Ebenezer Scrooge is a character whose iconic status is earned through his simplicity. Through endless retellings of Dickens’s novella “A Christmas Carol,” his nature and his story have the starchy plainness not to warp: Scrooge loves money over people, and has entirely lost his way as regards human relationships. Give or take a lost love, and that’s more or less it — a fellow whose cruelty lacks much adornment, all the better to bring him relatively quickly to a life-changing epiphany and 180-degree personality flip.
Which makes it all the more confusing that FX’s new “Christmas Carol” adaptation, written by Steven Knight (of TV’s “Peaky Blinders” and “Taboo”) digs for the impish, perverse antihero within a character whose needs and wants could, previously, have been written on a matchstick. As played by Guy Pearce, Scrooge is less misanthrope than outright sociopath, using his material advantage over others to, say, ruin their Christmas for the fun of it, or to demand obscene favors in return for financial help he can easily afford just to see how desperate people really are.
This is hardly enjoyable to watch; it feels hardly anti-art or -experimentation to note that if you’re going to deliver “A Christmas Carol” in which Scrooge isn’t a burbling old figgy pudding of a curmudgeon but rather a seductive ego-monster, you’d better have a really good reason for depriving us. The idea, here, doesn’t pay out: Shifting Scrooge to antihero in the vein of “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” distances us from the story, and pushes him so far beyond redemption that the somewhat rushed final conversion to grace can’t possibly land. A three-hour feature — airing in the U.K. in three parts, which seems like a much more obvious way to present this story — it dithers and spends long minutes in silent tension-building that doesn’t land on the small screen or on exposition that darkens the story without adding to our understanding.
Pearce is undeniably good, but the script, with its aphoristic philosophy planted in the mouth of a character who’d historically been a fairly unintellectual money-hoarder, never allows him to compel us. (At one point, his Scrooge muses on the nature of “the human beast,” a phrase that’s the title of the first hourlong part of this feature.) And the visual vocabulary feels skittish and chaotic, presenting ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future that are unpleasant to look at and time jumps that can at times confuse. Elsewhere, the Cratchit family (led by Joe Alwyn and Vinette Robinson as Bob and Mary) do a serviceable job. Say this much for them: They are — and she, especially, is — written to truly despise Scrooge, and to want their time with him ended. Their performances sell it, but you’d join them and relate regardless.