Following the theory that there can never be too many recastings of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” this USA made-for reteams Cicely Tyson and director John Korty from memorable “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” ( 1974). Tyson here plays Ebenita Scrooge, modern-day banker and miser for the ages.
There’s no particular reason to remake Dickens’ story as a contemporary tale with a black protagonist, other, perhaps, than to suggest some sort of universality. On the other hand, all involved do worthy work.
Tyson isn’t the first female Scrooge (Susan Lucci played one in 1995’s “Ebbie ,” which coincidentally is being rebroadcast on Lifetime opposite “Ms. Scrooge”) , nor will she be the last (Sally Kellerman is reportedly set to play “Mrs. Scrooge”). But Tyson’s intense persona adds great gravity to the role, which is played very straight.
Scripter John McGreevey keeps only the outline of Dickens’ story, embellishing minor characters — Scrooge’s nephew (Michael Beach) is now a minister, for instance — and filling in the main character’s backstory during the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael J. Reynolds). Those familiar with original will recognize scenes in which Tiny Tim (William Greenblatt) asks to go to church to pray for others, and when Scrooge asks a young passerby (Ashley Brown) to hie on down to the 24-hour supermarket to buy a turkey as an anonymous gift to the Cratchits (John Bourgeois, Arsinee Khanjian, et al.). Tiny Tim, we learn, has had a “slow-growing congenital tumor” since birth — bet no doctor would have diagnosed that in Dickens’ day.
Even subtle wit is appropriately sparse, though Ebenita still owns a dial phone, and it’s revealed that she was hired as apprentice bookkeeper by parsimonious Maude Marley (Katherine Helmond) only after revealing that her childhood friends had teased her for being stingy.
Acting is OK throughout; Tyson’s striking, though she seems to spend most of the picture speaking, for some reason, through clenched teeth. Ghosts are remarkably bland, save for mute Christmas Yet to Come (Julian Richings), who resembles comic Emo Phillips. Now, that’s spooky.
Picture looks especially good, with Toronto standing in for Providence, R.I.