“What was the reason for all of this?” Ebenezer Scrooge demands of Jacob Marley’s ghost in the new TV version of A Christmas Carol, which recently aired on FX in the United States and the BBC in Britain.
It’s a fair question. Throughout the ponderous three hours and fifteen minutes of this Carol, the reason has never been made entirely plain. Various characters have informed Scrooge (played by Guy Pearce) during his journey through the past, present, and future that all this isn’t about him, leaving one to wonder just what it is about.
If the new Carol offers us anything, it is a recognition of just how serious the problem of sin is, how deeply it affects us all, and how genuinely impossible it is to earn forgiveness.Marley at least has good reason to hope and work for Scrooge’s redemption: In this version, it’s tied to his own. According to the Ghost of Christmas Past, due to Scrooge and Marley’s joint sins against humanity, they will stand or fall together. It’s not a bad idea, as it gives Marley extra motivation to push Scrooge toward the light, and points in general to human beings’ responsibility to and for each other.
But on the other hand, their fates being intimately linked signals a deep-seated problem with this excessively dark, gloomy, and profane version of the story. It dwells on what humans do to each other and how they should attempt to atone to each other, at the expense of exploring the work of redemption in the individual soul.
All during the show, in fact, screenwriter Steven Knight emphasizes and exaggerates Scrooge’s sins to the point where we no longer desire redemption for him—where we’re tempted to use the word “unforgivable.” It’s no longer enough for him to be “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone . . . a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Even though, in Dickens’s original story, his sins of omission and neglect cause suffering, here Scrooge must be shown actively taking a hand in the destruction of others. His cost-cutting has caused the deaths of miners (and their horses, which initially seems to trouble him more). He has deliberately tortured and humiliated Mrs. Cratchit, in a specifically #MeToo fashion, when she came to beg him for money for Tiny Tim’s surgery. His sins must be tailored for a contemporary audience to feel maximum revulsion at them. (As are the good deeds of other characters. We know we’ve hit peak 2019 when young Scrooge’s sister, come to collect him from boarding school, pulls a gun on the abusive headmaster.)
If this Scrooge has a special spite against Christmas, it’s because he’s spent his life obsessively proving to himself that all goodwill, kindness, and virtue are a sham, and Christmas is simply a day when everyone tries to deny that fact. The show never does a great deal to rebut his view. His nephew, Fred, ordinarily assigned that task, here only does some incoherent blathering about Christ being born in December, then looks sheepish when Scrooge points out that He probably wasn’t.
And if this Scrooge is finally allowed to rejoin the human race, it is not because of any real desire for or belief in redemption. On the contrary, he categorically rejects it as something he could never deserve. It’s only by putting Tiny Tim’s life ahead of his own salvation that he is finally judged to have earned that salvation.
Even then, the end of the story is unusually subdued, as Scrooge makes arrangements for the Cratchits to become independent from him rather than becoming part of their lives, and Mrs. Cratchit reminds him that his gifts will not buy him forgiveness—a forgiveness that he agrees not to seek. Perhaps I was wrong earlier to suggest that this Scrooge rejoins the human race. It’s more that he ceases to inflict himself on them.
This is a Carol for an angry age. Our generation has, in a very real sense, rediscovered sin, but without knowing what to do about it. To discover and reveal someone’s sins—many of them very serious indeed—and then declare that person “canceled” on social media is about as far as many are able to go. It is, understandably, a frustrating situation all around. A sense of justice constantly thwarted, when coupled with a lack of belief in ultimate and divine justice, can very easily lead to a lack of mercy.
If the new Carol offers us anything, it is a recognition of just how serious the problem of sin is, how deeply it affects us all, and how genuinely impossible it is to earn forgiveness. The show’s odd separation of redemption, which Scrooge gains, from forgiveness, which he doesn’t, is a very of-the-moment attempt to deal with these truths. But the original Carol recognized these things too. Where the two works diverge is in Dickens’s willingness to acknowledge just how momentous, even monstrous, the idea of unearned forgiveness can be—and to embrace it anyway.
This is where Scrooge’s wild euphoria at the end of the story—“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man”—comes from. Freely offered such a precious gift when one is completely undeserving, who wouldn’t be euphoric? The story’s Christmastime setting is meant to point us to the only One who is both able and willing to offer us such complete and gracious forgiveness. No fellow human being, however forgiving, is able to offer the perfect forgiveness that wipes out the past and restores the soul.
When you look at it this way, it’s no wonder that the FX/BBC Carol is so dark. A world that can produce an Ebenezer Scrooge without a merciful God to save and bless us—yes, every one—would be a very dark place indeed.