Monday, November 9, 2009

A few thoughts on the new "A Christmas Carol"

Over the weekend I went and saw the Robert Zemeckis adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in IMAX 3D.* I am not sure the world necessarily needed another film adaptation of the novel (after the beloved classic, "A Diva's Christmas Carol," it was hard to imagine the subgenre of Christmas Carol movies reaching a higher plain of artistic achievement), but Zemeckis' version provides possibly the most visually stunning version to date.** The exposition of the film, with its sweeping panoramas of 19th century London, are absolutely breathtaking. Even the scenes of the film that don't work on a dramatic level, still provide beautifully rendered artistic imagery. I don't know if I would say this was a good film, but for the reason just stated above I would highly recommend seeing it in the theaters (IMAX 3D if you have the opportunity). The film has gotten mixed reviews, but film critics also generally aren't very good at approaching blockbusters geared towards children.***

I decided to write a post about the film because Alan Silversti made a choice when composing its score that I felt largely diminished the quality of the film, and to be honest, was really just plain annoying. I am referring to the pervasive use of Christmas carols throughout the score. The arrangement of "Joy to the World" that opens the preview, is a very typical example of his treatment of these carols, especially during the ending of the film. Now on paper, basing a lot of the score to a Christmas movie with the title "A Christmas Carol," on Christmas carols sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it is just ends up sounding incredibly hackneyed and corny. Now I will admit that even the ending of the novel is sappy; Scrooge sees the error in his ways, becomes a completely new person, and all is well in the world. But what Zemeckis and Silversti do with the score is pour more sap on top of the already sappy ending of the story. The audience is presented with the film version of a double bacon cheese burger on two Krispy Kreme donuts. It's just too much for any sane person to handle.

I will give Silversti some credit. Though he may not be known as a very original film composer, he has a very good dramatic sense and generally does a good job scoring films. If you look through his film credits, it is amazing the sheer number of scores he has composed for blockbuster films (recently, G.I. Joe, the Night at the Museum series, as well as the Mummy trilogy). His most well known scores, "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future," are not likely to be the topic of any scholarly papers anytime soon (not that this should be the criteria for aesthetic worth), but they are still very enjoyable, and serve their particular films quite well. This is an important point. Musicians and musicologist often do not like to admit it, but the ultimate aesthetic criteria of a film score has nothing to do with how we judge Western art music, but is simply how well the music serves the film (It is interesting that Copland in his book What to Listen for in Music, suggests the same aesthetic despite the relative youth of the industry, and his background approach to concert music). Film is the ultimate collaborative art, and unless it is done for a particular purpose, the score is supposed to work more on a subconscious level and should not really draw attention away from the narrative. Most of the score to "A Christmas Carol" fills this role quite well, but the carols draw the soundtrack out of the subconscious and into our full attention because of their familiar nature. It may have been the intention of Silversti and Zemeckis, but the score at the end of the film gives off more the feeling of a sing-along than anything else. For some versions of this story this could have been appropriate, but the ending of the Zemeckis Christmas Carol, and the movie in general, does not really call for such a score, in fact, it necessitates something much more subtle.

This post is getting a little long, and I need to get back to my school work so I will try and bring it to a close. The important point is that this was not a light-hearted Disney adaptation of the Dickens' novel, but really a serious and faithful (the dialogue is almost entirely verbatim from the novel), though still highly original attempt at translating the classic novel onto the screen through a 21-st century artistic medium. It is unfortunate that the score of the film did not mirror this attempt.

I will leave you with one last thought. With the exception of Bruce Springsteen's song for "The Wrestler," composing an original song for the end credits of a film (especially if Andrea Bocelli will be the performer) is a really bad idea. I usually like to sit through the credits, but I couldn't get out of the theater fast enough when I started to hear a song with lyrics that related to the film I just saw. I felt like I immediately needed to take a shower to cleanse myself of such filth.

* Just a little note about myself, I love going to movies in IMAX. It has the wonderful ability to make even not very good movies an enjoyable experience. "Monsters vs. Aliens" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. However, for this reason it can sometimes be difficult to apply any sort of critical criteria to a viewing, because the IMAX film experience differs in many ways from a more traditional theater experience.

** IMDB shows 25 exact matches for title and 13 partial matches when you search A Christmas Carol, though, I checked and didn't even see "A Muppet Christmas Carol" among the results, so those numbers are lower than the actual amount of adaptations that have been made of Charles Dickens' novel. There are even more if you count films like "The Grinch who Stole Christmas," that are more loosely based on the novel.

*** I wanted to link to an article I read recently, but couldn't find it. It was on the dark nature of a lot of children's stories. This is a trend that goes back through the Grimm brothers, but it very much applies to this film. If I were 5, I wouldn't be able to sleep for at least two weeks after seeing this movie.


  1. Your thoughts on the score are really interesting. I am planning on seeing the film, so I will keep your thoughts in mind!

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  3. I just wanted to change a typo in my comment, and apparently you can't do that, but... Thanks, I appreciate your comment. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the movie and the score if you do end up seeing it.