Charles Dickens' 1843 morality story, "A Christmas Carol," is the Yule season's most engaging and enduring contemporary literary tradition. Its unabashedly sentimental message of redemption and charity is timeless and universal, its tone somehow in conflict with the shrilly jingling cash registers that many retailers depend on for survival.
Arriving somewhat prematurely at 8 p.m. Sunday is TNT's fine new version with Patrick Stewart all Scroogely as humbugging old Ebenezer on Christmas Eve, spitting icicles at his timid clerk, Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant), then retiring to the wintry bleakness of his dusty chambers before the ghosts clank in.
Directed by David Jones and written by Peter Barnes (redeeming himself somewhat after "Noah's Ark" and "The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns"), this production is handsome and commendable, though not up to the splendid 1984 rendering with George C. Scott on CBS. Like Scott's, Stewart's Scrooge is no shriveled, doddering, stereotypical miser running his scrawny fingers through mounds of gold coins. Although properly menacing before seeing the light, he's also a robust, shrewd, hard-dealing, tightfisted businessman who just happens to have a low opinion of Christmas and those who celebrate it.
Tiny Tim was never tinier, meanwhile, and as always plays tug of war with your heartstrings, as the heavy action takes place in Scrooge's dank mansion on an evening of tall shadows, gray mist and rattling chains.
First comes long-dead Jacob Marley, having a bad hair day and still tortured after all these years, showing up as a chalky apparition who issues mea culpas to his resistant former business partner. Next comes the Spirit of Christmas Past, a sort of glowing, gauzy cloud of a ghost in drag (What's that about?) forcing Scrooge to gaze back on the wreckage of his squandered life. Then come the spirits of Christmases present and future, a final view of himself on the slab, unmourned, convincing Scrooge to change his ways and open his heart and purse to the blissfully indigent Cratchits.
Not off to Costco or Toys R Us, but a Scrooge reborn, nevertheless.