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Filthy Lucre 

And stirring conscience

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
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And so we end the 20th century with the question Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? And they‘re asking it all over the world, the original U.K. game show having been franchised to Russia, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Poland, Denmark and Israel in addition to the United States, where it effected for ABC a Sherman’s March to the Sea through the November sweeps and where come January it will occupy an appalling three hours of prime time weekly. Meanwhile on Fox, like muscle is being flexed by the Dick Clark--produced knockoff Greed, which shares with its model a science-fiction stage set, a man-of-the-people host (Regis Philbin for Millionaire, Chuck Woolery for Greed), largely trivial multiple-choice questions the asking and answering of which are drawn out to absurd lengths, and a really big jackpot -- though in what might be called a spiritual sense, the two shows are quite dissimilar.

The question is of course rhetorical. Who doesn‘t want to be a millionaire? I want to be a millionaire. (I think I’d make a good one!) But like most people who aren‘t millionaires, I haven’t done much about becoming one. If one hundred years ago the moral model of material success was the Horatio Alger hero who through hard work, steady application and perhaps a little bit of luck raises himself from rags to riches, nowadays, when every ant wants to be a grasshopper and your state has a lottery ticket -- excuse me, a dream -- to sell you, luck is the preferred method of ascent. (All you need is luck; luck is all there is.) Both Millionaire and Greed, which require no actual expertise and are therefore impossible to prepare for, are as good as lotteries; winning is mostly a matter of lucking into questions one just happens to know. (The hard questions are in the main no less trivial than the easy ones, just more obscure.) Millionaire‘s sole million-dollar winner, IRS agent John Carpenter -- booed by the studio audience for his profession -- went to the top for remembering that Richard Nixon had appeared on Laugh-In. On Greed, in which one’s fortune might turn on knowing whether Larry King or Rod Stewart has been married more times (it‘s Larry, if that ever comes up again) or the most popular toppings at Baskin-Robbins, some of the questions can only be guessed at. They are therefore -- unlike those on Jeopardy!, The New York Times Crossword of game shows, or Win Ben Stein’s Money -- non-hierarchical and non-exclusive in what we might be pleased to think a particularly “American” way: Anyone can play! Anyone can win! Indeed, one of the pleasures of Millionaire is that it brings the People to prime time.

Although it is a show I would never have watched but out of professional interest, it‘s easy enough to enter into the rooting spirit, and a nightly audience of as many as 24 million testifies to Millionaire’s popular appeal. It is overall a benign entertainment; nobody goes home empty-handed. Greed, which has pulled about half as many viewers (while nevertheless doubling the ratings Action and Family Guy earned in the same time slot), is something else again. The mark of Fox is upon it; which is to say that, notwithstanding the presence of nice guy Chuck Woolery, it‘s nasty -- “Do you feel the need for greed?” is the question he is made to ask over and over again, which is not at all the same thing as simply wanting to be a millionaire. The show both ups the ante (more than $2 million may be yours) and complicates the process in such a way as to give it a gladiatorial edge. Contestants compete as a team and are at the same time pitted against one another, through the offices of a “device” called the Terminator (merely some flashing lights) that gives a randomly chosen player the chance to try to eliminate a teammate and grab his share of the possible pie. No one I saw turned down the opportunity. Not for charity, karma or comradeship. “I feel bad challenging anybody, we have such a good team,” said one such contestant when asked why she hesitated a second or two in this decision. “But we’re here to win money.”

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“That‘s the name of the game,” said Chuck.

Ebenezer Scrooge could not have said it better. At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable that we should read or watch some adaptation of Charles Dickens’ great holiday tale, and this year there is a new one, from TNT, with ex--starship captain Patrick Stewart as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” I am always ready for a new Christmas Carol, whether played as a Muppet show or musical, or featuring Mr. Magoo, Mickey Mouse or Bill Murray. (I am that rare creature: a fan of Scrooged.) The original, which has been with us now 156 years, is so perfectly proportioned that it seems to have existed a priori, and with its chastening visions of a misspent past, neglected present and dark future -- not the shadows of things that will be, but of things that may be only -- it serves still as an efficient template for any story of stirring conscience and a second chance. (Northern Exposure‘s Yom Kippur variation I recall most fondly.) As for straight-up versions, the adapter’s main tasks are to not get in the way of Dickens‘ unimprovable dialogue and to take care that Scrooge is not merely terrified into repentance but experiences a real change of heart.

Co-produced by Stewart and TV’s Big Man of Literature, Robert Halmi Sr., and directed by David Jones (84 Charing Cross Road) from a script by Peter Barnes (The Ruling Class), this Carol is a solid, if slightly stolid, staging that touches all the narrative bases and here and there the heart, purposefully eschewing sentimentality while yet managing to jerk a few tears. Stewart, in his third (and best) starring role for Halmi, after Moby Dick and Animal Farm, does a clean, TV-size job; he‘s a kind of minor master thespian, a midsize star, and if he won’t make me soon forget Alastair Sim, he hits his marks, makes the right faces and enunciates clearly. (A passage in which he remembers how to laugh is a fresh bit of genius.) While some of his readings seem strange to me, they are at any rate not lightly considered: Stewart has performed A Christmas Carol as a one-man show for years. And he is splendidly supported by a cast, mostly locally unfamiliar, drawn from British stage and screen, with Joel Grey (as Spirit No. 1) the sole Yankee and Richard E. Grant especially splendid as Bob Cratchit. (It is nice to see him playing a normal person for a change.) I am perhaps too painfully aware of certain textual omissions, as when Marley does not say of the ghostly chain he forged in life, “I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it” -- an odd cut, given that free will is very much the point here -- and such pointless substitutions as “Oh the torture of remorse!” for the superior “Incessant torture of remorse!” and the name of Scrooge‘s sister changed from Fan to Fran. But these small deviations will not trouble most viewers, nor should they.

More disheartening is the dryness of the production; in spite of some groovy special effects -- the transformation of Scrooge’s parlor into the woods outside his boyhood school, the wandering phantoms outside his window -- it is overall not especially magical, or mysterious, or thrilling, or frightening. The realistic approach does have its benefits: The Cratchits have been happily stripped of any sugarcoating -- their Christmas dinner is one of the film‘s best scenes -- and for a change one does not want to strangle Tiny Tim on sight. But notwithstanding a clearer view of what Stewart calls “Victorian misery,” this is a rather lean realization of a work that for all its concision is musical and extravagant on the page; in translating to the screen a story whose last words are “God Bless Us Every One” -- quoting a little crippled boy -- a bit of schmaltz is not undue; fat adds flavor. Still and all, an intelligent reading, and with a final showing Christmas night at 8 p.m., not a bad way to wind down the yule.

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