We may lament the lack of empathy in the modern world—
Dickens had it all down before we did.
For all my complaints about a million channels and nothing to watch, I have seen some amazing television in the past few weeks. Nothing can logically be more unique than something else, but if something could be, it would be Mr. Robot with its imaginative blending of technology and compassion, of the digital age and the human condition. Waiting for the end (this coming Sunday) reminds me of the anticipation when Breaking Bad concluded (an amazing ending), or the Americans (poignant), or Dexter (a disaster.)
But last night I watched the new FX production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reimagined by Stephen Knight. It was not easy, not when most of us have grown up on the lovely Christmas miracle of the misanthrope neatly turned into a humanitarian overnight. This production is darker, suffused with a malevolence that not only defines Scrooge’s current status, but also explain how he got to be that way—the influences and disappointments, the lack of human contact and intimacy that harden people and make empathy impossible. Here in 2019 we need to see this—we need to understand how that mind functions, not only in Victorian England but in Trumpian America.
Let me digress: Wednesday night at one of the president’s rallies, Trump suggested that a former loved and respected Michigan lawmaker who died this past year was not looking down from heaven, but looking up from hell. The comment was crass and crude, and got a laugh only from some audience members who had given themselves over to anything their leader says. But it is exactly the kind of thing Scrooge would say—thoughtless and blundering, vicious and spiteful. It is both men's viewpoint of the world encapsulated in a single statement.
Beyond any political analogies, A Christmas Carol has always been a story of salvation and reclamation, and this version is no different. But here the descent into hell is deeper and more frightening; the debasement of Scrooge, more profound. It will take more than a restive night’s dreaming to repair him.
This is not the version to sit around and share with the Santa-obsessed kids on Christmas Eve, not even after many, many egg nogs (for you, not the kids.) But it’s one you should not miss, if only for the surprises. If you think it's the story of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and the ghosts, well...you're right. But the portrayal of Mrs. Cratchit by Vinette Robinson is the performance you'll be talking about.
A Christmas Carol remains, as it always has been, a story of forgiveness—not only that which we hope to receive from others, but that which we hope to provide for ourselves.
FX will air the program again on Sunday evening, December 22, and a few times next week. Its length—172 minutes—requires an investment of time. So record it, then watch it when circumstantial allow. It may not grab you from the opening scene, but you will probably arrive at the point where you can't look away.
There will always be room for the George C. Scott Christmas Carol from 1984, and Bill Murray's Scrooged four years later, but the Stephen Knight version deserves a place in the pantheon also...somewhere near the top.