(Welcome to Marathon Man: the monthly column where I examine a series of films and compare, contrast and analyze them until either your brain or mine explodes.)
It's easily one of the most beloved and well known stories in western literature, a tale that's so firmly embedded itself in our cultural language that just about every child grows up knowing it. Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' has been in print for over 150 years and yet it feels timeless, its central message resonant with all people at all times and in all places: we are capable of goodness, we are capable of changing and we are all capable of being better human beings. This may be a story restricted to holiday telling due to its title, but this is a message that should be preached year round.
However, 'tis the season and for many families, no holiday gathering is complete without watching one of the many film versions of 'A Christmas Carol.' Dickens' original story is a brief 100 pages, unusually short and stripped down for the traditionally long-winded author, which means that there is an insane amount of room for unique takes on the same material from countless different creative voices, bringing their own perspective and vision to the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. And with such a small book to adapt, most versions rarely run more than 90 minutes.
Thank god for small favors. In the spirit of the season, I decided it was time to take a tour of the cinematic adaptations of this yuletide classic. It was time to watch eight versions of 'A Christmas Carol.'
First things first -- I had to re-read the original book, which I hadn't done in quite some time. For the record, the book practically reads itself since you know the whole story already, so much so that I was able to finish many sentences in my head before actually reading them. With that done, I decided I would break down my view on each film into four sections: The Scrooge (who plays him, is he any good and how the film views and treats him), The Ghosts (how effective are the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come), whether or not it's Faithful to the Dickens (how close it stays to the source material) and then, finally, some of my additional lingering Thoughts on the film itself.
'A Christmas Carol' (1938), directed by Edwin L. Marin
The Scrooge: There seem to be two types of cinematic Scrooges -- those who find themselves won over by the spirit of Christmas by the halfway point via the visions presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present and those who aren't ready to repent until the final act, when they're staring at their own future gravestone. I'll get into why this is important in a bit, but suffice it to say that Reginald Owen's Scrooge falls squarely in the former camp and out of all the films in this marathon, falls in love with Christmas the fastest.
Prior to his change of heart, Owen plays Scrooge like a miserable grump who cherishes isolation more than anything else. He isn't as outwardly cruel as some of the later Scrooges and comes off as more of a sad, pathetic human being than a monster (a nuanced approach, considering that many films will treat him as a cackling villain). His transformation is also one of the strangest, with him practically regressing into a joyful child, so much so that you don't blame the Cratchits for thinking he's literally gone insane when he shows up on their doorstep wishing them a merry Christmas.
The Ghosts: In the same way that there tend to be two kinds of cinematic Scrooges, there seem to be two ways to interpret the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. They are either helpful, thoughtful even, and offer a shoulder to cry on and a few kind words of wisdom ... or they're vicious S.O.B.'s who seem to delight in tormenting Scrooge and forcing him to face emotional oblivion. The ghosts here are definitely in the "kind and thoughtful" camp. No screaming, no theatrics and no threats, just amiable tour guides through time and space. Although low rent in their presentation by modern standards, there is something charming abut the simplicity of these spirits, something that will be lost as technology allows for more elaborate, busier characters.
Faithful to the Dickens? You'd imagine that an early adaptation of a famous story would stick fairly close to the source material, but you'd be mistaken. This 1938 version veers off from Dickens' novel more than just about any other film in this marathon, adding a romantic subplot between Scrooge's nephew Fred and his fiancee (instead of wife) and having Scrooge fire Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve. Thanks to countless new scenes, Fred and the Cratchit family have more screentime in this film than any other (heck, Bob and Fred are actually re-imagined as friends), but considering how un-cinematic the structure of Dickens' novel actually is (and we'll get to that soon enough), it's a welcome surprise that actually works in the film's favor and makes it feel fresh compared to later versions, which often tend to blend together by rehashing the same elements over and over again.
Thoughts: There is only one word to describe this version of 'A Christmas Carol': charming. Completely and totally charming. As familiar as I am with this story, I watched the whole thing with a great big smile on my face and found myself completely caught up in the story, as if I'd never seen it before. Well, I sort of haven't, since this film doesn't stick closely to the original story at all. That should be frustrating -- how could they screw such a simply, elegant story up? -- but thanks to wonderful performances from a fine batch of character actors and the fastest pace of any film in this marathon (it's only 69 minutes!), the film acts as perfect holiday comfort food.
It helps that the changes the film does make to the story only serve to emphasize elements that are pretty wonderful to begin with. The character of Fred is so frequently sidelined in these films that it's nice to see him get a lot more to do. Although his romantic subplot feels like a studio demand, it's a charming and sweet addition that actually manages to add more to the story. The same can be said for the increased role of the Cratchit family, who here find the right balance between working class London family and borderline-angelic-perfect-Victorian-Brady-Bunch. Ultimately, the film doesn't quite deliver Dickens' message of social change with the necessary power, but it also doesn't fall into the trap of being heavy-handed and overbearing, so eh, you win some, you lose some..
'A Christmas Carol' (1951), directed by Brian Desmond Hurst
The Scrooge: For an actor, the role of Scrooge may be the greatest they ever perform. Think about it. Here's a character who undergoes one of the biggest and most dramatic arcs in all of fiction, starting as a miserable, self-loathing, bitter wretch and becoming a selfless, joyful, warm and loving man. Alastair Sim's Scrooge is the greatest Scrooge of them all because he makes this transition subtle and believable, easing gently from one mindset to another in a way that feels natural. His Scrooge is probably the saddest of the lot and easily the most lonely and isolated ... this is not a villain, but a man who has been so completely defeated by life, so consistently abandoned by those that he loves, that life has become a trudge through lies and pain and here he is, near the end of his existence, a defeated man. It's easy to play Scrooge as the evil miser, but it's another thing to play him as a wounded soul who so desperately craves the redemption that is being offered to him but doesn't think he deserves it. There's a reason this role has come to be defined by Sim: no one has ever done it better.
The Ghosts: Like the ghosts in the 1938 version, the spirits here aren't technically remarkable but more than get the job done. The Ghost of Christmas Past, here portrayed as a wise old man, gets the most screentime but I was rather fond of this film's Ghost of Christmas Present, who straddles a fine line between imposing and understanding (most other versions will either pick one or the other).
Faithful to the Dickens? Everyone knows the plot of 'A Christmas Carol,' right? If you don't, why are you even reading this? Old Scrooge is a grouchy miser who gets visited by the ghost of his deceased partner who warns him that three ghosts will visit him to show him the error of his ways and in the end, Scrooge becomes a decent human being and Tiny Tim declares "God bless us, everyone." It's a simple story, but perhaps a little too simple for cinema. Dickens' book is brief and light on detail and character but heavy on message, meaning that a literal adaptation of the exact events of the book in the order they occur would feel more like a lecture on the importance of social welfare rather than a real story.
The previous adaptation countered this by adding a handful of subplots and this version counters that by delving even deeper into Scrooge's past, giving us a look at the formation of his company, his friendship with Jacob Marley and the financial scandal that gave him his power. Other events are moved around and changed while others are invented (this is the only version to show us what happened to Scrooge's fiancee after they broke their engagement) and it's all for the better, fleshing out a simple story and giving it character and depth that would otherwise be lacking.
Thoughts: Yeah, this is the best film version of 'A Christmas Carol.' Hands down, really. Other films may be closer to the book, others are more well shot and most have better special effects, but this one has the best Scrooge and in the end, that's really what matters. 'A Christmas Carol' is about the transformation of one man and no other version better depicts this transformation with more skill and emotion no other film in this marathon has a stronger lead than Alastair Sim. Similarly to how 'It's A Wonderful Life' is a moving drama that's been unfairly labeled as a "Christmas movie," this 'Christmas Carol' functions as a moving drama that just happens to take place at Christmas and can watched and enjoyed any time of year. Both of these films use the holiday season as the catalyst for a story of human worth and what's truly important in life -- do you think George Bailey decided to jump off that bridge on the next day? Do you think Scrooge had a relapse and went back to his miserly ways? Nope. This is not a movie about Christmas behavior, it's a movie about what we should aspire to at all times.
'Scrooge' (1970), directed by Ronald Neame
The Scrooge: Now we move on from the remarkable, human subtlety of Alastair Sim to the scenery chewing antics of Albert Finney, whose disgusting, troll-like Scrooge is easily the loudest, strangest and most cartoonish (even more so than the animated Scrooge!) in the marathon. Finney was only 34 when he played the part, so he makes up for his youth through heavy make-up and a voice that sounds like a truck ran over it, leering and limping and grunting throughout the entire film. His brutish nastiness -- this is a musical and he has an entire number called "I Hate People" where he strolls around London ruining Christmas for his in-debt clients -- has every right to be overbearing (and maybe it is), but it's such a strange take on the character that you can't help but be swept up by the sheer insanity of it all. And that's before he wakes up a changed man and runs through the streets giving random strangers gifts, spending all of his money and leading the citizens of London in a song called "I Like Life," a sequence that's actually bigger and more extreme than anything that came before it (only Reginald Owen's Scrooge comes close to this level of insanity with his post-redemption Scrooge, but his childish glee is no match for Finney's wide-eyed, borderline psychotic behavior). 'Scrooge' is the strangest adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol' I've seen, so it's appropriate that its Scrooge is easily the wildest of the bunch.
The Ghosts: The film's take on the Ghost of Christmas Past is different than every other version, but only in that it's pretty dull: a prim, older Victorian woman in proper dress. Yawn. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is also unremarkable until he reveals his face to be a very unfortunate Halloween mask and then he becomes awesome. However, the Ghost of Christmas Present is spectacular. A lumbering giant who dishes out tough love and literally makes Scrooge drink the milk of human kindness? Awesome.
Faithful to the Dickens? Yes, no, kind of. Do you see the name of this movie? They didn't even keep the original title! The middle stretch of the film is similar enough to the text (you know, with the three ghosts and such), but the opening and closing acts diverge in strange ways. First, there's an extended sequence following Bob Cratchit as he shops for Christmas supplies with Tiny Tim (whose singing voice is so terrible that you can't give a little fist pump when you catch a glimpse of his pint-sized grave later on). Then, there's the above-mentioned "I Hate People" sequence, where Scrooge pesters every shopkeeper and vendor in the neighborhood and does a pretty good job souring everyone's Christmas spirit. Oh, but the strangest addition is the scene where Scrooge goes to Hell (which looks like a big plastic cave built on a sound stage) and gets appointed to be Lucifer's personal clerk. For real. It would be terrible sequence if it wasn't so amazing.
Thoughts: A film where every performance is played to the hilt. A musical where most of the songs stink. An adaptation of a beloved story that deviates in bizarre, head-scratching ways. 'Scrooge' has every right to be awful, but the fact that it's not is a testament to its ballsy, surreal weirdness. These days (as we'll soon see), many adaptations of 'A Christmas Carol' play things safe, keep it gentle and do their best to only tell the story as we've already seen it many times before. You've got to admire any movie that has the nerve to get as weird as this one does, especially when it's the umpteenth take on one of the most read stories of the past century or two. The film's a bizarre mixed bag, with a lousy, half-whispered song for every showstopper and a dull stretch for every scene where something really bizarre happens (It bears repeating: Scrooge goes to Hell!). Heck, I can easily imagine many viewers getting annoyed by Finney's performance, which is so over-the-top that I'm shocked he didn't smash through the top of my television and break my Christmas tree in half before stealing my cat and demand that I pay him the six pounds I owe him. My god, this is a wacky movie and for lovers of strange cinema, it's an absolute must-watch. I know it's going on my yearly holiday rotation.
'A Christmas Carol' (1984), directed by Clive Donner
The Scrooge: George C. Scott's Scrooge is one mean son of a gun. Would you expect anything else from the man who played Patton? Like Albert Finney's Scrooge, he doesn't just sit in his office and be a holiday-hating jerk to people as they stroll through his door, but rather actively seeks out others for the purpose of dispensing cruelty, seeking pleasure in others' misfortune, going out of his way to dismiss the poor and give every well wisher a "Bah, humbug," which, when said by Scott, reads very much as "F*ck you!"
Unlike Finney's Scrooge, who was tempered by silly scenery chewing, Scott's Scrooge comes off as a legitimately evil man who truly feels beyond redemption and even though Scott doesn't even attempt a British accent, he can't help but be effective as a cold, calculating businessman who doesn't care a lick for the misfortune of others. Less effective is his transformation into a Christmas-loving good guy -- his realization of what he is and his desire to change his ways comes far too late in the story. Scrooges who begin to learn their lesson at the halfway point read as a nasty man realizing the need to repent for the sake of himself, but Scrooges like Scott's only seem ready to repent at the last possible second because they're afraid of going to Hell. It's a big distinction. Based on this simple choice, 'A Christmas Carol' is either a story of personal redemption or a story of a man succumbing to fear. This version is the latter.
The Ghosts: Perhaps they're reacting to Scott's overly hostile Scrooge, but the ghosts in this version come off like big bullies, particularly the Ghost of Christmas Present, who has never been presented less jolly. For spirits who come in the name of goodwill and understanding, they don't seem particularly comforting.
Faithful to the Dickens? There comes a point when you're adapting a familiar story for the nth time that everything starts to feel like you're going through the motions. With the exception of Scrooge's above-mentioned extracurricular activities and a bizarre emphasis on Scrooge's daddy issues, this version is faithful enough, but it's faithful to a fault. It's familiar to the point of being stodgy -- we've seen this done before and we've seen it done better.
Thoughts: The problem with adapting Dickens is not that his stories aren't cinematic, it's that, as discussed above, they have a habit of leaning on a message and leaning hard. Just a straightforward translation of his work can lead to a film that feels obvious and heavy-handed, so it takes a great deal of effort for an adaptation of a Dickens work to manage to be less subtle than its source. Somehow, this version of 'A Christmas Carol' manages just that. There's a great moment that remains intact in every adaptation where Scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will die and the Ghost of Christmas Present quotes Scrooge, proclaiming "If he's going to die, he better do it and decrease the surplus population!" Scrooge's cruelty and hypocrisy is pulled center stage and a harsh, necessary point is made.
What the moment doesn't need is for the Ghost of Christmas Present to go on and elaborate exactly why Scrooge was wrong to say that and drive the point home even further. We get it. Dickens never plays in moral grays and never leaves a question unanswered, but this film seems to think its audience is too dumb to understand the most obvious of Dickens' observations. It feels the need the explain lines of dialogue that everyone is familiar with. It feels the need to have Scrooge constantly say "Humbug!" and Tiny Tim say "God bless us, everyone" more than several times, you know, in case we forget we're watching 'A Christmas Carol.' Between that and the poor production values, this version plays like a parody of a bad 'A Christmas Carol' production, the kind that appears on TV in wacky Christmas comedies.