Steven Knight has adapted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a three-parter for the BBC – and while plenty remains true to the original story, there are a few surprise twists and major changes as Guy Pearce takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
We’ve taken a look back at the Victorian novella to see how it compares to this new version:
The f***ing language!
As you might suspect, in the original 1843 novel Scrooge doesn’t ask himself, “how am I supposed to work with all this F***ING NOISE?” – and Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) does not inform him that “this isn’t a f***ing game.”
There isn’t, in fact, a single swear word anywhere in A Christmas Carol. Instead, Charles Dickens’ version of Marley says things like: “I am here to-night to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
But writer Steven Knight, best known for his Birmingham-based interwar gang drama Peaky Blinders, has put a little bit of Tommy Shelby into A Christmas Carol by giving the dialogue a modern update. At times this feels anachronistic and awkward, but at least it’s different?
A sassier Bob Cratchit
Joe Alwyn’s version of Bob Cratchit is a lot more insubordinate than the original character.
In this BBC version, Scrooge’s clerk spends his Christmas Eve making snide remarks, sulking at his boss and begging to go home early. His resentment is, of course, justifiable: Scrooge is so mean that he resents granting the clerk a fourth lump of coal to warm up an office so freezing that his writing ink has frozen solid. He also invents useless tasks just to torture poor Bob, pays him a pittance, and ribs him about minor spelling mistakes he made many years ago.
But now, for the first time in ten years, Scrooge and Bob are suddenly laying their feelings bare – with Bob hinting how he’d love one day to tell his employer what he really thinks of him. He makes sarcastic remarks; he mutters under his breath; he bursts out with an emotional rant about his family’s precarious financial situation and how much power Scrooge has over his life.
And Scrooge, the big bad boss with the big bad reputation, just… takes it. Sure, he argues back a bit – but surprisingly enough, Bob does not end up jobless at Christmas.
By contrast, in the novel, the clerk makes just one small rebellious gesture – in response to a rousing speech by Scrooge’s nephew – and is immediately rebuked.
“The clerk in the tank involuntarily applauded,” Dickens writes. “Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever. ‘Let me hear another sound from you,’ said Scrooge, ‘and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation!'”
Book-Bob says no more until the end of the day when he confirms he would very much like Christmas Day off work, if convenient. He smiles through Scrooge’s grudging “yes” and then legs it out the door.
The secret of Tiny Tim’s benefactor
From the first episode, it is clear Bob’s wife Mary Cratchit (Vinette Robinson) is hiding a big secret about who really put up the money to save young Tiny Tim’s life.
The small boy, played by 10-year-old actor Lenny Rush, has just written his annual letter to his mum’s mysterious cousin in America – but does this generous relative really exist? Bob Cratchit clearly has his suspicions, which are confirmed to viewers when we see Mary run away to “catch the last post” with the letter – and instead drop it into a furnace while sobbing her heart out.
So who did put up the funds? Why has Mary hidden the truth, and why does it distress her so deeply?
The sexual coercion of Mary Cratchit
…The answer begins to emerge in episode two, when we discover that Mary got the money from Mr Scrooge. But this wasn’t a charitable gesture from Scrooge; indeed, the bargain he made with her was so cruel that there’s sure to be a backlash from viewers.
To find the money for life-saving treatment for Tiny Tim (then two years old), Mary went to her husband’s boss (without his knowledge) to negotiate a loan. But the only terms he was prepared to offer were: £10 now, and £20 if she would come to his house on Christmas Day and do his bidding. When a horrified Mary reluctantly agreed, he took this as a stain on her character rather than on his.
What Scrooge did to Mary Cratchit
What Scrooge does to poor Mary Cratchit is so horrifically cruel. First, he watches her stand in front of him and spell out what she’s prepared to do for money to save her sick son:
“You will give me money if I allow you to do what you want.”
“And what do I want? I need to be clear.”
“I have to say it out loud?”
“I imagine, intercourse.”
He then watches as she slowly strips off her clothes, shaking and crying with fear and humiliation, before finally announcing that it was all an experiment in human nature – just to see whether she would go through with it. He then blackmails Mary into persuading her husband to remain in Scrooge’s employment for ever and ever, “or the truth might slip.”
But the secret hurts her marriage anyway. Bob can see Mary is miserable, and keeping something from him about this mysterious gift of money; so to save him and the family from a ruined Christmas, she comes up with another plausible lie. This still isn’t enough, as Bob suddenly announces he’s quitting a job and taking a new one with better pay. All this does is fill Mary with dread about what Scrooge might say.
However, it ultimately turns out to be Mary whose prayers are answered when she summons the Ghosts, spitting out at her abuser: “I will say a prayer, that someday, some power of justice will grab you by the throat and drag you to a true bright mirror, that you might see the truth in your reflection, and that the truth will be known to the world. I am a woman, and I have the power to summon such spirits. And I f**king will.”
As you might imagine, none of that’s from the book.
A younger, chattier Scrooge
Charles Dickens’ original Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly man whose miserly, avaricious life had left its mark upon his body and made him ugly. The author introduces him with the words: “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”
By contrast, Guy Pearce is only 52 years old and – despite the best efforts of the make-up and hair departments – very handsome, if we may say so.
In Steven Knight’s version, this Scrooge also has a habit of chatting out loud to his business partner Jacob Marley in the office, despite the fact that Marley is (supposedly) lying rotting in his grave. These one-way conversations don’t appear in the book, but they do allow us an insight into his mind.
And another intriguing addition to the story: in the first episode, he also has flashbacks or visions of some hellish place, with bloodied victims and hands grasping upwards through metal bars. What does this mean? Hopefully we’ll find out.
Jacob Marley’s journey
In the TV adaptation we see a LOT more of Jacob Marley than we do in the novella – which is great news, because the clanking phantom is played by the excellent Stephen Graham. It also means that Steven Knight has been free to get inventive with Marley’s post-death journey to save Scrooge’s soul.
In Dickens’ telling, Marley has been dead seven years (not two). He’s spent those years travelling “on the wings of the wind” with “no rest, no peace.” According to Marley, “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide,” so if he doesn’t do that in life, he is condemned to “wander through the world” in death.
All the wandering spirits wear the chains they forged while alive, and are in agony that they cannot communicate with the living – but Marley, for some reason, has been given the chance to appear to Scrooge on this fateful evening.
Jacob Marley’s experience is rather different in the TV adaptation. He’s been loitering in his grave for just one year, his spirit conscious and trapped, when he makes a wish that is suddenly granted. This swings him into a sort of Peaky Blinders-ish purgatory where the blacksmith forges his chains and sends him staggering through a snowy field of Christmas trees, where he gets given a mission by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis).
He can only save his soul from the fire if his old business partner Ebenezer Scrooge can be made to redeem himself before death, because their fates are intertwined. So off he goes back to London on a desperate mission.
As for the beautiful black horses from purgatory? Also not in the book.
Scrooge’s abusive father
There is an implication in the original that Scrooge’s father wasn’t very nice to him. As Scrooge’s young sister says when she comes to pick him up from school, “Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you.”
But why should this girl have been afraid to ask her own father if his son could come home from school for the holidays like the other boys? What was he like when he wasn’t kind?
This is what Steven Knight has explored in episode two, as the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis) comes to visit – taking the form of Scrooge’s abusive father, Franklin Scrooge (Johnny Harris). First, we meet a white mouse with a bell around his neck called Erasmus, who turns out to be Ebenezer’s long-ago Christmas present from his sister; then we meet Mr Scrooge Senior, who decapitates that mouse while Ebenezer cowers like a child. He rants and raves, belittles his son, and shares his philosophy on humanity, money and family.
Franklin Scrooge goes a long way towards explaining why Ebenezer Scrooge ended up so twisted. And then we find out…
The perverted headmaster
“Just you and I here again for Christmas, Scrooge. Hm? Well don’t worry, of course I won’t expect you to sleep in here on your own. You’ll be with me, just like last year,” says the headmaster in the TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as it becomes horribly clear that Scrooge was sexually abused or raped every Christmas at his boarding school after all the other pupils had left. No wonder he doesn’t feel very festive at Christmas as an adult, with the memory of that trauma.
But then, one year, his sister Lottie comes to take him home! “Your father and I have a longstanding arrangement to keep Ebenezer here,” objects the teacher (Adrian Lukis). But Lottie tells the scared young boy as she ushers him out of the room: “Ebby, our father has left us. At last. Mother said you are to go home.”
And then we find out quite how horrific Scrooge’s dad really was, as Lottie pulls a gun “like a f**king highwayman” and points it at the headmaster. “Our father made my brother stay here at Christmas, in return for you waiving his school fees,” she says. “But I and my mother have finally managed to be rid of him. And your little arrangement regarding my brother is over.” Lowering the gun to his privates, she threatens to have her brother “tell the parish everything” if this man ever comes near them again.
The young Scrooge we meet in the book has also faced years of being left at school over the holidays, with only his vivid imagination and his books and (one year) a vision of Ali Baba for company. He also detests his mouldy boarding school and its master with a “terrible voice” who “glared on Master Scrooge with a ferocious condescension, and threw him into a dreadful state of mind by shaking hands with him” and offering a goodbye treat of wine and cake.
However, there is nothing in the original story about sexual abuse, and Lottie does not have to rescue him at gunpoint; she simply informs the school that she’s taking Ebenezer, and off they merrily go.
The Welsh mining disaster
Although Charles Dickens makes perfectly clear that Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean old businessman, we don’t actually find out all that much in A Christmas Carol about the business itself. We read that he works in a counting-house, and owns a warehouse with “Scrooge and Marley” painted above; we read that he owns people’s debts and that his debtors are extremely glad when he’s dead. But the precise nature of his work is obscure.
That all changes in this adaptation of A Christmas Carol. We now know that he and Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) were old-fashioned asset-strippers, buying up companies for low-low prices (with the help of blackmail) and firing hundreds and making a healthy profit off the back of other people’s work.
Scrooge and Marley owned factories and coal mines where people were injured and died, but there was one incident in particular which the Ghosts are anxious for Scrooge to face up to: a coal mine collapse in Wales, which killed 27 humans and 17 pit ponies. He and Marley may have escaped criminal responsibility in the courts, but in the final reckoning they were the ones who doomed those victims to death – with their cost-cutting penny-pinching ways and their decision to cut down on “the excessive use of oak timbers” holding up the roof.
This addition to the storyline is dark, and sometimes hard to watch. But it does help to know what Scrooge and Marley actually did.
In the book, we go back to Scrooge’s days as an apprentice working for the beloved Fezziwig. Old Fezziwig was a rotund, jolly gentleman and a wonderful employer who earned the love and adoration of his colleagues, and at Christmas he threw a party with music and dancing and games and food and beer. Watching all these people having fun, Scrooge remarks to the Ghost: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”
But the character of Fezziwig does not appear in the TV series at all, and nor does Scrooge’s happy youth working for this marvellous man.
So what DOES come from the book?
The famous phrase “Bah! Humbug!” has, thankfully, survived the journey from page to screen.
And staying true to the novel, we also meet the two gentlemen (collecting money for the poor) and the choir (rebuffed at the door). Then there’s the cheerful nephew who drops in to invite Scrooge for Christmas dinner – as usual, without success.
Once Scrooge gets home, there is the incident with the door knocker, which appears to bear the face of Jacob Marley; his meagre dinner in the massive house, unheated and unlit; and Marley clanking into the room with his jaw falling right off.
Marley then delivers his message and readies Scrooge for the visit of the three Ghosts.
And while in the TV series he proves his point by sending Scrooge into a vision of factory workers, who had been maimed and killed by his penny-pinching negligence as a factory owner, this doesn’t come directly from the book. Instead, the vision Jacob Marley originally shows his old partner is of other sinners, doomed to wander aimlessly through the world.
In his novella, Dickens also introduces us to the Cratchit family – Mrs Cratchit (now given the name “Mary” by Stephen Knight), eldest daughter Martha (an apprentice), second daughter Belinda, young Master Peter wearing his dad’s too-large clothes, and frail Tiny Tim, who “bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame.” They are a happy family, though poor; but Tim’s health is a constant worry.
In the book as in the TV series, the Ghost of Christmas Past also shows him a love interest from his past, who he drove away with his love of money above all else.
There’s one slight difference: on screen, we see a vision of Scrooge, Elizabeth and their children as something “that never was and never will be”, while in the book we see a similar vision of this woman with the man she did eventually marry and their happy family. Dickens writes: “And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.”
Scrooge’s sister, the Ghost of Christmas Present
This is a major change! We don’t meet her in the first episode, but we do know that the Ghost of Christmas Present has been reimagined as Scrooge’s dead sister “Lottie” who comes back to set him straight.
In the book, the Ghost is generally referred to as “it”, but appears masculine rather than feminine – and has nothing to do with any siblings of Scrooge.
However, we do find out from Dickens that Scrooge did once have a younger sister, Fran, who he adored; she lived into adulthood and had one son before her untimely death.
The death of Scrooge
The final revelation for Scrooge in the original A Christmas Carol comes when the Ghost of Christmas Future takes him (surprise!) to the future, where people are discussing the death of an old businessman. Nobody cared at all for this man, and nobody wants to go to his funeral; and in a squalid corner of London, a group of petty criminals are discussing the things they’ve taken from his house (and removed from his actual body!) to sell. It takes Scrooge a stupidly long time to realise that the man in question is… himself.
By contrast, the TV adaptation spends less time lingering on Scrooge’s death. Guy Pearce’s Scrooge is unmoved when he peels back a sheet and see his own dead body, and the prospect of an angry Welsh miner’s son peeing on his grave does little to upset him either.
Instead of worrying about his own future lonely death, this Scrooge is far more concerned about the fate of young Tiny Tim. “No mourners, just worldly goods. Well actually, spirit, I don’t care. I don’t care what will become of me. I only care about one thing,” he says, adding: “The only thing I want the spirits to do, the only change I want them to make, is to spare the life of him.”
Tiny Tim’s skating accident
The TV series adds extra jeopardy for Tiny Tim.
In the novel, we learn that Tim would eventually have died if things had continued along the same path – but that Scrooge’s newfound benevolence is enough to save the child: “And to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father.”
By contrast, in Steven Knight’s telling, Tiny Tim is due to die in an ice-skating accident this Christmas. He does not have long left.
Scrooge, aware of what’s coming and desperate to save him, is allowed a chance to intervene. He arrives back into reality on Christmas Day, and averts Tim’s fate by throwing gravel on the ice and instructing the boy to keep away.
How has the ending changed?
An interesting change to the ending!
In Charles Dickens’ original telling, Scrooge makes things right with the Cratchits by sending them the largest Turkey he can find (a wildly impractical gesture for a poor London family, surely?), visiting his nephew for dinner, being lovely to everyone in the street, giving money to charity and finally – the next day – raising Bob’s salary, promising to support his family, and throwing extravagant amounts of coal in the fire.
That’s not quite how it goes down on TV. Barging into the Cratchits’ home on Christmas Day, he finds himself unwelcome – but quickly announces a few things: he’s shutting down the whole business, Bob has his blessing to quit and go to a new job, and he’s giving them £500. Ta-da! Scrooge is making himself scarce.
And given what he did to Mary, he also doesn’t get to run run away from the past. “I do not know what’s happened to you, and I don’t care,” she warns him. “Your £500 will be welcome, but it shall not buy forgiveness.”
“I will just be the best I can be,” he says. “For the spirits and the bright light and the mirror, I thank you.”
So what DOES come from the book?
ADD: In the book as in the TV series, The Ghost of Christmas Future is entirely silent.
A Christmas Carol began on 22nd December 2019 at 9pm on BBC One, with episode two on the 23rd at 9.05pm and episode three on the 24th at 9pm