My holiday column this year is about ghosts, too, just like Ctein's. Well, one ghost and three spirits, to be precise. All of them far more familiar to most of us than neutrinos (it was having neutrinos explained to me in college that made me decide astronomy was not going to be a core interest in my life, despite my fascination with the history and the romance of it).
As to the ghost and the spirits: I took the advice of Paul Glover from the Comments the other day, and watched the 1984 made-for-TV version of A Christmas Carol yesterday. It is, in a word, terrific. In four more words: not to be missed. I'd never seen it before.
CGI was in its infancy then (1984 was the same year Terminator was released), and the magical transitions could be done better today (not to mention that this version dispenses altogether with the vision out Scrooge's window of the restless spirits floating through the air, not a trick that any other version I've ever seen has missed). And the directing is a bit plain, something I seldom mind. (I even liked Ordinary People, which was directed as if to replicate the perspective of a person in the audience at a play.) But the locations, costumes, and camerawork and lighting are all first rate.
Scrooge (George C. Scott) looks on as his younger self (Mark Strickson) sits opposite his cold father (Nigel Davenport) in the confines of a carriage, in Clive Donner's 1984 version of A Christmas Carol
Overall, though, what makes this version the best of any I've ever seen is the acting, the acting, the acting. It might be sacrilege to say, but George C. Scott might almost be too good in the title role. The great man—America's Olivier—doesn't deign to act through most of the film in a nightshirt, but his riveting portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge has depth and dimension that isn't even there in Dickens—something Roger Hirson's screenplay, with its emphasis on story logic, encourages. Scott even manages to make "bah" and "humbug" almost seem like spontaneous utterances! His portrayal of Scrooge's conversion is gradual and masterful, culminating in his believably awkward anguish at his own gravesite. Marvelous.
When asked how he judged acting, Scott said, "I have three tests. First, which dominates, the character or the actor? With very few exceptions it should be the character. Second, on film— as opposed to stage—we're pretty much playing basic emotions: love, anger, fear, pity. So the trick is whether you can come up with any fresh choices to present these common emotions. Third—and this is the quality that separates the great ones from the good ones—I look for a 'joy of performing' quality."*
He passes his own tests here, that's for sure. The supporting cast, I'm happy to say, are inspired, rather than overwhelmed. There are a few wrong notes here or there in the movie (I couldn't help noticing the hard shadow in the wrong place as Scrooge walks up his staircase holding a candle), but virtually none in the acting.
I haven't seen all the versions of A Christmas Carol—the straight filmed ones, I mean, never mind the numberless parodies and adaptations—but this now takes pride of place as the best one I know. I'll watch it again next year...and maybe even once more this year.
Watch it yourself this Christmas if you get a chance. It's on Netflix, and iTunes, and on DVD (for only $7.49—less than it costs on iTunes—and only £2.99 in the U.K.), and doubtless is available from other sources here and there as well. Very enjoyable if you love the story—and I do, I admit. (I read the book every year for a number of years as a boy.)
So thanks to Paul for the tip. And a Merry and a Happy to you and yours!
P.S. A little-known bit of trivia: Charles Dickens intended to write a Christmas story every year, and actually wrote five of them before he quit the plan. A Christmas Carol is of course one of the best-known works of literature in English, but his other four attempts are virtually forgotten.
*Quote from imdb.com
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Greg: "So glad to see this wonderful film promoted. My wife and I taped it off the air in 1984, and watched it every Christmas since. It has become part of our Christmas tradition. Last year the tape finally started to self-destruct and I happily found it on DVD at Amazon. What a difference! Like a whole new experience (although there was something retro-fun about the IBM ads on the tape). Without question this is my favorite version of the story (although, I confess I have not viewed the Alistair Sim version). George C. Scott is a treasure."
Featured Comment by James Finnegan: "A classic conversion of the Jew story."
Mike replies: Yeah, yeah. I've read it all—that A Christmas Carol is socialist propaganda (the neocon capitalist-fascist view); that the solution to social injustice it proposes is paternalistic and depends on voluntary generosity from those in power—GHWB's 'trickle-down' solution (this is the actual Socialist view, and they don't like the story any better than the people who think it's "socialist"); the anti-Semite interpretation; the invention of Christmas as commercialism interpretation (for those who like pointing out that Prince Albert established the convention of the Christmas tree and that Washington Irving invented the flying sleigh with the reindeer, and so on); etc., etc.
The key for Dickens are the two starvelings under the Ghost of Christmas Present's robes (Ignorance and Want—eliminated from several dramatizations of the tale). Dickens was riding a rising tide of social reform—the same one that drove Lewis Hine into the immigrant tenements with his flash powder, the same one that produced the child labor laws.
He was a consciousness-raiser, that's all.
For a fuller view, try Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. It's short and entertaining.