A Christmas Carol episode 3 review: a turn to the light

Ebenezer Scrooge meets his final spirits in part three of A Christmas Carol. Spoilers in our review...

This review contains spoilers.

Scrooge is forced to confront one of his most shameful mistakes before the Ghost of Christmas Past gives way to his colleagues, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. The consequences of Scrooge’s actions become increasingly apparent as time runs out for the miser to learn his lesson.

I am a firm believer that adaptations should not necessarily stick to their sources completely, but at the very least capture the spirit of them; the themes and the atmosphere in particular, since not everything can survive the transition from page to screen. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is ultimately a story of hope and second chances, where there is always time for someone to change their ways if they are willing. There is a delicate balance in the novella, where both light and shade co-exist to produce something that is dark, but also imbued with such hope by the end. It is the reason the story has endured and remains beloved.

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That Steven Knight decided to depart considerably from Dickens’ novella was readily apparent from the beginning, but the embellishments have largely worked to undermine the core narrative of Scrooge’s redemption rather than add to it. It has rendered the series unbalanced, emphasised by the shift into the Present and Future in this last episode. Naturally, the tone has to change given the ending of the story, but it feels like a sudden jump from the severity of the first two episodes to the softer elements of this one.

Dickens was an expert at balancing lighter and darker tones, but Knight has not translated that to the screen. In fact, the lack of balance here almost derails the story entirely. The first two episodes are grim, unrelentingly so. Knight’s A Christmas Carol dwells so much on Scrooge’s past and embellishing the horrors of what he has done that by the time the second ghost arrives, it’s hard to imagine Scrooge’s goose as anything other than cooked. Knight skirts around this by Scrooge acknowledging that forgiveness or true redemption is impossible for him at this stage in his final conversation with Marley. 

It works for this version of the story, but it makes for a hollow ending when it should feel triumphant and hopeful. And after spending an entire episode trying to demonstrate to Scrooge that money isn’t the point, instead of improving Bob’s working conditions and becoming a benevolent friend to the family, he writes Bob Cratchit a huge cheque and leaves them to it, thus ultimately making money the point. The lesson reads more as if money is good if you use it in the right way, rather than human connection triumphing over all.

It’s a shame because there are aspects of the adaptation that are excellent, especially in the cast. Pearce’s slow unthawing as Scrooge may not work so well in the writing, but there are small expressions and moments that carry such a weight to them. This is shown particularly in his scenes with Charlotte Riley as his sister Lottie in the guise of Christmas Present. Their big conversation scene together is pared back and simple, but elegant and tender. Joe Alwyn and Vinette Robinson bring a dignified steeliness to their scenes with Scrooge while Jason Flemyng’s sinister physicality as Christmas Yet To Come is creepily effective.

In fact, Flemyng’s arrival in this episode might just be my favourite moment of the entire adaptation. The slow reveal of the shadow taking human form, the use of the old church bell to ring in his arrival, and the make-up design of his mouth sewn shut all make for an excellent entrance. The Christmas Yet To Come encounter is littered with great moments. Tiny Tim falling through the ice forming the ceiling of Scrooge’s office is another chilling scene (pardon the pun) and an interesting way of showing how Scrooge’s business decisions have awful consequences.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be slight, but there is beauty in simplicity. In this adaptation, Knight has over-egged the pudding by expanding Scrooge and Marley’s misdeeds too far and losing sight of the human story of change at its heart. In trying to do too much, this latest version of A Christmas Carol ends up doing too little.

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Read Becky’s review of the previous episode here. And read about the best and worst adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol here.