A Christmas Carol (2009) Stave III: Visual Creativity and Missed Opportunities

As the clock strikes one again, Scrooge sees light coming from the adjoining room and hears the sound of booming laughter. He opens the door to the find that his house has been redecorated and that the Ghost of Christmas Present (Jim Carrey) is seated on a mountain of holiday food.

Apart from Marley, Christmas Present is the ghost whose physical appearance most closely matches his description in the book. The script even calls attention to the detail of him wearing an empty scabbard. This is the opposite of subtle but, in all fairness, I never thought of the scabbard’s significance prior to watching this movie.

While this spirit may look just as Dickens described him, the movie arguably tries to make him a little creepy in a way the book didn’t. There’s something subtly unnerving about the way he constantly laughs whether there’s anything to be jovial about or not.

Unlike some adaptations, such as the 1951 and 1984 movie versions, which have Scrooge be a more reluctant convert, this one follows the book by having him humbly tell the ghost to conduct him where he will. The spirit dangles the cord of its robe for Scrooge to clutch and its edible throne magically lowers itself. Then we get one of the movie’s most interesting improvisations. The floor beneath them becomes transparent[1]I kept expecting Scrooge to fall through it at some point of this scene but surprisingly he doesn’t. and the upper story seems to rise off the building and fly across town, giving Scrooge a look at Christmas Day. (In a great little bit of continuity original to this adaptation, Scrooge briefly sees the boy (Ryan Ochoa) whom he will send to get a turkey for the Cratchits when he experiences this day again in real time.)

I’m not sure if this visual actually serves the story. Having the ghost be above the Christmas revelers rather than on the same level with them means we lose the idea that the presence of Christmas is what allows these people to be so joyful despite their bleak surroundings and circumstances. On the other hand, this scene is fun to watch, it gets points for creativity and unlike some other…creative aspects of this adaptation, it’s not totally stupid. At least there’s some clear symbolism as Scrooge is seeing things from a larger perspective than usual. It’s not just weird looking for weirdness’s sake. And the scene gets credit for including a rousing nondiegetic chorus of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, my favorite traditional carol and one which arguably relates thematically to the story of A Christmas Carol as it mentions sinners being reconciled to God. I kind of wish they could have included lyrics from the second verse rather than just repeating the first. Were they deemed too religious for a secular movie? If so, this seems like a weird choice of song to include at all.

Speaking of religion, this movie includes an interesting bit from the book cut by every other film adaptation.[2]Some audio drama versions may include it but if so, I can’t remember which ones. As they fly over a bakeshop, Scrooge accuses the spirit of hypocrisy. In Dickens’s day, bakeshops traditionally allowed poor people without ovens of their own to use theirs. Certain Christians advocated these shops being closed on Sundays. The ghost sternly tells Scrooge that some people “do their deeds of ill will and selfishness in (my) name” and are “as strange to me and my kin as if they had never lived.” I’m always excited when a Christmas Carol adaptation includes something usually omitted, but I have to say this inclusion doesn’t make a lot of sense. How many modern viewers even know what Scrooge and the ghost are talking about here?[3]The movie tries to make the meaning a little clearer by having the ghost refer to “men of the cloth,” though the clergy weren’t necessarily the only ones advocating businesses being … Continue reading Of course, modern viewers also aren’t going to be familiar with debtors’ prisons or union workhouses, and the word, “treadmill,” brings to their minds an exercise tool[4]though some may still regard it as an instrument of torture, and I’m sure no fan of the book would want references to those things to be cut. Still, it seems rather random to include what amounts to a(n eloquent) disclaimer on Dickens’s part while not showing things that are more relevant to the business of the scene like how the spirit of Christmas helps people put aside their quarrels, temporarily at least. That being said, it is an interesting moment and I’m not one to criticize a Christmas Carol movie for being too true to the source material.

The bakeshop provides a nifty transition to the next scene. The young Cratchit twins (Ryan Ochoa and Samantha Hanratty) walk by it and smell their goose cooking inside or believe they do anyway. The two of them rush home, but the ghost beats them there and sprinkling incense from his torch on the roof, allows Scrooge to see through it (and the upper floors.) I really like the character designs for the Cratchits, who, true to Dickens’s description, are “not a handsome family” but are “happy, grateful, pleased with one another and contented with the time.”

Tiny Tim and Mammoth Martha

The actors are all great too. This Bob Cratchit really manages to sell his line about Tiny Tim (Gary Oldman) wishing for people to notice his disability to remind them of “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see,” something which can across as treacly on the page or on the screen.[5]Weirdly, The Muppet Christmas Carol actually might have done the best job of selling that line. What makes it work is the way Bob’s voice breaks and the pained expression on his wife (Lesley Manville)’s face. Clearly, neither of them really believes their youngest son is ever going to walk or even live another year.

Unfortunately, this scene of the Cratchit family’s Christmas is way too rushed. We don’t even really see them eat their meal. They just sit down to it and drink a couple of toasts. As I wrote in my last post, this movie doesn’t focus much on scenes of partying, which were arguably the heart and soul of the book. Part of it may be that the filmmakers were reluctant to add to Dickens’s dialogue as slower paced adaptations of this scene must. While I doubt anything with which they came up would be better than what Charles Dickens would have written, breezing through the scene is to be false to the book in another way. As it is, it’s hard to understand why Scrooge would suddenly care about this family so much.

Somewhere in this house, by the way, there’s actually a historical picture of a young Charles Dickens. Less explicably, there’s also a historical picture of Jane Austen, who was from an earlier time period. I guess these Cratchits are just really into literary satire.

There are some nice touches though. Mrs. Cratchit gets a line about wishing the children might taste a turkey one day, setting up Scrooge giving them a giant one later. And the spirit’s reaction when Scrooge tries to slink away during Mrs. C’s rant against him is hilarious.

Scrooge begging for Tiny Tim to be spared is moved from the middle of the scene to the end of it. When the ghost throws his words about decreasing “the surplus population” back in his face, the movie takes advantage of the characters being played by the same actor and has his face and voice briefly morph into Scrooge’s.

The book had a great “montage” here of Scrooge and the ghost flying over the world, seeing poor miners, lighthouse keepers and men at sea celebrating Christmas. It’s cut from adaptations fairly frequently[6]Though the 1999 movie does justice to it beautifully., but its absence here is really frustrating since it would have fit in perfectly with this movie’s rollercoaster aesthetic and gone a good way toward making up for this section of the film’s shortcomings.[7]Sure enough, if you check out the deleted scenes, you’ll find that such a scene was planned and filmed. Instead, the Ghost of Christmas Present whirls his torch around his head and transports himself and Scrooge to the latter’s nephew’s Christmas party. (Why do the see-through floor thing for some of Christmas Present but not all of it? Your guess is as good as mine.) The nephew rags on his uncle, but ultimately expresses pity for him and wishes him well. This scene gets trimmed even more than the last one, which is more common for adaptations, but unfortunate since there’s a case to be made that it was even more crucial to Scrooge’s character development in the book.

More Easter Eggs. One of the paintings on the wall looks like it might be an older Charles Dickens. And the woman in the painting below just might be his wife, Catherine Hogarth.

Then Scrooge and the spirit are inside a clocktower. It’s about to strike midnight which will mean the end of the Christmas holiday and the ghost’s life. (The movie’s done a great job of having him age throughout the preceding scenes.) Scrooge notices a claw poking out from his robe. The ghost pulls it back to reveal two grotesque feral children, the personifications of Mankind’s Ignorance and Want (Ryan Ochoa and Samantha Hanratty.)

Scrooge asks if they don’t have anyone to help them. Those familiar with this scene from the book, or other adaptations that include it, will remember that at this point the ghost, again, throws Scrooge’s previous words back at him. Will this movie redo its old trick of having the spirit look and sound like Scrooge for these lines? No. Whatever else can be said against it, this Christmas Carol is too imaginative for that, and we get one of its best visual flourishes. Ignorance himself gets the line about prisons and as he says it, he transforms into a dangerous looking man (Kerry Hoyt) wielding a knife who gets locked in a cage. Want gets the line about workhouses and transforms into a hysterical woman (Julene Renee) who gets put in a straitjacket and dragged away.

Not only is this really freaky, but it shows the filmmakers thought about the historical context of Dickens’s writing and social commentary. I’m not sure if it was necessary though to have the Ghost of Christmas Present turns into a skeleton and disintegrate, laughing all the time.

Given how this adaptation is amping up the horror elements of the original book, I’m very intrigued at this point to see what they’ll do with the third and scariest ghost. Turns out what they do is both too much and not enough.

Next Week: The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come Makes Scrooge Feel Small.


1 I kept expecting Scrooge to fall through it at some point of this scene but surprisingly he doesn’t.
2 Some audio drama versions may include it but if so, I can’t remember which ones.
3 The movie tries to make the meaning a little clearer by having the ghost refer to “men of the cloth,” though the clergy weren’t necessarily the only ones advocating businesses being closed on Sundays back then.
4 though some may still regard it as an instrument of torture
5 Weirdly, The Muppet Christmas Carol actually might have done the best job of selling that line.
6 Though the 1999 movie does justice to it beautifully.
7 Sure enough, if you check out the deleted scenes, you’ll find that such a scene was planned and filmed.
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