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A Guide to Christmas Carol Adaptations

At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable to watch a film adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But with so many other versions to choose from, how does one decide which to watch?


Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)

Directed by Walter R. Booth

The earlies adaptation of Dicken’s beloved tale was produced in England in 1901 by R.W. Paul, an early film inventor, pioneer, and camera trick specialist. 650 feet of the film (around 5 and a half minutes) survive, and it is not really clear how long the full film was. As with many of the earliest narrative films, Paul choose a well-known story and simplified it, making it easy for early film-goers to understand.  The ghosts of Christmasses Past, Present, and Future are conglomerated in the single figure of Jacob Marley’s ghost. Thus began a long tradition of cutting out elements of a novel that is not all that long to begin with in order to make a nice story arch for a film.Paul uses trick camera work, such as superimposing Marley’s face over the door knocker, and double exposure to make Scrooge and Marley semi-transparent, which are impressively done, considering the year this was produced.

Pros: Historical values, well-executed special effects
Cons:
only an incomplete print survives


Scrooge (1935)

Directed by: Henry Edwards
Scrooge:
Seymour Hicks

British actor Seymour Hicks first played Scrooge on the stage in 1901, when he was in his early 30s. Playing the miser in youth, middle age, and old age, Hicks got poor reviews on the “old” part of his portrayal. He got better at it, and starred in a silent version in 1916. When Hicks played Scrooge yet again in 1935, the 64-year-old actor had the curmudgeonly Scrooge down pat. Unfortunately, the producers allowed him to play the young Scrooge as well, somewhat straining credulity. This is the earliest surviving sound version of Dickens’ tale. The camera tricks of the 1901 version are absent, as only the Ghost of Christmas Present is seen, all others, including Marley’s ghost, are represented by off-screen voices, and, in the case of the Ghost of ChristmasYet to Come, as the shadow of a pointing hand. This version includes a sequence showing how the people of London spend Christmas, from Queen Victoria down to common street urchins, who scramble for hot buns a baker throws from his window. A sequence in the center of the film shows how people around England, including Scrooge’s nephew Fred, make merry at Christmas.  The central character of Fezziweg is completely omitted, weakening Dicken’s theme of a good man turned bad by greed.

Pros: A few nice sequences giving a panorama of London life
Cons:
crackling soundtrack, schmaltzy score


A Christmas Carol (1938)

Directed by: Edwin L. Marin
Scrooge:
Reginald Owen

Although this American production is still considered a classic adaptation, it truncates Dickens’ story a bit too much.  Leo G. Carroll is good in his short appearance as Marley’s ghost, but all in all, the film is a bit too “American” in tone. As with other MGM literary adaptations from the 1930s,  anything that could be considered the slightest bit controversial in the source material was omitted in order to produce a feel-good “family film.” The character of Belle, and consequently that of young Scrooge in love, don’t appear. The orphans named Want and Ignorance who hide under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present are left out, as are the charwomen who steal Scrooge’s bedclothes and belongings in order to sell them to a rag and bone man. Other liberties with Dickens’ novel are taken, such as Scrooge sacking Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, rather than just threatening to. Gene Lockhart delivers a moving performance as Cratchit, a good-natured and caring family man, who struggles to hide his uncertainty about the future from his family, although Lockhart is a bit too plump to convincingly play an impoverished clerk. Reginald Owen was a last-minute replacement for Lionel Barrymore, who performed Scrooge annually on the radio, but was unable to do so on the screen due to a worsening case of arthritis that would confine him to a wheelchair for the latter part of his long career.

Pros: Memorable performance by Leo G. Carroll as Marley’s ghost
Cons: Too much of Dickens’ story has been cut


Scrooge (1951)

Directed by: Brian Desmond Hurst
Scrooge:
Alistair Sim

This British production was an instant hit both at home and in the US. While the Victorian costumes are not entirely authentic, the screenplay remains relatively faithful to the Dickens novel. Scrooge’s transition from earnest and honest to greedy and exploitive is spelled out even more clearly here than in the book. The film introduces a new character, a client of Fezziweg’s, who entice Scrooge and Marley to come work for him for double the pay. Despite their close association with Fezziweg, they accept the higher salary, and turn their backs on Marley, later driving their corrupt new employer out of his own business, which they take over. Sims excels in the role, playing the heartless, cut-throat businessman as well as the transformed Scrooge. His tender delivery of the line to Fred’s wife, “can you find it in your heart to forgive a man who had no eyes to see or no ears to see?” is truly moving. The scenes of the Cratchits at home maintain the difficult balance between despair and merriment, and Glyn Dearman leaves the strongest impression of all the young actors who have played Tiny Tim.

Pros: Exemplary performance by Alistair Sim
Cons:
George Cole as young Scrooge tends to overact


Scrooge (1970)

Directed by: Ronald Neame
Scrooge:
Albert Finney

With the star power in the musical adaptation, including Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, and veteran stage actress Edith Evans, this has the potential to be a very good adaptation. Unfortunately, it largely fails as both a musical and a Christmas Carol adaptation. Finney was in his early 40s at the time of filming, which allowed him the rare opportunity to play both the younger Scrooge and the older one convincingly. But Finney looks a bit too old to play the young Scrooge in love, and, even with good make-up, seems a bit too young to play the old Scrooge. His “old” voice quickly wears thin and becomes grating. Alec Guinness chews the scenery in the brief appearance as Marley’s Ghost, and Edith Evans, at the end of a long acclaimed career, does not actually do much, and seems very miscast as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The soot on the faces of the street urchins looks very art directed, and both the plot and songs seem somewhat divorced from the tone of Dickens’ novel.

Pros: A few of the musical numbers, especially “December the 25th” at Fezziweg’s Ball, are catchy.
Cons:
The themes and tone of Dickens novel seem lost


A Christmas Carol (1971)

Directed by: Richard Williams
Scrooge:
Alistair Sim

20 years after his brilliant turn as Scrooge, Alistair Sim returned to provide the voice for the role in the made-for-TV animated short. Besides doing an admirable job of condensing the essential plot points into less than 25 minutes, this adaptation is remarkable for successfully adapting the story for children, while not oversimplifying it or glossing over some of the darker themes of the novel. The scene in which The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the children under his robe representing Ignorance and Want, and the portrayal of Marley’s ghost, and charwoman and laundress selling Scrooge’s stolen belongings are presented in a truly frightening way, and have a strong effect on Scrooge. Ken Harris, who previously did animation work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, created the visual look, basing the style on the etchings of John Leech that accompanied the first edition of Dickens’ book in 1843. The use of dramatic angles and sudden transitions add to the dramatic import. Freed from the constrictions of working with live actors, the Ghost of Christmas Past is shown just as eerily has Dickens describes it. Needless to say, Fezziweg’s Christmas ball and the final scenes are charming and upbeat. While perhaps too scary for very young children, this is one of the best introductions to the tale yet brought to the screen.

Pros: Unique animation style, voice work by Alistair Sim and Michael Redgrave
Con:
One wonders how it might have been as an hour-long animated special or even a feature


A Christmas Carol (1984)

Directed by: Clive Donner
Scrooge:
George C. Scott

Who would have thought that a version of A Christmas Carol produced for an American TV network with an American actor as Scrooge would become the definitive adaptation of one of the most beloved stories of Victorian literature? But that seems to be the case. George C. Scott plays Scrooge as a tough, gruff man who is every bit as powerful and frightening as his famous portrayal of General Patton. Of all adaptations, this is one of the most faithful to the source material. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by an excellent Edward Woodward, informs that Tiny Tim will die if not help, chiding Scrooge with his own words, suggesting that he should decrease the surplus population. Then, in a near quote from Dickens, says “then maybe you will hold your tongue until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” This dialogue, central to Dickens’ theme of social injustice and poverty, is more often than not omitted in order to make the story less dark and more family-friendly. There are minor diversions from the source material, but these actually add to the mood and spirit of the book, rather than detract from it. In a scene not in the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Present bring Scrooge to the outskirts of the city, where a desperate and homeless family crouches around a pitiful fire, preferring this to going to one of the poorhouses that Scrooge’s taxes support. David Warner is good as a pensive Bob Cratchit, and Frank Finlay is excellent as Marley’s Ghost, who is in equal parts tormented, frightening, and concerned for Scrooge’s future. Director Clive Owen, who worked as an editor on the 1951 version early in his career, does an excellent job in preserving the atmosphere of Dickens’ novel, while using expressive, at times Expressionistic cinematography for the scenes involving the spirits.

Pros: A tour de force performance by Scott, expressive music score, convincing sets and recreations of Victorian streets, markets, and life
Cons:
At times, this adaptations shows its made-for-TV origins, with a few obvious models used for exterior shots and odd transitions where commercial breaks used to be


The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Directed by: Brian Henson
Scrooge: Michael Caine

An actor of the stature of Michael Caine was bound to get around to playing Scrooge sooner or later, although few could have guessed that he would be performing with a bunch of felt puppets. Caine is good in everything, and is superb here, although he occasionally looks a bit confused to be surrounded by Muppets. But there are plenty of silly Muppet-esque jokes, which Caine, who is not necessarily known for comedy, is able to provide the straight man for. When Scrooge revisits his old boss Fezziweg, who has been renamed Fozziweg as he is played by Fozzie the Bear, Caine exclaims “Oh, it is Fozziweg’s old rubber chicken factory!” while keeping a straight face. Injecting Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, as Bob and Martha Cratchit, in to Dickens’ story makes it hard for adults to take this as a serious adaptation. On the other hand, the three spirits, which are not filled by established Muppet characters, as appropriately spooky, and the Ghost of Christmas Past in particular is closer to Dickens’ vision than most adaptations. Since this is directed by Brian Henson and lovingly dedicated to his late father Jim Henson, saying anything against this might make one seem like a bit of a Scrooge, but I found the songs repetitive and not well integrated into the story. And while this was originally made for theatrical release, it has the production values of a made-for-TV special.

Pros: Superb performance from Michael Caine
Cons:
Less than inspiring songs, made-for-TV production values


A Christmas Carol (1999)

Directed by: David Hugh Jones
Scrooge: Patrick Stewart

When this adaptation was made for the Turner Network in 1999, Patrick Stewart had already staged a one-man show of A Christmas Carol in London and New York, reading the novel from an armchair, performing all the characters and voices himself. And so the actor brought a lot of his own long-established ideas to this production, and this can be seen as his Stewart’s adaptation. Great pains have been taken to make this version the most faithful to the book, using computer effects to create scenes of the illustrated tiles in the back of Scrooge’s fireplace, and the walls of his room fading away to reveal the grounds of his childhood school, scenes present in the book but left out probably simply because the technology wasn’t there. For viewers who mainly know the story from other film adaptations, while find this rather sombre in tone and event a bit of a downer. Stewart’s Scrooge is a bitter businessman, who seems seems moved by the death of Jacob Marley and pledges over his coffin to protect the business they built together, a scene which seems at odds with novel, which describes Scrooge sitting in his office alone while Marley lay on the point of death at home. Another scene, which shows one of Scrooge’s unnamed debtors tell his wife that the moneylender has died, news which makes her happy as it defers repayment, is not in the original novel, but seems to fit here. After the visitations, Scrooges struggles to become his new self, literally choking out a cough, and seeming rather reluctant to offer the boy outside his window two shillings (not Dickens’ half a crown, i.e. 2.5 shillings) to go and buy the prize turkey. The character of the Ghost of Christmas Past, described by Dickens as something of a cross between a young boy and an old man, has always created casting problems for film directors, and the role has been played by women and men, both young and old. Joel Grey is the first actor who even comes close to portraying the spirit the way Dickens describes it, and his acting is both reserved and slightly unsettling.

Pros: Very faithful to the book, eerie performance of The Ghost of Christmas Past by Joel Grey
Cons:
Scrooge’s seeming reluctance to turn into a good man at the end of the film seems at odds with the novel


A Christmas Carol (2004)

Directed by: Arthur Allan Seidelman
Scrooge:
Kelsey Grammer

Produced by Hallmark Entertainment for US television with a cast of mainly TV actors (Kelsey Grammer, Jason Alexander, Jane Krakowski), this adaptation, based on a Madison Square Garden stage musical, is obviously intended as “family entertainment.” It works well as such, and is probably the best adaptation to introduce children to the story. But Dickens scholars and fans of the other films will be aghast at the liberties taken with the plot and the not-so-convincing Victorian accents by some of the American actors. Scrooge meets all three spirits in human form both before and after his haunted night, including a beggar woman played with great relish by Geraldine Chaplin, adding a new aspect to the story.  Jesse L. Martin, known for his turn in “Rent” on Broadway,  is excellent as a musical hall ticket seller and the ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge’s stinginess is explained by a childhood drama in which his father is taken off to debtor’s prison, a detail borrowed from Dickens’ own life. Viewers will either like the songs and score and love this, or find the whole thing intolerable. Personally, I like the songs and far prefer them to those found in the Albert Finney version. Ironically, the child actors playing Tiny Tim and an unnamed girl who sings to Scrooge on the way to her mother’s funeral prove to be the best singers. Even with a wig and make-up, Grammer looks a bit young to play Scrooge, and “Seinfeld”‘s Jason Alexander overdoes his role as Marley’s Ghost. But if you remember this is primarily for children, these shortcomings can be easily overlooked.

Pros: Good for kids, nicely done score and songs
Cons: Nonchalant attitude to Dicken’s original plot


A Christmas Carol (2009)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Scrooge:
Jim Carrey

In what is the highest-budgeted Christmas Carol adaptation to date (and will be for some time), Robert Zemeckis returns to the performance capture technology that was so panned by critics in his The Polar Express. The technology has caught up a bit, making the characters less creepy, although personally I was left wishing to see some real human emotion on the screen when, for example, Mrs. Cratchit . The use of motion capture allowed Jim Carrey to perform Scrooge at the various stages of his life, as well as the three spirits who visit him. This is a technological feat and a first in the long history of Carol adaptations, and actually works as it underscores the idea that the spirits are actually different aspects of Scrooge’s own psyche. When the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooges words back in his face, saying “if they are going to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population,” the face of Carrey as the ghost morphs into the face of Carrey as Scrooge. The technology also allows Scrooge to shrink down to the size of a dormouse while observing the rag and bone man purchasing the bed curtains stolen from the recently deceased but not mourned miser. It is a detail that is not in Dickens’ books, but helps add to the fantasy. On the other hand, having Gary Oldman perform both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim seems unnecessary and a bit pointless.

Pros: The first time one actor has played Scrooge at his very ages as well as the three spirits
Cons: Characters too often slip down into into the “uncanny valley”

5 Comments

  1. Suzie
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Greetings Kevin,

    I was searching on the web for some trivia about the movie, “Scrooge” with Albert Finney. And somehow I ended up on your site??
    I jsut wanted to correct something that you wrote in your review (dated Jan 16, 2010). You wrote that Albert Finney was in his early 40′s at the time of the filming. Not so, Mr. F was only 36.

    And you stated that some of the tunes from the show are catchy. You neglected to mention that not only were some “catchy”, but the song, “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and Best Score Adaptation that year. The Academy, also, nominated the show for best art/set direction, and best costume designer.

    I was very surprised when you said that Sir Alec Guiness all but “chewed the scenery”. I thought Alec did the best version of Marley that I have yet to see. I thought he actually stole the scenes that he was in, not chewed them up.

    Since I am a huge fan of this version of the Christmas Carol, I know that you and I do not see eye-to-eye on this movie. I like nearly all the different versions of the Christmas Carol—even Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol:). But this is by far, my all-time fav. Try watching it again, and I think you’ll come to appreciate it:).

  2. Charles Griffin
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with your assessments. I loved the 1984 version more than any other. I also think Frank Finlay is the best Marley I’ve seen and was surprisingly disappointed with the great Alec Guiness’ version.

  3. Celestial Elf
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Great post, respectfully submit my machinima version of A Christmas Carol 2011 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9SBebs3A5I

  4. Roger owens
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    So, which version is most faithful to the book?

    Don’t kill me, but I also like watching some of the terrible sitcom Christmas Carol Parodies every year.

  5. kevin
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Roger, I think the most faithful version is the one starring Patrick Stewart. For one, Scrooge is not shown flying through the London sky in a night shirt, which is in most movies but not in the book.

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