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Just when you thought you'd seen all you could take of "A Christmas Carol," TNT's newest version shines with the true joy of the season.

God Bless this "Carol"

When you're making your list and checking it twice this Christmas, a new version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" probably won't be one of the things you wish for.

That's OK.

Because you're going to get one anyway — whether you ask for it or not.

Certainly you can choose not to watch it. But if you do forgo TNT's version of the 1843 Christmas classic, you'll be missing something that will make your holiday richer.

The story is so familiar that the name of the protagonist has entered our general vocabulary. Look up "scrooge" (the dictionary even accepts it in lower case), and you'll see that it has its own definition: "A mean-spirited miserly person; a skinflint."

Familiarity can be a problem, however, with great stories. We hear them over and over until they lose even their metaphorical content. In the case of "A Christmas Carol," the story has become not only hoary, but sugarcoated as well. In most of the live-action versions, including the 1951 Alastair Sims' movie, poverty and destitution are prettified, and everybody is dressed in Victorian shabby chic. And in the animated versions, all of the characters seem to be living a happy life — even those who clearly couldn't be. In recent years, Scrooge has even been scrooged into Mr. Magoo.

Thus it is a delight to see TNT's version of the story — with all the saccharine sweetness stripped away. Thank Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek: Next Generation") and a host of England's best actors for that.

Stewart has been presenting readings of the Dickens story for 10 years throughout the country, and even on Broadway. When producer Robert Halmi ("Gulliver's Travels") saw Stewart's one-man performance in 1997, he decided to try to recapture what Dickens really wrote about.

The central theme of "A Christmas Carol" is powerful: At the eleventh hour of his life, a man is given a chance to make things right. Stewart says the story explores ideas "that lie at the heart of life itself — fear and forgiveness, hatred and humiliation, greed and generosity, love and longing." In his and Halmi's version, those themes shine through brilliantly.

In addition to Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge, TNT's "A Christmas Carol" stars Richard E. Grant ("L.A. Story") as Bob Cratchit, Joel Grey ("Cabaret") as the First Spirit, Desmond Barrit ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") as the Second Spirit, veteran Royal Shakespeare Company actor Bernard Lloyd as Jacob Marley, and BBC regular Tim Potter as the Third Spirit.

Though this new version hews closely to what Dickens wrote, "A Christmas Carol" is far from a depressing story. In fact, when you strip away the tinsel and nonsense with which it's been decorated in recent decades, the story shines even more brightly with the true joy of the

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