It’s the season for capitalist traditions like Black Friday and Cyber Monday – and the world of entertainment isn’t far behind. Charles Dickens’ most haunting tale of the humanization of a greedy, evil businessman, A Christmas Carol is a folktale for a business world where the rich are redeemed by love. This Christmas, audiences will have two versions to choose from, both of which debuted in theaters before moving to streaming several days later. The Americanized “Spirited” is available on Apple TV+, while the British “Scrooge: A Christmas Carol” debuted on Netflix on Friday. But the insistence of both renditions to preach this secular myth of the billionaire turned benefactor at a time when the news is full of opposing stories means that both musical adaptations hit the wrong key.
So many modern Christmas celebrations emerged during the Victorian era.
So many modern Christmas celebrations emerged during the Victorian era. Originally published in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was the equivalent of a bestseller of the era. 13 editions appeared in the first year of printing alone. Historians say the story has been performed since at least 1844with Dickens creating his own “public reading” one-man show in 1853. (Public lectures remain a tradition that continues to this day in the UK) In the 20th century, the story moved to films and eventually to TV. Since then it has been adapted in almost every way possible, from gothic horror to Muppets.
After numerous adaptations, a synopsis feels unnecessary, but suffice it to say that a greedy, miserly entrepreneur, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited on Christmas Eve by a series of ghosts who effectively frighten him into making better life choices. Dickens’s humanist story reinforced the idea of the holiday season as a secular time of giving back in which everyone can participate, and its details became memetic shorthand. Ebenezer and Scrooge have come to represent a miser; the spirits of past, present and future are guides to becoming a better person; a Bob Cratchit type is a good and faithful everyday boy; a Tiny Tim is short for an innocent. The phrases “Bah humbug!” and “Merry Christmas” were both popularized by the story, as was “God bless us, everyone.”
The moral is accessible and the structure is so simple that adjustments can easily capture the right zeitgeist. American adaptations, for example, focus more on Bob Cratchit and family and the rescue of Tiny Tim, and less on how Scrooge lost the love of his life to his capitalist greed. (“The Muppet’s Christmas Carol,” for example, cast perennial hero Kermit T. Frog as Cratchit instead of Scrooge.) And that’s where our two newest versions come in. In a year when it seems like almost every monopolistic company is laying off workers, the cathartic merit of a hard-hearted billionaire makes cultural sense. But neither film is willing to admit that the vicious corporate czar is a bad person, as if the producers are afraid to offend the wealthy men who run their respective streaming services.
Of the two, “Scrooge: A Christmas Carol” is the most disappointing. This animated version boasts an incredible A-list vocal talent: Luke Evans, Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman, Jonathan Pryce and Johnny Flynn. The animation is vibrant and captures the feel of the old Claymation style Christmas TV specials. And while some of the musical numbers feel too much like Disney knockoffs, others are quite touching.
The problem is Scrooge. The movie wants him to be a good person deep down and keeps finding psychological excuses for his bad behavior. He’s not a cheapskate because he loves money – he grew up with food insecurity! He climbed the ladder himself, but apparently it’s fine that he pulled it up behind him. His wealth will just trickle down! Maybe that’s a story Liz Truss likes to have true, but that’s why her premiership was outlived by lettuce.
Like many American renditions, “Spirited” treats Scrooge more as a means to an end and is dispatched with him almost immediately. An admittedly clever take on the story, it states that his experience was not unique; the three Christmas ghosts (Sunita Mani, Will Ferrell, and Tracy Morgan) roam like a pack, knocking off unsuspecting evil corporate jerks for redemption as a normal occurrence during the holiday season. This year’s target, Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), is a social media influencer, singing about a war against Christmas abusers. Soon he and Ferrell’s ghost of the present are involved in a battle of wills, with the ghost determined to change Briggs, despite Briggs seeing no reason why he should change.
Ferrell and Reynolds are, as usual, a lot of fun to watch, which almost makes up for how clunky the script is, or what horrible singers some of the cast members are. (Sometimes it feels like this is a first look for a show that needs a nice long off-Broadway run to work out the kinks.) Ferrell also brings extra goodwill left over from his success in another Christmas myth maker, “Eleven.” But in a strange twist, “Spirited” also doesn’t prove that Briggs was ever completely cruel, or that he ever actually redeemed himself. Instead, it’s the mind whose perspective shifts and admits that its drive to change people stems from its own unhappiness. It’s a bizarre and somewhat grotesque rewrite of the story’s moral; it’s “A Christmas Carol” seen through the lens of both-siderism.
“Scrooge” will thankfully be easily and quickly forgotten, replaced by an inevitable new animated version, while the unpolished nature of “Spirited” should relegate it to the dustier corners of the streaming universe. The entertainment world’s refusal to notice a societal shift, however, is more troubling. Dickens’ story is timeless for a reason, and there should be room now to create a version that appeals to the present moment. Too bad neither of them know how.