The Top 5 Film Versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
On this list we will numerate what I feel are the best film adaptations of the Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.” This is the most common means by which the average person, over the past 5 decades or so, experiences the Dickens story. Rating the quality of the various “A Christmas Carol” movies is never without controversy, as most people who care about such things already have their own sentimental favorites. My own favorites have changed and evolved over the years, never more so than subsequent to finally reading the original book. This list will concern itself solely with ‘authentic’ adaptations – films that aspire to telling the Dickens story as written. Movies that involve huge overhauling and updating of the original book will be discussed in a separate list. As always, please feel free to offer your own list in the comments section.
5. A Muppet Christmas Carol(1992). The only musical version of the story that does not make me cringe, the ‘Muppet Carol’ is unfairly disregarded by most people. Underneath the songs and humor is a production nicely faithful to the book. A lot of the weak points in casting that cause trouble for the other live-action films (the role of Tiny Tim is a chronic problem, affecting even the best of the film versions) are avoided by the use of Muppets for many of the characters. Michael Caine brings an interesting, if understated, reading to the main character of Scrooge; there is a foundation of deep sadness in his portrayal that is unique in the pantheon of film Scrooges, and his scene in the graveyard will rip your heart out. His Christmas Morning scene is the weakest part of his portrayal, but in that deficit he is in good company as only one actor in the entire list of film Scrooges has ever fully realized the potential in expressing Scrooge’s joy in receiving a second chance to make his life right. The original songs, written by Paul Williams, are used to punctuate rather than tell the story, and are the finest of all the attempts at a musical Christmas Carol. Why the song “One More Sleep Till Christmas” has not yet become a Holiday standard is perplexing.
4. A Christmas Carol 1938(the Reginald Owen Version). There was a time when this version was at the top of my list, and I’m sure it still rests unchallenged at the top for many other people. This was the third telling of the tale I ever saw (fourth if we include the December, 1969 production by Mr. Chapman’s 6th grade class at El Oro Way Elementary School, featuring my neighbor Kevin Gitane in the role of Bob Cratchit, and an impressive blacklight and fluorescent paint graveyard scene), and the first non-animated version I experienced. Owen plays Scrooge with a fierce growl in his voice, and the make-up employed to transform him to an appropriate age is impressive, especially for its day. Unfortunately, the actor chooses to convey Scrooge’s advanced years with a stiff-neck-and-back forward lean that fails to accomplish the task, eventually giving one the impression of a man severely constipated by too much Christmas pudding. The young actor cast as Tiny Tim is fine in the early scene watching the other boys slide on the ice, but by the Christmas dinner scene has become annoying. The casting of Tiny Tim is the most common weak link that plagues all the productions of A Christmas Carol, and it is a shame because while the role is small it is important. Gene Lockhart is a sympathetic if over-fed Bob Cratchit, and Leo G. Carroll plays the ghost of Marley as a weary, but less than frightening apparition. The producers solve the difficulty of portraying the Ghost of Christmas Past as described in the Dickens story by ignoring the author’s creation and having the Ghost played by a woman. This version leaves out Fezziwig’s Ball and Scrooge’s courtship of Belle, and the eventual destruction of that relationship due to his growing alliance to greed. The Christmas Morning Scene fails to truly demonstrate the transformation of Scrooge. Owen acts happy, but does nothing to show us the depth and the mix of emotions, which must necessarily result from such a profound look at the past, present and future and the 180-degree alteration in Scrooge’s baseline behavior. He is changed, but not humbled by his night among the spirits, and seems to feel no concern whatsoever regarding how his sudden change of heart will be responded to by those he formerly kicked and pushed away. Franz Waxman’s score is one of the highlights of this film version, perfectly embellishing the many fine performances. This is a fine film adaptation, so please understand that the deficits I mention for this and the other films are merely meant to explain the things about the different productions that keep me from rating them higher.
3. A Christmas Carol aka Scrooge 1935(the Seymour Hicks Version). Obviously made on a small budget, the rarely seen 1935 version makes up for its production limitations with an impressive performance by its lead actor and co-writer, Sir Seymour Hicks. Sir Seymour was already familiar with the role, having scripted and starred in the 1913 silent version. He plays Scrooge as a tough, cantankerous, bullying old man. The lighting design, inspired by German Impressionistic Cinema, is wonderful and spooky (“A Christmas Carol” is a ghost story, after all). The dialogue is lifted almost word for word from the novella, and most of the key points of the story are hit upon. We get to see the disparate Christmas celebrations described in the novella, from the busy shopping stalls to the fancy dinner at the Lord Mayor of London’s residence. Marley’s Ghost is invisible to us, represented by voice over and camera movements, and Hicks’ great performance will have you believing he sees the spectral Marley as he interacts with him. The Cratchits are presented as poor working class rather than the unexplainably posh Cratchits of most of the other productions, and the actor playing Tiny Tim is one of the few to pull off the role without becoming a sickly sweet annoyance. He only gets a few scenes though. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the weakest link. The actor portraying this spirit is just plain awful, and seems to have been the inspiration for the Jon Lovitz Master Thespian character on Saturday Night Live. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a glowing shroud, while the Ghost of Christmas Future is the usual spooky dark shrouded figure that we experience mostly from its shadow. The story gets truncated, and some key elements unfortunately get tossed out in this telling of the tale. For example, we are shown only one scene from Scrooge’s past – his losing the love of his life, Belle. But we get no clues as to when and how Scrooge developed into the poster child for selfishness and avarice. The Christmas Morning scene is well played by Sir Seymour, giving us a look at a tearfully happy Scrooge, and offering the lead actor and the supporting cast an opportunity to display their comedic skills. The final scene of Scrooge revealing his new self to Bob Cratchit at the office is shortened but gives Sir Seymour another chance for comic relief as he struggles to maintain his former gruff exterior while he sets up Bob Cratchit for his big change of heart. The 1935 Scrooge/A Christmas Carol is a very good film adaptation that deserves to be seen and enjoyed by a much wider audience.
2. A Christmas Carol 1999(the Patrick Stewart Version). By the time of this production, Patrick Stewart had already spent many Christmas seasons performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man play, acting out all the characters in what must have been an exhausting holiday tradition. Because of this he achieved an intimacy with the material and with the character of Scrooge that none of the other actors who have portrayed Scrooge on film could match. One of the most recent of the many made-for-TV film versions of the Dickens book (others run the gamut from the equally fine 1984 version with George C. Scott, to the interesting 1954 version with Fredric March, to the somewhat bizarre 1949 version with Vincent Price as host/narrator), in the promotional materials for the 1999 version Patrick Stewart sets for the cast and crew the daunting task of “…creating the definitive version of A Christmas Carol for the New Millenium.” That is really raising the bar. Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge is not the somewhat crotchety old man found in other interpretations. His is a Scrooge of strong physical power and presence, with a quick mind and a definite cruel streak, who does not walk so much as strut. Not many in his small world are willing to or capable of standing toe-to-toe with this Scrooge and look him in the eye. But we get the impression that all this bluster is not much more than a defense mechanism, and that there is more going on underneath the pose than Scrooge has the courage to admit. Stewart also shows us that Scrooge possesses a shrewd, analytic mind, and that he did not achieve his business success through bullying but through smarts. We see this when he abates his fear over the presence of the spectral Jacob Marley by trying to debate the causes of Marley’s penance of eternal torment, and later in the graveyard scene: when Scrooge demands of the Ghost of Christmas Past, “Why show me these things if I am beyond all hope?” he points his finger at the Ghost and exclaims “Ah-ha!” as in, “There! I’ve defeated you with logic!” The Stewart version also keeps Dickens’ subtle wordplay and humor intact, and even adds to it. For example: during the scene of Scrooge’s meeting with the specter of Jacob Marley, when he is listing the disorders of the stomach that could be the source of the ghost’s appearance, Scrooge says, “…and British beef, that can be very hard on the stomach,” no doubt a sly reference to the current worries over Mad Cow Disease plaguing the British sheep and cattle stocks. One of the biggest treats in this version is the Cratchit Family. These scenes make the viewer feel like he or she is eavesdropping on an actual family, so natural are the performances by the actors. The Cratchits are presented as lower working class/working poor and their accents and language seem much more realistic than the ‘drawing room’ upper-crust line readings in many of the other film versions. And we finally get a decent Tiny Tim portrayal – the young actor who plays Tim, and this is also true of the other young actors that round out the Cratchit family, seems natural and believable and a sympathetic character without falling into the trap of being saccharine. The weakest link in this version of A Christmas Carol – and it seems there must always be at least one weak link – is the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost of Christmas Present is supposed to be the jolly embodiment of the Christmas Spirit, but alas in this version he is a rather dour old man who appears to be thinking more about his worsening prostatitis than the Spirit of Christmas. The Christmas Morning scene is not entirely effective, but Stewart gives a unique interpretation of the just redeemed Scrooge as a man completely alien to feelings of Joy and out of practice with expressing those feelings through laughter. This production benefits from the judicious use of a tool not available to the earlier productions: digital special effects. The art direction, photography and score are all top-notch, and the scene at Old Fezziwig’s Ball is one of the best and most authentic looking yet attempted.
1. Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol 1951 (the Alastair Sim Version). The reigning champ of A Christmas Carol film adaptations remains the 1951 Alastair Sim version, despite stiff (the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions) and not-so-stiff competition in recent years (the horrid Jim Carrey computer animated version. First The Grinch and now A Christmas Carol – how many more of our Christmas traditions are we going to allow Jim Carrey to ruin?). And the bulk of that weighty responsibility rests squarely on the not-so-broad but deceptively strong shoulders of the lead player, Alastair Sim. Sim’s portrayal of the World’s Greatest Miser is multi-layered and unhurried. He lets his eyes and his body-language say more than is printed in the script; his voice is a musical instrument capable of the perfect nuance of tone and timber in order to convey Scrooge’s inner secrets, shame and self-pity, as well as his outer contempt and sneering bravado. We are treated to the most complex and fully realized performance of the character ever captured on film. Alastair Sim became Scrooge instead of just playing Scrooge. But all of his hard work would have been for naught without a terrific supporting cast, wonderful art direction, perfect lighting and photography, sensitive directing, and a score that hits all the right ‘notes.’ Marley’s Ghost, as Michael Hordern portrays him, is at the same time terrifying and piteous. And this version boasts one of the few good Tiny Tims. Many adaptations of the book add original scenes and this version has several: During the trip through Christmas Past a new businessman character named Mr. Jorkins is seen first planting the seeds of the money-grubbing miser that Ebenezer Scrooge will become, and this same sequence shows the young Scrooge and Marley meeting for the first time. We are shown Scrooge’s sister dying postpartum. And we see Marley on his deathbed, trying to warn Scrooge with his last breaths. Certain things are inexplicably changed or left out as well: For some reason the script leaves out Nephew Fred’s wonderful Christmas Speech, given when he visits Uncle Ebenezer on Christmas Eve. And Scrooge’s former fiancé is now named ‘Alice’ rather than ‘Belle,’ and she goes on to become a spinster instead of a happily married mother as in the original story. But, these imperfections aside, there is not much that can tarnish this, the Gold Standard of A Christmas Carol films. The Christmas Morning scene is a complete seminar in acting. Sim takes us on a roller coaster ride as he lets loose all of the powerful and sometimes contradictory emotions Scrooge is feeling: relief, ecstasy, giddiness, embarrassment, joy, humility. All fans of A Christmas Carol will forever feel grateful that a certain phonetics and elocution teacher from Scotland decided to enter the acting profession at the relatively advanced age of 30, and gave us the portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by which all others are measured.