wear a mask against the dead-bird smell and dust, stood to have his makeup freshened.

“Good morning! Merry Christmas. . . .” He spoke as heartily as if it were the first time and not the fourth.

“Cut. . . .”

“You know,” Halmi resumed, “the problem with television is that it took books out of children’s hands. If you want to put them back, they should have the real thing.”


As Halmi’s temperature seemed to rise, members of the crew struggled with the cold. They were trying to get rid of the dust stirred by so many footsteps on artificial snow, but when they raised an enormous corrugated door, it let such a blast of cold into the studio that they shut it again.

In the end, they rubbed numb hands together and opted for an industrial-sized filter to suck the haze out of the air.

“Again, please,” the director said.

Costume designer Charles Knode used the original illustrations of John Leech for inspiration, and there is an authenticity to a baker’s soiled white outfit and the perfectly ragged clothes on a gaggle of children with smudged faces.

The sepia-toned set also is convincing. No one would confuse the streets with anything but London, or the overstuffed baker and baggy-eyed vegetable vendor as anything but British.


Removing the top hat to expose his famously bald pate and pulling up a chair, Stewart said he had looked at Dickens’ handwritten manuscript of “A Christmas Carol” at the Morgan Library in New York.

“You know his original name for Tiny Tim was Tiny Fred? It’s crossed out,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s fascination with “A Christmas Carol” was born one rainy morning in 1986 while he was on location in northern England for a film called “Lady Jane.” Confined to a grim country hotel, he grabbed a book off of a shelf in the lounge and started to read the Dickens story. He continued through coffee, lunch and tea until he finished the book in tears.


“I realized what a serious and adult work this was. The whole redemptive nature of the work is so potent,” Stewart said.

“So why did people screw around with it?” Halmi interjected.

“Well, Dickens was the first one to do that. He did these public readings, and the professional actors treated him as an equal. He was a natural performer. A talent. But he began to cut out the darker, more intense aspects and to emphasize the more humorous parts,” Stewart said.

“And everyone has gone on to do that ever since. The preferred option has always been the sentimental, prettified version. It is a mistaken idea of what the public wants. If you assume your audience is shallow and stupid, they will be. If you assume they are intelligent, they will be,” he said.

Halmi nodded.

“They are not afraid of darkness and drama,” he said.

Nor are Halmi and Stewart, who believe their “Christmas Carol” will have both humor and darkness in the telling.

“There is humor in Scrooge himself,” Stewart said. “Dark, black, wicked humor. It is the story of a man who shut himself away from society, away from love, affection, humor and warmth, and what will happen to a person who will not accept love.”

But do we need another “Christmas Carol” on film? There are so many good ones, the latest with George C. Scott as Scrooge for PBS.


“Too commercial. Those scenes had nothing to do with London,” huffed Halmi.

“Ah, but Scott had that sense of anger. Scrooge was an angry man. Who wouldn’t be angry after all those years of deprivation?” Stewart said.

They also want to capture the social critic in Dickens, whose books were an indictment of 19th century England, underlining the gross inequality of living conditions between rich and poor.

“The living conditions were the grimmest in Europe,” Stewart said.

But perhaps audiences do not want to look at the grim face of reality. Maybe they are not interested in the underbelly of Victorian London or in the mean-spiritedness of Scrooge or his modern-day counterparts.

“This story says there is hope. It is not all doom. Scrooge doesn’t go to hell. He finds emotion,” Halmi said.

“He does it by thinking about other people, not himself,” Stewart added. “This story ends with a new life.”

Perhaps it is not a bad tale to tell in the final days of the 20th century after all.


* “A Christmas Carol” will be broadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).