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Scrooge is back!

Patrick Stewart joins the exclusive club of classic Christmas curmudgeons

By M.S. Mason Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1999



Charles Dickens, some say, invented Christmas - at least as we celebrate it today. The stories he wrote about the season exult in hearth and home: the simple joys of family and friends, the delicious treats of the season. The deeper theme of redemption, though, lies at the heart of his vision of Christmas, particularly in his most popular tale, "A Christmas Carol" (1843).

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A smart new version hits the small screen Sunday with English actor Patrick Stewart (of "Star Trek" fame) starring as Ebenezer Scrooge (TNT, Dec. 5, 8-10 p.m., and repeated throughout the month). It makes a fine addition to a long list of stage and screen adaptations, from cartoons like "An All Dogs Christmas Carol" and updated interpretations like Henry Winkler's "An American Christmas Carol," to the masterpiece of them all, Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film "A Christmas Carol."

Filmmakers and theatrical directors have drawn inspiration from Dickens's tale, stamping it with their own social or aesthetic perspectives.

"It's such a great story, people want to make it their own," says Joel Brattin, a professor at the Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, which houses the unique Fellman collection of Dickens's books and papers. "But it throws his work into brighter light when you see how they shade it."

The story about the reformation of a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future rings true for many because it can be seen as either a secular or religious parable (there are several references to the Christian tradition in Dickens's original story), depending on how it's played.

But in either case, Scrooge's reclamation is toward community. "Love your fellow man as Christ loved you," says Laurie Rozakis of the State University of New York in Farmingdale, paraphrasing the Bible. "One of the hallmarks of this story is that you can read several dimensions of meaning [into it] because of the richness of its prose. It will endure because it has depth and texture."

To many Dickens scholars, Mr. Sim's performance as Scrooge seems closest to Dickens's own intentions. This version is slightly more gothic, with exaggerated dark shadows, ghostly music, and a creepy tone through much of the story, which is meant to reflect Scrooge's own cramped, dark state of mind. But bursts of light break through the shadows at the Cratchit household, at Fezziwig's ball, and at the home of Scrooge's nephew. On that bright Christmas morning - after Scrooge's long night with the ghosts of conscience - he experiences love and joy for the first time in many years.

"Sim had this extraordinary ability to present the bizarre and grotesque and yet show a heart at work underneath," says Mr. Stewart of his predecessor. "His transformation scene is one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting of that time."