There may be more of gravy than of grave about the hauntings according to Dickens but this adaptation is more concerned with drinking the grimdark Kool-Aid rather than the meat of this story. Marley and the ghosts continue to conspire to punish and persecute Scrooge in order to drive him to repentance so that Marley may exit his purgatorial prison, reducing the redemptive enlightenment at the heart of the original story to a mere transactional arrangement. In order to get what he wants, Scrooge’s penance is the price he has to pay.
This is just another business deal for Marley and, as we’ll see, he’ll use any means necessary to drive the hardest possible bargain. Marley, with the shrewd eye of a ruthless businessman, has identified what he needs to do to get what we wants and is now enacting his strategy. It’s an acquisition, belying the fact he hasn’t changed at all. He cares nothing for the poor victims of his own greed and callousness, he’s only concerned with his own soul.
To this end, it’s Marley who encourages the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis) who to begin his visitation upon Scrooge and, like a macabre Victorian Deliveroo, Scrooge’s worst memories from his past are delivered right to his doorstep.
At first, we get the merest glimmer of something pure as Scrooge is reminded of a pet mouse he received as a gift from his sister before the darkness descends once again as the ghost of Scrooge’s father stalks into the scene. In this iteration of the story, Scrooge’s father is a foul-mouthed, fouler-tempered, bitter bankrupt, resentful of his family and raging at the world around him and particularly the boy before him.
It’s the beginning of this vicious, profane and deeply misanthropically adaptation’s big idea: the exploration of the past is not a reminder to Scrooge of happier times when he was innocent and optimistic – no, instead it’s an excusatory litany of child abuse (that gets much, much darker than you could possibly expect); an exculpatory abdication of personal responsibility in favour of an almost fetishized victimhood.
Scrooge is a miserable, cruel man because he had a horrifying and traumatic childhood which included being pimped out by his father to a paedophile teacher. He was abused and damaged, not seduced and corrupted by greed. The story seems to be leaning – as Scrooge himself observes – into the idea that Scrooge’s nature is not his fault, not the result of choices he made but of the way life treated him. The problem becomes if it’s not his fault, how can he be reasonably held accountable? How is it justifiable to expect him to be the one who serves a penance? Where were the spirits who should, surely, have been remonstrating with Scrooge’s father or, for the love of God, Scrooge’s genuine demon headmaster?
While the episode is a slight improvement on the previous one as the momentum of Dicken’s narrative forces the story forward, this is still a distastefully grimdark shock for shock’s sake version of the classic story. Joyless, needlessly, relentlessly bleak and infused with a sophomoric edge lord embracing of swearing and sexual abuse as some kind of laudable gritty realism, like Marley & Scrooge acquiring a cotton mill, this Christmas Carol continues to asset-strip the timeless tale of its magic, its wonder and, crucially, its humanism. The Ghosts of Christmases Present and Future have a lot of work to do.