As Christmas approaches, the choice of which Christmas movies to watch over the remaining days looms. One standard selection is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but which version? Because the story is in the public domain, there are over a dozen representations out there, from a silent film in 1910 to a Hallmark special in 2012 starring Carrie Fischer as Marley. Who makes the best Scrooge is a hotly contested topic around holiday dinner tables. Each Scrooge and each version has their merit, but if you have to pick one rendition of A Christmas Carol to watch this year, let it be the 1999 TV movie starring Patrick Stewart.
Often unknown or underappreciated, the Patrick Stewart version contains accuracies to the book that are vital to our present moment. It delicately balances the redemption of the man and of mankind, an allegory Dickens was trying to convey. While it is easy to represent the story as one grumpy old man and his change of heart, Scrooge is supposed to point at the flaws in our system and in our society. The most poignant scene that connects this is the one containing the children, Ignorance and Want.
Ignorance and Want are often trimmed down or entirely missing from movies of A Christmas Carol. After all, showing two malformed and starving children isn’t quite family friendly. However, these two societal starvations are still as relevant today as they were in 1843.
The dialogue between Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present is nearly identical to the original prose, changed only to sound a bit less Dickensian. Scrooge enquires as to what looks like a claw coming out from the Ghost’s robe. The Ghost reveals a boy and girl, whom he names Ignorance and Want, respectively. Scrooge, “appalled,” asks whose they are, and the Ghost replies, “they are Man’s.” The 1999 version continues with this sobering exchange:
Beware the boy, for on his forehead I see that written which is Doom. Unless the writing is erased, if you deny him, slander those who tell others about him, admit he exists but do nothing about it, then doom will engulf you all.
Heavy, right? Most other versions skip along after the first mention of Doom to the Ghost mocking Scrooge with his own words, “are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” They keep the focus on the individual: Scrooge is the problem and if we solve him, we’ll be okay. But this line, this premonition, is meant for us all. Ignorance and Want are Man’s with a capital M.
Some versions, like The Muppet Christmas Carol, leave out this sequence entirely. The Muppets, understandably, choose to focus more on love being the healing power. The whole movie ends with the song “The Love We Found.” And while love certainly is an important component of Scrooge’s reversal, and a powerful instrument in society, love can often perpetuate Ignorance. So to say #lovealwayswins, we need to have a very clear definition of what we mean by love. Looking at Dickens, it seems love should be twofold: honesty and action. Man must acknowledge Ignorance and do his best to end it. Love cannot be an act of separatism, or as Scrooge would put it, “Keep Christmas in your way, and let me keep it in mine.”
While other versions slink away from connecting Scrooge’s conversion with any hint of religiosity, Patrick Stewart attends a church service and sings—wouldn’t you know—a Christmas carol. This single moment poignantly illuminates the title in a way that is lost in musical versions like the Muppets’ or Scrooge with Albert Finney. Singing is a joyful noise that evidently, from his initial struggle, Scrooge has not made in years. This reckoning with God and self allows Scrooge to renew relationships with all the people he denied and slandered out of Ignorance. After church, Scrooge spends Christmas dinner with his nephew, of whom he asks much-needed forgiveness. Back at work, Scrooge gives a raise to Bob Cratchit, and from there becomes actively invested in the wellbeing of Tiny Tim, whom we can take as a symbol of Want.
In its accuracy and spirit, the 1999 Patrick Stewart A Christmas Carol expresses the necessary change of self and society that Jesus’ coming at Christmas is all about. It makes us face the Scrooge within ourselves, our structures, and institutions. Redeemed, Scrooge does his best to erase Doom from the world. “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”