No story outside of the Bible is more well known and associated with Christmas than A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens. It is performed around the world on stages large and small every holiday season. It was first portrayed on film back in 1910 and ever since it has surfaced as a drama, a musical, a comedy and in various animated forms.
There are so many productions that it is difficult to identify which are the best ones. Christmas honors nostalgia and revels in vintage celebrations of all types, including movies. It seems oddly appropriate to watch black-and-white versions of A Christmas Carol over and over again each season. Though the actors from many of these productions are long since dead Scrooge himself will never die because his transformation is something every fan of Christmas appreciates and wants to relive each holiday season.
A Christmas Carol, however, is also a holiday standard. We’ve read the story for more than 170 years and like irreverent adaptations of the Nativity story we don’t appreciate hollow portrayals of what we consider in nearly sacred terms. There are a LOT of bad versions of A Christmas Carol out there. First, we list the best.
1. Scrooge (1951)
The gold standard of the film versions of Dickens’ classic was made in 1951 and starred Alistair Sim in a wonderful performance that captured both the bitterness and glee of the Scrooge character. It is mostly true to Dicken’s dialogue though it plays loosely with some facts, such as the death of Scrooge’s mother in childbirth. We gain sympathy for Scrooge as he grapples with being rejected by his father and as well his own rejection of his nephew. It is an interesting contrast that gives not only reason for Scrooge’s hard edge but deeper sweetness to his redemption. Marley is played mournfully and brilliantly by Michael Hordern who is by far the most haunting of all the spirits that Scrooge encounters. The Hollywood omissions and additions that stray from Dickens’ text are forgiven in this dark classic that is every much beloved as is It’s A Wonderful Life.
2. A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This softer sell of A Christmas Carol is frequently mistaken as a kids version of the story. It is both a musical and a comedy. But kids are not alone in their enjoyment of this festive version. Michael Caine plays Scrooge and displays a rather obvious lack of musical talent that adds somewhat to the less serious nature of this telling. The film is “narrated” by Gonzo and Rizzo, who flit humorously with the story characters providing moments of levity, especially when the story takes a sad turn. They labor to keep things light and are aided with a memorable musical score filled with the usual Muppet shenanigans. For those who have not seen it the premise of the Muppets presenting A Christmas Carol seems like a weak idea. But they pull it off with a light touch, a festive feel and moments of sacred clarity. Tiny Tim’s sung version of “Bless Us All” is a real tearjerker and Miss Piggy as a combative Mrs. Cratchit who expresses distaste for her husband’s employer is perfect.
3. Scrooge (1970)
Albert Finney, another actor who cannot sing, pulls off Scrooge fantasically in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical version of the film. Made towards the end of the grand era of Hollywood musicals the score includes insanely catchy tunes such as “Thank You Very Much” and “I Hate People”. This version does attempt to capture the horror Scrooge endures as he witnesses Hell, a scene that critics railed upon during the film’s release in 1970. Most film versions don’t go there but Dickens most certainly did in his attempt to show how low Scrooge had to go in order to make his highs higher. The scene is more off-putting for its weirdness than for its content and it doesn’t quite work. But Finney saves the day with his gleeful relief as the Spirits do their job in just one night and his skills displayed in Scrooge actually made watching another musical with him in the lead, Annie (made about a decade later), more endurable. Like Sim’s performance in the 1951 version of the film and like the other Scrooge musical from the Muppets this version leaves the viewer satisfied and this is squarely due to Finney’s portrayal.
4. A Christmas Carol (1984)
George C. Scott plays the bitter and cantankerous Scrooge to the hilt in what is considered by some to be the most true to Dickens’ text and dialogue. We get a better idea of what an ugly old coot Scrooge is as Scott shows him not only being in perpetual foul moods but also completely past feeling as he rips off business associates. Within minutes you hate the guy and want to stab him in the heart with a stake of holly. As the most successful versions of the story show the darker Scrooge is made the sweeter his transformation will be. Scott is not known for his warm and fuzzy abilities in any film but he pulls off the changed-man bit with Scrooge nicely. Filled with typical Victorian era imagery there are moments of this film that reflect when it was filmed (1980s) better than the time it was trying to portray. But once again the strength of the story overwhelms the weaknesses of Hollywood, making this a great alternative to the same-old versions you might see elsewhere.
5. A Christmas Carol (1999)
Filmed at the height of his Star Trek popularity as Captain Picard it is difficult for some to accept Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. But Stewart is classically trained and has played the role on stage for years. There is just something about him that makes Scrooge work. This adaptation does stick pretty close to Dickens’ text and Scrooge is sufficiently dark, moody and fearsome at first. But where this version falls short is the lack of fun and the true level of joy we expect when Scrooge makes it through the night. It is visually authentic and has more of a British feel than most modern productions, which we think adds to its credibility. For some, this more modern version is the defacto holiday standard if only because it gets a lot of play on cable each holiday season.
Film Versions of A Christmas Carol We Cannot Stand
No review of the history of A Christmas Carol is complete without at least a brief mention of the worst versions out there. There are plenty. Here are the worst-of-the-worst:
1. Scrooged (1988) — Starring Bill Murray in a modern twist having Scooge portrayed as a television executive this attempt at comedy is cold, heartless and at times just mean. Mostly it’s not funny.
2. A Christmas Carol (2009) — Jim Carrey plays multiple roles in weird fashion as this motion-capture animated version shows as hollow as the dark eyes of all the animated faces. The musical score is fantastic but the 3-D roller coaster version will make you sick in ways the weak script won’t.
3. A Christmas Carol (2004) — Another musical version starring Frasier, er, Kelsey Grammer. They wonder why no one watched it.
4. A Christmas Carol (2001) — Another animated version that leaned on the talents of Kate Winslet as Belle and Nicholas Cage as Marley. Yuck. The liberties taken with the story make the whole thing silly but the weak animation almost makes it seem they intended to offend anyone with a love of Dickens.
5. A Christmas Carol (1938) — Some will be surprised that we don’t count Reginald Owen as amongst the best of Scrooges. But just because a film is old and considered a classic doesn’t mean it is actually any good. Made during a time when Hollywood had to worry about censors and sensibilities this version is so sanitized that it comes across as soulless.
Please join us on the Merry Forums of My Merry Christmas as we explore the many versions of A Christmas Carol on film during this month’s Christmas Film Festival.