The Endurance of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

 

Disney's Christmas Carol
Disney’s A Christmas Carol

With Walt Disney’s new animated A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey playing multiple roles it marks the latest in a long line of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic yuletide story. This version I’m really not interested in seeing by the way.

First published in 1843 A Christmas Carol has become one of the most well-known and popular pieces of literature ever written. It has become as synonymous with the holiday season as decorations, shopping, dogs barking Jingle Bells and all the religious traditions that are supposed to be observed if anyone can find the time or be bothered with.

Right out of the gate A Christmas Carol was a critical and popular success. Almost immediately stage productions of the story were being performed. The story of old miserly Ebenezer Scrooge finally finding redemption on Christmas morning after having been visited by four ghosts has become one of the most timeless stories ever. A story that soon the entire world would become familiar with, along with the characters of Bob Crathit, Tiny Tim and the phrase ‘Bah humbug!”

Since then it has never wavered in popularity and subsequent generations would retell the story, freshen it up and keep it alive every holiday season. It would be presented everywhere from small town theaters to huge venues.

Naturally when film started to become a popular medium in the early 20th century the story was adapted for movie audiences.

first movie film version A Christmas Carol
Scrooge aka Marley’s Ghost from 1901

Of course films based on Dickens’ story helped get it out to wider audiences. They also presented Dickens’ tale in a new way, different takes on it. Since the story was already well-known the adaptations always stayed pretty close to the already established story. There might be tweaks and updates here and there. Yet, the settings could change. It could be told in different genres and the presentation the story was told in could be changed, but generally always the core message Dickens created when he initially reached readers in 1843 has been retained ever since.

It’s pretty astounding when you look at how many various interpretations A Christmas Carol has had. It must be one of the most popular sources for film/television adaptations ever. It seems filmmakers have been following the theory that viewers never get tired of seeing that crabby old man get his yuletide comeuppance.

Every holiday season you can be guaranteed to turn on the tube and see Victorian England on Christmas Eve. Watch Ebenezzer making his way back home after giving Cratchit a hard time about wanting Christmas day off. The ghost of his old business partner Jacob Marley making a surprise drop in on Scrooge. The Ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future showing him that’s he’s on a greedy, lonely path. Scrooge seizing his final opportunity to change and live a better life. And Tiny Tim announcing “God bless us. Everyone!”, before the film fades out.

It’s truly the definition of a classic, timeless story.

Ebenezzer Scrooge Christmas Carol Alastair Sim Patrick Stewart Albert Finney
Alastair Sim, Patrick Stewart and Albert Finney interpreting Scrooge
I suppose the most common way films have told this story is sticking as close to what Dickens wrote. Keeping the setting, characters and basic plot and everything everyone is familiar. Those seem to be generally the most enduring adaptations that get the most airplay during the holidays and the ones everyone seems to remember. Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Jack Palance, Dean Jones, Kelsey Grammer, Henry Winkler have all taken stabs at portraying their version of Dickens’ Scrooge.
Looney Tunes Christmas Carol

Children are initiated into Dickens’ tale by getting their own retellings. Instead of old stodgy actors performing it though, they get beloved cartoon characters they know and love restaging the story to teach them the true meaning of Christmas. The Muppets, the Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Mr. Magoo all have taken their respective turns interpreting A Christmas Carol.

But then there have been versions that might have made Dickens raise an eyebrow.

There can’t just be Scrooges out there that old miserable men right? Where are all the grouchy women who need a kick in the rears from the great beyond? Fortunately, TV movies have been happy to allow for equal opportunity for women and give them a chance to yell “Bah humbug!” Susan Lucci, Tori Spelling and Vanessa Williams have all played versions of Scrooge in their own holiday films. None of them are on heavy rotation in December and haven’t really become Christmas classics that are watched annually. I think that might say something about their quality.

Bill Murray Scrooged
Scrooged

As much as I enjoy watching a good trainwreck of a film, I can’t say I’ve ever seen them, but I can’t help to think that’s probably what I’d get from them. For some reason I can’t help but not expect to get anything else from a Christmas movie with the tagline, ‘Christmas can be such a bitch’.

Although there have been some that seemed to guaranteed classics before watching them they’ve fallen by the wayside with me and I never felt compelled to go back and rewatch them. The most notable is 1988’s Scrooged. As much as I love Bill Murray and thought the idea was going to be hysterical, the movie I never found as funny as I hoped it would be. I don’t think I’ve ever watched it again all the way through since first seeing in during it’s holiday release in ’88.

George C. Scott A Christmas Carol
Scott’s Scrooge getting a late night visit

I really wish HBO would replay 1978’s Rich Little’s Christmas Carol though. I’d be very curious to rewatch it again. I saw it when I was little and although at the time I didn’t understand a lot of the jokes or even who Little was impersonating I found it amusing. I recall W.C. Fields was Scrooge and Marley was Nixon. Oh and Laurel and Hardy were the guys collecting for charity. I’m not sure if I would enjoy it now more or if it would just leave me rolling my eyes. I suppose it’s not likely to be getting a plum slot on HBO during the holidays again. I don’t think there are many Rich Little fans around anymore.

So out of all these countless renderings of Dickens’ story which one is my personal favorite? The one I seem to tune into the most and watch at least parts of it every year is 1984’s A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott. It could be the age I was at when I first watched it and that’s how it left a lasting impression on me, but it continues to hold up each time I watch it and it’s become the version I compare every other one to after first seeing it.

A Christmas Carol George C. Scott 1984
Scott and Edward Woodward

I think it’s one of the more popular film versions that audiences know. Most people seem to be familiar with it. I’ve watched it for years and although I’ve enjoyed other adaptations and actors in the role, Scott makes his Scrooge his Christmas Carol the quintessential one for me.

The locations, sets, costumes, music, actors and Scott’s performance have made this the indelible telling of the story. Not only does Joanne Whalley play a small role in it – an actress I’ve always had a thing for – it has many images that have helped shaped my view of Dickens story.

It might not have the polished special effects that we’ve become accustomed to today, but it doesn’t need them. The representation of ‘Ignorance and Want’ the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge is seared into my mind. The tall, black cloaked screeching Ghost of Christmas Future is simple and creepy. Years before I saw him show up in the Lord of the Rings movies. And when Scrooge is brought to that foggy, cold cemetery and instructed to look at the name on the headstone is fantastic. Scott’s performance makes me feel real pity for this man and I believe in his lasting transformation in the end.

There will be endless retellings of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Long after everyone who is celebrating this holiday season is long gone there will be new film and stage versions that will keep the story alive. They will keep Ebenezzer Scrooge a part of the holiday tradition. I’m sure they all won’t be great quality interpretations and there will be some embarrassing ones, but at least they’ll help keep Scrooge around.

To be fair I should check out Susan Lucci’s Ebbie TV movie at some point. Maybe it’s just waiting to become my favorite A Christmas Carol film and will dethrone Scott’s version. I kind of doubt it though.


 

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2 Responses

  1. James Picard says:

    Yeah, I don't get why people say it's bad because it gets adapted too much. If that's the case, read the book or watch the stuff that sticks to the original version then! And this will probably sound weird, but whenever I think of a film version of A Christmas Carol, what immediately jumps into my mind is The Muppets. Interestingly enough, a lot of people say that one stuck incredibly close to the source. I guess having Mr. Dickens narrate helped, but I think the Patrick Stewart one probably did a little better in that respect. But, it's still a good story. What amazes me is how few people have actually read the book. It's really good. If you like the story, I highly reccomend it.

  2. Vince says:

    You're not missing anything by not watching Ebbie. Susan Lucci did a lot of TV movies in her time and this is another one that isn't very memorable. She seems to play all of her characters like Erica Kane-wannabes, sexy and nice to look at, but not much range from her decades-long signature role. Also, Cicely Tyson did her own version of Christmas Carol, too, which again, I saw, but don't remember that well, which tells me something.

    One of the few versions I've come to know and love, after all of these years of absorbing many, was surprisingly the Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine as Ebeneezer. This was the first film done after Jim Henson's death, according to his son Brian who directed it, and proved that Jim taught his children well. All of the Muppets are as endearing and funny as ever, and use the Dickensian setting in a very fresh, funny, and self-effacing way. Like the scene with Sam Eagle, for example, who tells a young Ebeneezer that business is the "American way," then corrects himself after Gonzo/Charles Dickens as Narrator corrects him…"It is the British way."

    The movie manages to add the usual Muppet humor with a great retelling of this Dickens classic that has enough of the original dialogue and narrative to make you want to read the book itself afterwards, which Gonzo recommends as the closing credits roll. Also, the music is some of the best in a Muppet movie since the first one and has become part of my usual Christmas-themed playlists that I gladly listen to from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year's day. The most effective thing in the whole movie, at least for me, is Michael Caine's performance. I know from the commentary that he was concerned about working with Muppets, but Brian Henson instructed him to play it seriously, as if he were acting with real people, and I think that, aside from Mr. Caine's incredibly talent, made him one of the most effective Scrooge's I've ever seen. I can even get over him singing cheerily at the end of the movie, because how better in a Muppet movie to convey a feeling of reform and exuberance at joining the holiday festivities. Also, Caine is sincere, and this sincerity is a big reason I've remembered this version since I first saw it. In the scene when he realizes that he is about to witness his parting from his former fiancee in his youth, he begs the ghost to not show it to him and you can see the tears welling up in his eyes and the crack in his voice as he pleads not to relive the heartache. That scene alone put me in his corner, even before the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears and scares the devil out of him. Also, his practical joke at the end, and Miss Piggy's reply, is more than enough to warrant a viewing of this version at least once. A pleasant experience for all, that is, if you like Michael Caine and Muppets.

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