Charles Dickens’ famous novella about a miserly old man being scared into generosity turned 171 last Friday. First published on December 19th, 1843, it was an instant classic. From it, we would get the famous characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, and the real stars of the show, the Spirits of Christmas.
Stage productions of the story have been around for almost a hundred and fifty years, and thus film adaptations followed almost as soon as the medium could allow it, with the earliest recorded versions dating back to 1901.
As with any adaptation, different versions have their own strengths and speaking to people differently. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
A Christmas Carol (1984) – Starring George C Scott, this highly acclaimed adaptation hinges on Scott’s marvelous performance, as well as possibly the creepiest version of the Ghost of Christmas Future ever.
One nuance of special note about Scott’s performance is how upstanding his Scrooge actually is. Many perform Scrooge as a duplicitous old man, out to swindle anyone. Scott’s version comes across as less malevolent and more indifferent. Likewise, his miraculous transformation is a change in demeanor but not in personality. He’s still Scrooge; just a happier and more generous Scrooge. This makes the redemption all the more delightful.
Scrooged (1988) – Starring the incomparable Bill Murray, Scrooged is a rare modern retelling. It follows network executive Frank Cross preparing for a live broadcast of the Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. This provides a host of pseudo-fourth wall breaks about the story and the culture that surrounds it, while the story of Scrooged itself deviates from the source material more so than most versions.
The film can be a little hard to stomach. There are segments that seem needlessly gross (such as not-Jacob Marley as a zombie rather than a ghost dangling Bill Murray out a window, with his arm literally (and graphically) disintegrating). Still, the movie does a nice job of capturing 1980s culture at that time.
Also of note is Murray’s turn at drama. While this wasn’t his first dramatic role (if this can even be called dramatic), it was likely many film goer’s first look at Murray playing serious. The movie is a lot of slapstick, a few prat falls, and a lot of Murray wit, but there is real heart at times. Personally speaking, this was first version where I ‘got’ why Scrooge was the way he was, that he was emotionally wounded and the combination of pain and shame (as the wounds were mostly self-inflicted) was too much to confront.
This is not the definitive version by any stretch, but there are few modern adaptations and fewer still that change so much and yet still keep the core of the story.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) – While hardly definitive or even remotely authentic, this charming tale casts Uncle Scrooge as, well, Scrooge. It fills the story with Disney characters, familiar and obscure alike (not too many are likely to recognize Rat and Mole from the Wind in the Willows). This story is delightfully succinct, breaking down all the major themes into smaller, family-friendly digestible bites.
There have been dozens upon dozens of adaptations of the Christmas Carol. Some are more ambitious than others, but they are all built around a tradition of the holidays and around telling the story of redemption and recovery, a story that it isn’t too late to change one’s ways. Not a bad moral, that.
Different versions have their strengths, and speak to different elements of the story. What’s your favorite?