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Scraping The Crust Off Dickens' 'Carol'

January 05, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It remains an article of faith for me that in the beginning of any production is the Word, the text without which nothing very interesting can possibly occur.

What happens with very old texts, however, is that they can grow encrusted with tradition, distended by a particular interpretation, dusty with lack of fresh attention.

I'd have said that I could live without ever seeing Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a k a "Scrooge," again. The tears will come only so often, even if a piece of material is part of earliest childhood memory. And when you've seen at least two film versions, each multiply, and Richard Williams' elegant animation version, and parodies, and excerpts, a live performance or two . . . enough! Let memory have it.

By such a snarling logic I very nearly missed the recent George C. Scott-Clive Donner-Roger Hirshon "A Christmas Carol" on CBS. But, but by the wonder of tape and to my great pleasure, I didn't.

This "Carol" had become for all useful purposes a new piece of work, with an emotional impact and even an urgency that is far removed from the standard sentimentalized Dickens. It stands much closer to the Dickens who experienced Victorian poverty firsthand and who was a fiery if indeed sentimental social critic.

I agree with the other viewers who have no doubt that George C. Scott's Scrooge will be part of our Christmases for years to come.

Director Clive Donner himself started in films at 15 as an apprentice editor and later worked on the famous Alastair Sim "Scrooge" in 1951. His best early work as a director had a documentary flavor--including "Some People," about the Duke of Edinburgh's program to encourage teen-age achievement, and "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," about young people in the '60s. Donner's "Nothing but the Best" is a devastating satire on a trendy, amoral, briefly affluent postwar Britain.

"I'd always thought there was a view of 'Christmas Carol' that we'd never seen," Donner said when he was in Los Angeles just before the holidays. "It seemed to me you could go back to the original Dickens and scrape off the sugar that had accumulated over the years.

"Dickens never calls Scrooge a miser or suggests he's merely a neurotic character gloating over his coins. He makes him a hard-nosed, tough businessman, hard to make a deal with. You knew his terms would be to his advantage. If he said he had a proposition for you, you'd want to run the other way."

There are doubtless as many Hamlets as there are actors bold enough to play him. It will hereafter be difficult to think of Scrooge without envisioning him as the eminently sane, pragmatic, tough-minded Scott, being excessively polite and soft-spoken with his horrifying visitations, as if a little unction would disarm them and drive them away. It is wonderful what a little underplaying will do.

Scott was an insightful piece of casting, not least because he becomes the embodiment of a whole attitude toward the poor that did not entirely expire with Victoria--the workhouse mentality suggesting that the poor were their own fault, and those that prospered were entitled to. "Are there no prisons?" Scrooge asks, when asked for alms for the poor.

Scrooge as a demented miserly eccentric indicts an individual; Scrooge as an unphilanthropic, insensitive workaholic who has sublimated all his finer feelings to his work becomes a curiously contemporary figure, a quite timeless type.

"Dickens wrote a sentimental tale," Donner says, "but as a sharp criticism of the world. He was appalled at everything Scrooge stood for."

The reversionary approach to "A Christmas Carol" was not only in Scrooge himself. Donner puzzled over how to get beyond the saccharine surface of the Cratchit family. "It's not a petit-point sampler picture of family life. If you listen to the dialogue as Dickens wrote it, the bite is there," he says.

It seemed to me that Suzannah York as Mrs. Cratchit became the voice of Dickens, having no part of a dutiful toast to Scrooge, identifying his tightwad tyranny (and emphasizing the captivity of David Warner as her intelligent, browbeaten husband).

Television continues to be full of surprises. IBM put up $5 million for "A Christmas Carol," and it looks it, from the production values to the casting, further including Frank Finlay as Marley, Edward Woodward as Christmas Present. ("Get me actors who'll intimidate me," Donner says Scott asked him. "It's not easy, but I'll try," Donner replied.)

What could give "A Christmas Carol" significance beyond itself is that the fresh-eye approach could be restorative to other classic works.

The worst of bad Shakespeare is that it is often a singsong recitation of, say, the same pale, neurotic Hamlet we've always known. But the vigor and test of Shakespeare is that he responds so well to new explorations.

Peter O'Toole created a leaping, swashbuckling Hamlet, virile if loony, to open the National Theater. It was startling and ultimately the more dramatic because he seemed less a foregone loser. O'Toole took his lumps, but bored no one.

In the same '60s era, Paul Scofield created a King Lear who by interpretation could be identified as a hard-headed Midlands textile tycoon, accent and all, who has decided, catastrophically, to divide up his estate while he is still alive. Not a word of Shakespeare was changed, but Lear suddenly became not a legendary figure but a late Victorian, perhaps, someone we could almost have known. Not everyone liked it, but it jolted you into thinking about "Lear" and not just listening to it.

A few jolts couldn't hurt anybody, and there's a full shelf of untouched Dickens.

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