Culture

Hey Scrooge: Best & Worst of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Patrick Stewart in ‘A Christmas Carol’/Image © Turner Home Entertainment

Christmas movies. They're practically a film genre unto themselves with their own unique and complex web of sub-genres and categories. They range from sentimental classics like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street," to irreverent modern takes, like of "A Christmas Story" and "Home Alone." And then there are all the adaptions of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which hold a holiday film classification on their own.

Dickens's 1843 novella of miserly curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, who's shown the error of his ways through a series of ghostly encounters that take him to Christmas scenes of the past, present, and future, gave the then still relatively newly repurposed celebration of Christmas in Victorian England its major themes and imagery.

"One of the things I think we forget is that in the 1840s Christmas was not that close to the holiday we know. One of the things that has made it that holiday - with festivities, Christmas trees, exchanging presents and all of that good cheer is actually Dickens and A Christmas Carol," says dean of the Liberal Studies Program at NYU and Dickens scholar Fred Schwarzbach. "So he helped create the image of Christmas that A Christmas Carol now seems to exemplify so beautifully."

To this day, it's Dickens's best-known and most retold work. "Perhaps the text [by Dickens] that most people on the street would be able to give a sentence or two about is probably A Christmas Carol," says James Cutler, a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. "[It's] his most adapted text," he adds.

Cutler's thesis explores the cultural memory of certain Victorian novelists, which means he's studying the Victorian writers who still have a cultural presence today. And that means he knows his Dickens, and, of course, A Christmas Carol and its various adaptions for the screen.

A Christmas Carol's adaptation history goes back practically all the way to when it was first published; Dickens himself famously performed a condensed version at readings. From there, it was on to theatrical productions and then, less than sixty years later, the burgeoning art of filmmaking in 1901, when the earliest known film adaption was maade. "It's basically a filmed stage production" explains Cutler.

So with more then century of adaptations, is there one version that stands out above the rest? Can there even be "The best adaptation" with such a long list of competitors? Yes, and it came out more than sixty years ago.

Directed by legendary Irish filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst and released in 1951, "Scrooge" (or "A Christmas Carol," as it was retitled in the U.S.) has become the gold standard for Christmas Carol films. "It's the one that critics and at least quite a few people think of as the best adaptation," says Schwarzbach. "It's a great movie. It's pretty faithful. Alastair Sim is such a great Scrooge. He carries that part as if he'd been born to do it."

Sim's strong and memorable performance highlights one of the most essential elements for a successful A Christmas Carol adaptation: the performer playing Ebenezer Scrooge. It's why so many of the movies are simply titled "Scrooge" - or some iteration of it - and a lackluster production can be redeemed with a single staller performance. "You need an actor in the part of Scrooge who can make that transformation seem believable and authentic," explains Schwarzbach.

Case in point: The 1977 BBC production of "A Christmas Carol." It's still somewhat ridiculed for its production values with interior scenes filmed on a studio while exterior shots were (oddly) animated in an effort to save money. But to this day, the portrayal of Scrooge by Sir Michael Hordern is still considered one of the better takes on the role. "He is definitely one hidden gem," says Cutler. "I think Hordern does it quite nicely."

Another great Scrooge in a forgotten film can be found in the 1999 made-for-TV movie "A Christmas Carol" starring Patrick Stewart. It's an extremely faithful adaptation and most critics were quick to downplay the film as too serious, but they commended Stewart's ability to depict Scrooge's inner turmoil (he'd taken on the film after performing a series of readings of A Christmas Carol). "I think he's quite nicely tortured as a Scrooge," says Cutler.

But the role of Scrooge can cut the other way too, as is the case with the 1984 CBS made-for-TV film (titled, you guessed it, "A Christmas Carol") starring George C. Scott. Directed by Clive Donner, the '84 CBS film divides critics, mainly because of Scott's performance. Some call it the best portrayal of Scrooge, while others, including Cutler, have trouble going that far. "I don't know if George C. Scott quite works," says Cutler. "Obviously, he's Donner's selling point. He was meant to appeal to an American audience, I think."

Animated features abound in any list of A Christmas Carol adaptations, which makes sense; the story's scenes of the supernatural and haunting would appeal creatively to animated film auteurs. "I think the text poses a great many problems for straight-up film and television, because of the temporal and spatial shifts," says Cutler. "So I think animation is often the way they do it most successfully."

One animated version in need of attention more than any other is the 1971 Oscar-winning animated short "A Christmas Carol." Helmed by future "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" animation director Richard Williams, the twenty-five-minute-long film that was made for ABC is somewhat forgotten now, to the chagrin of Cutler, who commends its effective shortening of the plot and technical skill. "It is particularly frightening at times with the ghosts and the dark and pessimistic opening and closing to the text," he says. "The animation itself is quite ahead of its time."

The most famous animated Christmas Carol adaptation is Disney's 1983 short "Mickey's Christmas Carol." The film, which introduced the then minor Disney comic book character Scrooge McDuck to mainstream audiences in the role of Scrooge (his namesake and inspiration), featured the iconic Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit in his first theatrical release in thirty years.

"Mickey's Christmas Carol" also fits into the tradition of adaptations that use preexisting characters to act out Scrooge's visitations and transformation. Mister Magoo did it in 1962. The Flintstones did it in 1994. And most famously the Muppets did it in 1992 with their usual blend of comedy and music. Oh, and Michael Cain played Scrooge. The film, the first with Muppets following the death of Jim Henson, remains a fan favorite and is often listed in the top five Christmas Carol adaptations.

The use of franchise characters is a trend unique to A Christmas Carol. "You're kind of coming to this strange retelling of the tale because at all times it's being told using the reference points of that already established franchise," says Cutler. "I think it's mostly a good thing since more people are accessing Dickens's text in some way."

Interestingly enough, one franchise entry that works in the opposite way, utilizing reference points from Dickens, is the one for "Blackadder," the 1988 British dark comedy. "The Blackadder Christmas Carol," which has become a regular holiday presence on UK TV, tells the story of Scrooge Blackadder - the nicest man in Victorian England, until his ghostly encounters teach him that "bad guys have all the fun" and change him into a greedy and unkind Scrooge. "That one is just so clever because it's the story backward and the better you know the original the more fun it is to watch," says Schwarzbach.

One noticeable botch in the adaptation history of A Christmas Carol is MGM's 1938 "A Christmas Carol," from Hollywood's golden age. Starring Reginald Owen as a rather bland scrooge, the film aimed for a family-friendly appeal and dropped the underlying social commentary. "It puts a whole lot of gloss on the whole Carol," says Cutler. In Dickens' original, Scrooge anonymously sends a Christmas turkey to the Cratchits and has Christmas dinner with his nephew. "It's [Scrooge] almost showing this understated charitable nature of generosity to the Cratchits and then him engaging with his family that he's sort of neglecting or repressed," explains Cutler. This MGM version's ending has Scrooge skipping the family dinner and dining with the Cratchits instead. "I think ... this happy scene with Scrooge at the Cratchits at the end misses the point slightly on the idea of community and family and belonging," says Cutler.

Another misstep is the 1970 musical "Scrooge" with Albert Finney, which came out during a minor trend of Dickens musicals following the success of the 1960s stage (and eventual film) musical "Oliver!" based on Oliver Twist. Most critics and scholars agree that it's a strange entry in the Carol adaption cannon. Finney doesn't quite fit in the role. "They make him up quite heavily and he seems too young," says Cutler. The film also adds scenes, including a moment where Scrooge works as a clerk in hell. But it's the musical atmosphere that seems to hurt the film most. "You lose a lot of the social commentary, if not all of it, in that version," says Cutler. "It's all about the singing and dancing. " A separate "Christmas Carol" musical was created and became something of an annual tradition at New York's Paramount Theatre from 1994 to 2003, culminating in a film version starring Kelsey Grammer that aired on NBC in 2004. It's not much better than 1970s musical.

Although it's the most recent effort by Hollywood, the 2009 CGI "A Christmas Carol" directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey is also something of a misfire. "Its intentions are good," admits Cutler. "It's trying to be so real that it becomes unreal ... It goes beyond the real and becomes an almost gothic horror." The then still-rough performance capture technology that Zemeckis used in 2004's "Polar Express" and 2007's "Beowulf" also strands the film in the uncanny valley. Additionally, according to Schwarzbach, Carrey's multiple roles hurt more than they help. "It was a mistake to have him play the ghosts," he explains. "You're watching it and saying, 'Oh, look how versatile Jim Carrey is' instead of getting into the story."

But without a doubt, the most egregious adaptation is the 2013 straight-to-DVD release "The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol." It takes digging to find this one, but its obscurity does nothing to limit its betrayal to Dickens's holiday masterpiece.

"Some adaptations present Scrooge as evil and nasty," explains Cutler. "[But in the original novella] it's more that he's introverted and not benevolent and not willing to engage the community and in this Smurf's one in 2011 ... they make it about him being anti-Christmas and it's about presents." The animated short, similar to the Disney and Muppet versions, uses already established franchise characters for the roles of Dickens's story, which in this case uses Grouchy Smurf (voiced by George Lopez) as the Scrooge character, who proclaims he "hates Christmas" because he didn't receive the gift he wanted and is taught to love the holiday by three ghosts. "It loses the point of being charitable and helping those less fortunate; it's more about materialism," says Cutler.

So with more than a hundred years of many worthy and not-so-worthy adaptations, why do we keep adapting Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Sure, its themes and imagery helped lay the foundation for the modern holiday season, but there has to be more to it, right?

For Schwarzbach, it's the deeper meaning of positive change that we all long for that audiences connect with. "The story itself of that transformation of someone who's selfish and self-absorbed into someone who cares about others is so compelling," he says. "I think we all wished the world worked that way and at least once year we're prepared to believe that it does work that way."

And that's not something you can brush off with a "Bah Humbug."