The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling Adapted One Of The Greatest Christmas Stories Ever Told 

Rod Serling was famous for a lot of things. He was one of the most acclaimed television writers of the mid-20th century, the creator of the genre-defining anthology series "The Twilight Zone," he co-wrote the screenplay to the original "Planet of the Apes," and he even helped give Steven Spielberg his big break. But even though he's famous for a lot of things, he was a prolific writer and even some of his best and most fascinating projects have been largely forgotten by the public over time. Like, for example, an adaptation of one of the most popular Christmas stories ever told, transformed into one of the most politically charged Christmas movies ever filmed.

Serling was no stranger to Christmas stories. After all, he wrote the classic yuletide episode "Night of the Meek," a hopeful story about an alcoholic department store Santa who stumbles across a magical sack that gives everybody what they want for Christmas. It's a holiday classic and even that managed to stir up controversy. Serling was just that kind of writer.

But Serling's adaptation of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" is bitter stuff, even for Serling. It's a harsh and difficult conversation about 1960s politics, much of which is still relevant today. It's a Christmas movie with mutilated children, starving families, and post-apocalyptic wastelands. And even though it's got all that intense and confrontational stuff in it, and even though it's directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, who assembled one of the most impressive casts ever assembled for any movie, it's gone almost completely unnoticed for the last 60 years.

It's called "Carol for Another Christmas," and it's great.

'Carol for Another Christmas'

The year was 1964, and the world wasn't in a good place. The Cold War raged, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and Rod Serling was enlisted to write a TV movie to promote the United Nations. It was a film that attempted to inspire hope for the future in very depressing times, and Rod Serling — being Rod Serling — put most of the emphasis on the depressing times. It was a bold creative choice — just not the kind that makes your movie a beloved perennial tradition for the whole family every Christmas Eve.

Before we get into that, we have to talk about this film's pedigree. "Carol for Another Christmas" was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning director of "All About Eve." The music is by Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini, famous for his unforgettable scores to "The Pink Panther" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The cast includes — and this is going to sound like we're making this up because it makes no sense whatsoever that a movie with this cast could become obscure — Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, Ben Gazzara, Pat Hingle, Steve Lawrence, Percy Rodriguez, and in a role that was cut down to just a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-him shots, a very young Peter Fonda.

And despite all that talent, "Carol for Another Christmas" aired only once. The fact that it aired on December 28th instead of on or before Christmas might have had something to do with it. The fact that it's intense and, even for Serling, pretty darned preachy probably also helped. For years, it was only available for viewing at the Paley Center or the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Nowadays, however, it's streaming on Max and slowly building a cult audience because of its incredibly talented filmmaking ensemble ... and because the whole danged thing is weird.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

"Carol for Another Christmas" stars Sterling Hayden as Daniel Grudge (no relation to Darius Emanuel Grouch III, a.k.a. "The Rumble"), a millionaire still mourning the death of his son Marley (Peter Fonda) in World War II. His nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), visits him on Christmas Eve because Grudge used his influence to cancel a cultural exchange program at the college where he works. Grudge's perspective was skewed by Marley's death, and he has adopted a strict isolationist philosophy. He believes that the problems of other countries are of no concern to Americans, and the best thing every country can do right now is to build nuclear weapons and mind their own business instead of engaging in futile diplomacy. "Your kind mouths the kind of platitudes that get us into war," Grudge tells Fred. "[Marley's] kind go off to fight them."

That night, Grudge finds himself transported back in time, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence). The Ghost is transporting the dead off the battlefields, and although Grudge claims to only care about American soldiers, he can't tell them apart from their enemies now. The Ghost of Christmas Past then takes them to Hiroshima in September 1945, when a younger Grudge and a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Gibson (Eva Marie Saint) visited the devastation and met a doctor tending to children whose faces were burnt off. Gibson is horrified, and Grudge is disturbed too. Even so, he believes the American government wouldn't have dropped the bomb unless it was the right thing to do. He also thinks that the hundreds of thousands who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented the deaths of millions. To him, that's "simple arithmetic," but to her, that mentality is completely appalling.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

In most adaptations of "A Christmas Carol," the Ghost of Christmas Present is a jolly individual enjoying a great, big Christmas feast. "Carol for Another Christmas" is no exception," except this time it turns your stomach.

Grudge enters a void where the Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) is stuffing his face. Grudge sneers at his gluttony, but according to the Ghost, "I represent the human race, Mr. Grudge. So, to a certain extent, does gluttony. Also starvation... I represent that, too."

The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Grudge that their banquet is situated next to a fence, and on the other side are starving displaced refugees. Even Grudge can't bring himself to eat in front of people who are suffering, but that hypocrisy is thrown back in his face. "Shall I now tell you how many times you've stuffed yourself while two-thirds of the world starved in a cage?" the Ghost asks.

"How do you create this exact science whereby you disinvolve yourself from all the anguish of the world that doesn't happen to be in your direct line of vision?" the Ghost asks, not just of Grudge but everyone in the audience. "That doesn't take a special breed of man at all, Mr. Grudge. That is man in his normal condition."

Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" was a story about one man's redemption, and while certainly some people in the audience could probably relate to Ebenezer Scrooge's state of mind, his perspective was not universal. Rod Serling wrote a scene in a Christmas movie accusing everyone in the audience, who still had Christmas leftovers in their fridge, of despicable apathy. It may be blunt but you have to admit ... that takes gall.

The Ghost of Christmas Future

In the final chapter, Grudge meets the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw), who takes him to a world spawned by Grudge's own rhetoric (nuclear proliferation, isolationism, only caring for yourself). His town has now been bombed into oblivion and only a few survivors remain. Their leader, The Imperial Me (Peter Sellers), is a twisted fiend who declares the last vestige of civilization to be "the non-government of the Me People." No concern for the common good is allowed. His followers chant "Me! Me! Me!" over and over again, while the Imperial Me declares that the other survivors, who have come to this town to rekindle civilization, are the real villains.

That's when Grudge's butler, Charles (Percy Rodriguez), tries to inject some compassion into the brainwashed throng. But instead of listening, they berate him. And when he climbs to the top of the building to escape, they chant, "Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!"

Eventually, a child shoots Charles, and The Imperial Me announces that now they're going to kill everyone who isn't in his congregation. And when they're done with that, they're all going to kill each other until only one of them is left, and then at last there will be only one "Me."

This sequence is dazzlingly perverse, thanks in no small part to Peter Sellers giving a truly demonic performance (with Percy Rodriguez convincingly portraying the last, tragic embodiment of human dignity).

So what have we learned today...?

"Carol for Another Christmas" is as subtle as a jackhammer to the skull, and while Serling's screenplay is articulate about multiple viewpoints, there is ambiguity about what side the film is taking. After all, it was presented by the United Nations. So it's pretty heavy-handed about the "nations should unite" thing.

But this film deserves a lot of credit, and not just because it's got an incredible cast acting their heads off (nor because it's daring, strange, and confrontational, and still hits hard today). It also deserves credit for its unexpected ending. Unlike the Dickens tale, where Scrooge is a completely changed man and makes extravagant lifestyle changes as soon as he wakes up, Grudge isn't entirely transformed. He talks with Fred, whom he apparently called in the middle of the night, and apologizes for being harsh, admitting he doesn't know everything. Then he goes to the kitchen, has a cup of coffee, and thinks about what he's been through and the ways his ideas have been challenged. And as he sits there thinking the credits roll.

In Rod Serling's adaptation, the ghosts don't solve anyone's problems. They exist to shake people from their philosophical and political complacency and open their minds to different perspectives. It's not a fantasy about a scoundrel who sees the light. It's a story about a man who has just been turned in the light's direction. For a film that also features Peter Sellers in a spangled hat leading the last human beings to murder each other in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's a pretty subtle ending.

"Carol for Another Christmas" is readily available now, but it's not well-known enough to be a Christmas classic ... yet. See it for yourself, then have a cup of coffee and think about it. Serling probably would've wanted it that way.

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