Just why is Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol so enduringly popular, perhaps the most frequently adapted and parodied literary work of all time? We pop-culture watchers must have a theory or two. I believe most of us, even the most hardened, have a soft spot for a good redemption story, a journey out of a solitary darkness into a light that promises companionship and love. Such a story speaks to the optimist in us, the hope not so much that things can get better, but that we can get better. Yet what makes this particular redemption story work is the complexity of Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens had an instinctive knowledge of the workings of human psychology. As his story unfolds, we can see clearly why Scrooge is as he is (no caricature, he, whatever some weak cinematic depictions of the character might lead us to think) and also how he might be made better. Dickens’ narrator assures us that Scrooge does not backslide into his former miserly ways, and thanks to the skillful step-by-step building of the character’s redemption, we believe it.
To those looking for the best adaptation, I have to say: First, read the book. Start there, and judge the adaptations by its light. It’s a very fine read, and it won’t take much time. This podcast, featuring renowned author Neil Gaiman’s performance of the novella, is well worth a listen.
None of the film and television adaptations have managed to get the story exactly right, but some have come quite close, and of course I have my favorites. The 1951 version, starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge, is the one favored by purists, and not without reason. Its strongest selling point is Sim’s performance. Not only does he look like the vision of Scrooge we all have in our heads, with his hair shaped to resemble the illustrations in the novella’s original edition, and his facial expression sharp, sarcastic, perpetually disgruntled, but he delivers all his lines with a realism that makes Scrooge seem like someone we might have met, had we lived in nineteenth-century London. He brings the character full circle, from his first appearance (“Christmas, sir, is a humbug”) to his last (“I haven’t taken leave of my senses, Bob, I’ve come to them”) and never misses a beat. Other positives in this adaptation include art direction that puts the viewer right there in the shadows of Dickens’ great city, and an extended Christmas Past sequence that fleshes out Scrooge’s first steps on the road to avarice and isolation, going beyond even the novella. Dickens tells us Scrooge’s sister died in childbirth and young Ebenezer never quite got over the loss. In this film, we see this happen. We also see the beginning of Scrooge’s partnership with Jacob Marley, and his forsaking of his benevolent boss Fezziwig in favor of a much darker mentor (shades of Anakin Skywalker).
Yet this last strength could also be a weakness, because with so much time spent on Christmas Past, the other sections feel rushed through. When I watch it I wonder if the studio might have insisted the film not run more than an hour and a half, and I wish it might be at least ten minutes longer, so that the other sequences, particularly Christmas Present, might have been developed in as much detail as the splendid Christmas Past.
An adaptation of A Christmas Carol is only as good as its Scrooge, and in the 1984 TV-movie, George C. Scott makes a very good one. Like Sim, Scott eschews caricature, giving us a portrait of a convincing human being. His Scrooge has a dry sense of humor and an energy even in his early scenes; we can see so much potential in him, which makes us eager to see him redeemed. If he falls a little short of Sim’s portrayal, it’s not really his fault, for the big, bluff American Scott lacks Sim’s English-ness. He doesn’t even attempt the accent. Yet oddly enough, unlike Kevin Costner in the best-forgotten Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Scott never feels out of place among his British co-stars.
Where this version surpasses the 1951 film, in my opinion, is the supporting cast. When I think of the earlier film, I can see Scrooge clearly in my mind’s eye, yet nobody else (even though Patrick Macnee, John Steed in British TV’s 1960s spy drama The Avengers, is in it). Here, however, the supporting actors leave a strong impression. Roger Rees is charmingly jovial as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Frank Finlay makes a scary Marley’s Ghost; his trick with his headkerchief, in particular, will give viewers the creeps. David Warner, so often cast in villainous roles, plays Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit as a husband and father who’s doing his best, with a lot more dignity than screen Cratchits usually have; plus, he and Susannah York’s Mrs. Cratchit are believably in love. (I love York’s scathing denunciation of Scrooge.) And Edward Woodward, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, leaves no scenery unchewed; this jolly Father Christmas lets Scrooge have it, big time. (In a sequence most adaptations leave out, Woodward’s Christmas Present displays the skeletal children Ignorance and Want, declaring to Scrooge, “They are your children.”) But alas, the cast does have one glaring weakness: Anthony Walter’s lisping pseudo-adorable Tiny Tim, probably the hardest character for any adaptation to get right. Try to ignore him, if you can.
Now I come to my guilty pleasure, the one I know to be full of glaring weaknesses yet enjoy nonetheless: the 1971 musical, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge. Here we have a score full of cheesy songs; “Thank You Very Much” may be an engaging earworm, but overall, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol actually delivers better songs (the work of frequent Muppet collaborator Paul Williams, the man who gave us “The Rainbow Connection”). We also have the most irritatingly unbelievable Tiny Tim of all, and when he gets his own song, we can be thankful for the fast-forward button. Finney is game as Scrooge, but since he’s a young actor aged to play “present” Scrooge, he veers a little too close to caricature, especially compared to Sim and Scott.
So why do I enjoy it? It can be hard to pinpoint, with a guilty pleasure. But there are some good performances here, particularly Edith Evans as the oh-so-dignified Ghost of Christmas Past, Kenneth More as Christmas Present (not as butt-kicking awesome as Woodward, but I still like him), and my favorite Marley’s Ghost of all, Alec Guinness. There are genuinely scary moments; I remember being quite terror-stricken as a child with the sequence that shows Scrooge in hell. Finney, though a little over-the-top in his age makeup, is quite good in the Christmas Past sequence, when he gets to act his real age; here, young Scrooge is handsome and charming, adding to the tragedy of his fall. The portrayal of his lost love goes straight to the sentimental fool in me, making me tear up even though I know I shouldn’t. Also, darn it, “Thank You Very Much” is an engaging earworm.
Finally there’s the missed opportunity, the 1938 MGM adaptation, a movie that could have been, and should have been, much better than it is. The venerable Lionel Barrymore, who had played the hearty, good-natured Dan Peggotty in the studio’s adaptation of David Copperfield three years earlier, was supposed to play Scrooge, yet he was felled by the stroke that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his career, so B-list actor Reginald Owen had to step in. Owen does what he can, but the subtlety that Barrymore might have brought to the role — he might have gone down as the definitive Scrooge — is absent here. What the film does have going for it is that wonderful 1938 big-studio ambiance. Not everyone likes that kind of thing, but I do. Plus, I like it that Terry Killiam’s Tiny Tim is first seen watching a bunch of his friends skate down an icy stretch of road and praising an adult (Scrooge’s nephew) for “breaking the record,” something a real little boy might do.
For those who like their adaptations a bit less literal, I should mention a favorite of my husband’s, 1988’s Scrooged, starring Bill Murray as a too-cynical TV executive trying to stage a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, who of course finds himself living the story. I tend to prefer the closer-to-the-book versions, but I have to say that Carol Kane, as Christmas Present, kicks almost as much butt as Edward Woodward.