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A Darker Scrooge, Faithful to Dickens

Star Patrick Stewart, executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. hope special effects, some original dialogue return writer's vision to 'A Christmas Carol' on TNT.

December 04, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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).

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