Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol has always been one of my all time favorites. It is such a good story with a truly good lesson. It amazes me that the book was written in 1843, and yet it is a well known as anything written in the last hundred years. Of course once movies began, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would attempt to adapt this timeless classic. I wanted to look back at the many versions of this wonderful work, and discuss which oneâ€™s worked. And which ones didnâ€™t.
Of course, I would be here all day if I talked about every single adaptation. Instead I will focus on the more famous versions.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
There were many versions in the early days of cinema, and in 1938 was the first American version starring Reginald Own. A nice film but so many things are wrong with this move, and the fact that the film was made in 1938 doesnâ€™t exactly help it. The creators added things to the movie Charles Dickens never meant for and other things were dropped from the film including Scroogeâ€™s fiancÃ©e, the starving children â€œwantâ€ and â€œignoranceâ€, and the scene in the future of the thieves going through Scroogeâ€™s belongings. Itâ€™s a fine film but as a faithful adaptation of the book it leaves a lot to be desired.
This is what some consider the definitive version. It starred Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I gotta be honest with you; this was never my favorite version. Mr.Sim was a fine Scrooge but like with the previous version they just changed too much. Scrooge has a housemaid in the book which we hardly see, and she gets an expanded role in this film. It has way to much of the past, giving Scrooge a much larger back story than had ever been intended. We see his sister and mother die, both of which are unnecessary. Finally, I always hated Tiny Tim in this version, he was way too old.
Mister Magooâ€™s A Christmas Carol (1962)
Hard as it may be to believe, I never saw this one. However, it is so legendary that I feel like I have. Because itâ€™s a one hour cartoon it takes many liberties with the book (most notably by putting the ghosts out of order, and ignoring Fred all together which isnâ€™t unusual since that character always seems to be reduced or eliminated in the more kid oriented versions). However that doesnâ€™t take away from what this movie does right, being very loyal to the source material. It is really a well made film and itâ€™s no wonder this as famous as it is.
There wasnâ€™t another American theatrical version until this, the first musical version starring Albert Finney. Now most people either hate this version or love it. I hated it. Not because A Christmas Carol couldnâ€™t be a musical (weâ€™ll see it can in a bit), but this one just annoyed me. The songs were annoying, Albert Finney was annoying, and the liberties they took with the book are, once again, too large to ignore. There is a whole sequence after the cemetery where Scrooge arrives in hell and runs into Jacob Marley again. He winds being wrapped in an enormous chain before waking in his bed. There was just no need for that scene at all, and is very often removed from TV airings. Then at the end Scrooge forgives everyoneâ€™s debts as he runs around all happy. Why would he do that exactly? Just because he isnâ€™t a jerk doesnâ€™t mean he should go out of business. This version just never sat well with me.
Mickeyâ€™s Christmas Carol (1983)
This was great; there are no other words for it. Scrooge McDuck becomes Ebenezer Scrooge while Mickey is Bob Cratchit. Goofy was a great Marley, and Jiminy Cricket as the first ghost was inspired. This was really cute, and I always loved the ghost of future scene where Black Pete reveals himself. Strange as it sounds, I always felt that it was one of the best graveyard scenes. My only problem with this film is why is it so short? Itâ€™s not as if Disney didnâ€™t know how to create feature length movies. Why wasnâ€™t it a bit longer? They could have expanded the story rather than speeding through it. The great thing is that even though it is short, that in no way reduced the emotional impact of it. That’s how well made this is. All the characters are perfect, and if I had dollar for every time Iâ€™ve sat through this, well, you know.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
Starring George C. Scott. Now this is THE version. Not only because the script basically takes pages out of the book, but because George C.Scott was a fantastic Scrooge. He really conveyed the emotions called for in the story. I remember the first time I ever saw it almost 30 years ago and it is still the closest adaptation I have ever seen. True, it wasnâ€™t a perfect adaptation they did change one or two things, but this is as close as youâ€™re going to get. David Warner surprises me by playing a very humble Bob Cratchit, and the ghosts are so well done especially Christmas Present. The actor Edward Woodward did a fantastic job being all charming at first, and then terrifying by the end of the segment. They treated Fred like an actual character rather minimizing or even ignoring him. The scene in the cemetery was perfect, and even the ending was well done. Rather than prancing down the street like he was nuts, George C. Scott conveyed how happy Scrooge was very calmly but effectively, and when he confronts Cratchit he switches from bad to good flawlessly. Just loved this movie.
This contemporary remake starred Bill Murray has the head of an NBC-like TV network. He is planning a huge million dollar special on Charles Dickens Scrooge (I never understood why they called it that in this movie) to air on Christmas Eve. However, the ghosts of past, present, and future appear to make him see how he is not living his life. This movie is dark, but I always liked it. They were clever to show scenes from the classic story as framing for this contemporary version. Carol Kane still makes me laugh, and Bill Murray does a great job of going from grump to a happy lover of life. He really pulls it off. The only thing I never understood is why they make a big deal out of Christmas EVE in this film. Isnâ€™t Christmas Day the holiday?
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This is one of the last good Muppet features and is really fun to watch. Kermit as Cratchit and Gonzo as the narrator was brilliant. I donâ€™t know if they figured the story needed a narrator for the kids or they just didnâ€™t know what else to do with Gonzo, but it works so well. Michael Caine is Scrooge in this version, and does a decent enough job. My one complaint might be that he does not have the emotional range needed for the character. His performance is kind of flat, especially the graveyard scene where he is begging the spirit for mercy. However, this is still a great film and unlike the Albert Finney version the songs work and are totally enjoyable. My favorite song is probably the last one after Scrooge is saved, very upbeat little number. God Bless is All is very pretty song too. The thing that really amazes me in this film is the way it really stays close to the book. It is a real faithful version; the ghosts were done seriously rather than having the other Muppets play them for laughs. The Christmas future scenes are dark, even scary, and this movie even shows The Ghost of Christmas Present age, which no other version shows! What are the odds that the Muppet version would pick up on this often ignored detail? This is one of my favorite versions.
This was the last live action film version, after this we had several animated versions (one with Tim Curry, another in 2001 which featured Simon Callow and Kate Winslet which was, odd) leading up to and including……
Disneyâ€™s A Christmas Carol (2009)
Well, I already made my feelings about this clear. Just a disappointment. The music was amazing and the animation pretty, but what they did to the story was unforgivable, especially that chase scene in the Future segment. Good lord, even the poster sucks. Is it A Christmas Carol or The Rocketeer?
Those are the most famous versions. Of course there are many others. Some TV versions worth mentioning: Flintstones and Jetsons did one. We had two Looney Tunes versions; the earliest was, to be honest, awful with Yosemite Sam as Scrooge. the better, and more recent, had Daffy Duck as a mean toy mogul. Anyone see the All Dogs Go to Heaven one? More recent versions include Barbie, and Dr. Who which came out last year (that I gotta see!).
Patrick Stewart had a version which I hated (talk about taking liberties with the source material!). I couldnâ€™t even sit through it. Kelsey Grammar starred in a musical version which I kind of liked. The songs were pretty good, and Grammar played a decent Scrooge. The interesting thing in this version was Scrooge meets all three ghosts in human form at the beginning.
Of course there have been other remakes which rather than just re-tell the story the movie tried to change certain aspects. Like having a female Scrooge (Susan Lucci) or a black female (Cicely Tyson) or a Western setting (Jack Palance) or setting the story in depression era America (featuring Henry Winkler no less). Some versions try to expand on the story, showing Scrooge years later for example. Finally, a Tom Arnold movie called “Chasing Christmas” which turns the Christmas Carol story into a basic time travel story in a horrible movie which defies description. However, no matter what they do or try to change, itâ€™s still the story we all know and love.
Since my specialty is sitcoms it would be remiss of me to not mention some of the sitcom and drama episodes that have aired over the years which featured versions of this story. Bewitched (kind of), The Odd Couple, WKRP, Alice, Sanford and Son, Family Ties, A Different World, Six Million Dollar Man, Fame, Quantum Leap, Boy Meets World, The Golden Palace, and Young and the Restless have all done â€œChristmas Carolâ€ episodes. (Young and the Restless? Really?) Roseanne did one which was Halloween themed, and The Simpsons had a clever Christmas episode which referenced this classic and poked a little fun at the over saturation it received on TV over the years.
Cartoons also have done homages. Rankin/Bass did a Christmas Carol special called “The Stingiest Man in Town” with Tom Bosley. The fact it is never on TV gives you an idea of how good it is. That awful Back to the Future cartoon did one, and I just saw an interesting episode of The Real Ghostbusters where the ghostbusters save Scrooge by capturing the three spirits, in the process destroying Christmas! They are forced to go back and set things right. Very interesting take, and it’s on YouTube so if you haven’t seen it I strongly suggest you check it out.
I also had to mention Rich Littleâ€™s â€œA Christmas Carolâ€ was a special where every character was Rich Little doing yet another impression. Scrooge was W.C Fields, Paul Lynde was Cratchit, and so on and so on. This was just a silly special, the story was barely recognizable in a lot of ways, but some of the songs are good and it is kind of funny. Besides you have to admire the work Rich Little put into it. It couldn’t be easy to pull off, especially in 1978.
Of course, even though I talked about a lot of versions I still didnâ€™t mention all of them. This book has been brought to life countless times on radio and stage also. I have seen a few good productions. It has been done in comic books, like the issue below of the Outsiders for one, which I would kill to find another copy of!!!!!),
and it has even been an opera. Finally, I wanted to mention a direct to DVD atrocity called A Sesame Street Christmas Carol featuring Oscar the Grouch. Never heard of it? Keep it that way, this was so bad. It was basically just a clip show showing clips from previous Sesame Street Christmas specials and was a real insult to A Christmas Carol.
There is just something about this story which gets to people, and they enjoy it year after year. I wonder if Charles Dickens had any idea when he created his masterpiece that the story would be as cherished and well known as it was when it was first published, almost three hundred years later.