Do we really need another version of “A Christmas Carol”?
That’s the question facing any new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famed 1843 novella. And for Steven Knight, the writer of the new, three-hour version airing Thursday on FX, the answer is, inevitably, yes.
This one originated not with Dickens, but with “Taboo,” another FX project written by Knight (whose other credits include “Peaky Blinders” and the Apple TV+ series “See”). After seeing that project come to fruition, Knight approached Tom Hardy’s production company Hardy Son & Baker with the idea to adapt Dickens in a similarly gritty style. He wanted to augment elements of the British novelist’s works in a way Dickens couldn’t at the time. The plan was to adapt several Dickens novels over a long period of time, ideally using the same repertoire of cast and crew.
“I’m a big admirer of Dickens, of the way he works,” Knight says. “Many people say that if he was alive today he would be writing in miniseries, because he wrote in episodes and he created indelible characters. I was keen to take advantage of the fact that television is now what it is, that there are now huge amounts of screen time so you can do the library of classics justice. I felt a good way to begin would be a short novel, which is ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
“A Christmas Carol” has been adapted continuously for stage and screen since its publication. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by three ghosts who help him reconcile his miserly past is now a Christmas classic, one recalled to underscore the importance of kindness and redemption. But this version, created as a three-part miniseries for the BBC and showcased as a complete film for FX, is unlike those that have come before. It’s dark, both thematically and visually, and it’s resoundingly adult. There are no adorable Muppets here, and Scrooge’s life is viewed with a lens that suggests the character, played by Guy Pearce, can connect his current poor behavior to considerable mistreatment as a child. In many ways, it’s about the abuse of power.
“Every change is rooted in the book,” Knight says. “What I’ve done is a thorough examination of the text. In Dickens there are paragraphs that don’t move the plot along and you sort of skip over them, and they often contain incredible amounts of material. I really approached this with reverence and tried to only use things that had sources within the text.”
“One of the main attractions to me was that my first reaction when I got sent the script was, ‘Do we need another version of “A Christmas Carol”?’ ” adds director Nick Murphy. “It was the very risk of it that I liked. The script, ultimately, was an entirely fresh take … I was really drawn to the fact that it wasn’t just about Scrooge as a baddie, but actually that you came to understand what made him a baddie.”
For Pearce, who embodies Scrooge with real swagger, the opportunity to work with Knight was enough. Hardy called Pearce about the project himself and as soon as the actor read the script he understood Knight’s take on the iconic character.
“I was doubtful for a minute, but of course, once I got into it and read it I thought, ‘Oh, this is too good, I can’t let this go,’” Pearce says. “It was really great, even though it has been done and it’s been explored a lot. But I felt they were doing something new. The whole thing was just kind of exciting.”
Hardy Son & Baker, which produced the miniseries with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free, tapped many of the same department heads as “Taboo,” bringing back costume designer Joanna Eatwell and production designer Sonja Klaus. Klaus took her initial inspiration from “Taboo” itself and much of the color palette is dark, with shades that emphasize Scrooge’s isolation. The visual relationship between that series and “A Christmas Carol” is intentional, almost as if the two are set in the same universe.
“In terms of the creative team that we assembled, it was always going to have that kind of a feel,” producer Dean Baker says. “That was very much our aesthetic and our choice. It came from that initial conversation that we had where Steven said, ‘It’s kind of like “Taboo.”’ I also think for myself, Tom and Kate Crowe, who works for Ridley, that’s our taste as well.”
One important shift is Scrooge’s age. Where the character has been old and crotchety in past adaptations, this is Hot Scrooge — a man with many years left on his life. Knight wanted to ensure that as Scrooge realized the sins of his past, the character would still have time left to evolve. This Scrooge wears a stylish silver robe over his work clothes instead of a nightshirt and cap, giving him a gentlemanly sense of authority and arrogance.
“Alastair Sim perfected the old man Scrooge and there’s no point in trying to rehash that,” Murphy says. “You’ve got to do something interesting. And, truly, I think being different is a legitimate aim in itself … To make a younger Scrooge is self-justified. However, it also gave the opportunity to further expose the chief conclusion Steven brings, which is that it’s not about retribution or forgiveness, but about what you do next.”
“This makes the question more profound: Why is he, of all people, like this?” Knight adds. “People don’t look like their sins, as a general rule, and I didn’t want him to look himself inside. The Scrooge I wanted to explore is someone who can actually function, physically, same as anyone else. He’s an ordinary person, but his intellect and his experiences make him something different.”
All versions of “A Christmas Carol” typically end the same way, with joy and hope and Tiny Tim adorably calling out, “God bless us, every one!” But for Knight, the story doesn’t necessarily indicate redemption. Does Scrooge’s visit from the three ghosts, played by Andy Serkis, Charlotte Riley and Jason Flemyng, mean he can be forgiven for his past? Knight suggests that it’s up to the individual to be better going forward.
“In this story the past creates the present, but it doesn’t predict the future, because he can choose not to carry on doing what is expected,” Knight says. “He decides himself to change. The argument is that is no matter what you’ve done or had done to you, you can make a decision and change yourself. That’s a matter of opinion, can you or can’t you, but the Christmas-ness of it all is that you can become a better person.”
For Pearce, there’s a bigger theme at play, as well. It’s a dark story for a dark time, but it reminds us to look for the light more often than just once a year.
“Scrooge is really just aware of how we’ve failed as human beings,” Pearce says. “It isn’t just that he hates people and doesn’t like Christmas for the sake of it. I think he has really high expectations and thinks that us as human beings really need to make more of an effort to actually love each other. Rather than on this one day of the year, just because Santa comes and gives us presents, we all pretend to be happy and say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ I think probably the reason we keep revisiting it is because it’s a reminder that we can have Christmas within ourselves every day if we make the effort.”