When the Yuletide season rolls around, indulging in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is almost as much of a tradition as putting up the tree or hanging stockings. First published on December 19, 1843 as a stand-alone novel, it followed Dickens’ relative flop, Martin Chuzzlewit. Chapman and Hall, Dickens’ publisher, thought he was losing his touch, so Dickens paid to have Carol published himself. He took full control of the novel’s appearance, making it look as sumptuous as possible and engaging John Leech to illustrate it. It was wildly successful, but production costs kept Dickens from making his money back in the first year.
I won’t bother summing up the plot of Carol because its vinegar-y miser, Scrooge and his four Ghosts are so familiar. It wasn’t the first time Dickens had written about the plight of the poor. Dickens himself was poor as a child, working in a shoe polish factory gluing labels on the bottles, while most of his family languished in debtor’s prison.
By the 1840s, the labor situation in England had very much worsened. The population had increased by 64% between 1812 and 1843, the Industrial Revolution had started, and people were moving to the city to work in the busy new job market. Dickens was horrified to learn of the great numbers of children working in horrible conditions for very long hours and making basically nothing. He knew about child labor, of course, since he’d been there himself, but still found the current situation shocking.
What really incensed Dickens were the words of Reverend Thomas Malthus, who held the belief that the poor starving to death would in the end benefit mankind because it would mean more food for those left alive. When Scrooge says, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” he’s espousing Malthus, who, by the way, is considered one of the major influencers of the zero-growth philosophy and Keynesian economics.
A Christmas Carol was Dickens’ direct answer to the Malthusian callousness and greed he saw growing in his fellow-man. The book was written from October to December, and Dickens said this in the preface:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
A Christmas Carol not only haunts our homes, but our screens. Remember when I said that Robin Hood and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow have been adapted a lot? Well, they’re both pikers compared to A Christmas Carol. Put it this way: The word, “countless” is frequently thrown around when it comes to all the versions out there. There are films, stage shows, audio productions, cartoons, and so on. Dickens himself used to tour England and the United States reading his work to audiences. Most iterations don’t deviate from the original story, although some versions have more ghosts than others.
Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901)
The earliest known Christmas Carol adaptation, Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost is very minimal in production values. Some of it was by design–the filmmakers figured the audience didn’t need intertitles as they already knew the story. Also, Scrooge’s three ghosts all look exactly alike and not very ghostly at that. However, the movie does include a lot of effective composite shots and is an interesting piece of Dickens history. Watch the film here.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
One of my all-time favorites, it features a bevy of MGM character actors, including Reginald Owen as Scrooge, Ann Rutherford as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Leo G. Carroll as Jacob Marley, and Barry McKay as Fred. Many of the stagings and characters look straight out of the John Leech illustrations, in particular Fezziwig, played by Forrester Harvey. There’s a nice family feeling to the film, supplied by Gene Lockhart and his wife Kathleen, who play Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, as well as their daughter, June, who portrays one of the Cratchits’ many offspring. MGM got a lot of mileage out of this one, showing it in theaters every Christmastime, and it later became a staple of holiday TV.
Alastair Sim plays our miser, and the movie plays it safe, except that it adds a new character, Mr. Jorkin, an embezzler who teaches a young Scrooge everything he knows about being crusty and stingy. It also plays like a horror movie, making sure the ghosts are well-represented. Other than being darker than most versions, Scrooge nails all the classic points. Watch the film here.
A suitably gruff Albert Finney is the title character in this musical extravaganza. He’s a ruthless debt collector, even pestering a poor puppeteer while he’s in the middle of a Punch and Judy show. He’s in for his own scares, though, when he goes home to find Marley’s face in his door knocker and a ghostly hearse rolling through his house.
The ghosts really have a field day in this version, and the ghostliest of all is Alec Guinness, who makes an excellent Jacob Marley. Kenneth More is the cheery, prosperous Ghost of Christmas Present. And Paddy Smith as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be may or may not show his spectral face.
I used to watch Scrooge every year at my grandma’s house, and never got tired of the bright, colorful characters. Revisiting it for this review felt like reuniting with an old friend. See it here.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Can’t forget Mickey’s Christmas Carol. It’s a tour-de-force of Disney characters filling the various Dickens roles. Among others, Mickey is Bob Cratchit, Minnie’s his wife, Donald plays Fred, and Mr. Toad is Fezziwig. The big star, of course, is Scrooge McDuck, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, natch, and who was wonderfully voiced by Alan Young. Since it’s geared for kids, Scrooge’s meanness and the ghostly elements have been lightened up considerably, and it’s full of trademark Disney humor. It’s hard to imagine Goofy as Jacob Marley robbing and swindling, because he’s still Goofy. He trips over stuff and guffaws at the drop of a hat.
I think this version introduced a lot of people of my generation to Dickens’s novel, or at least it’s something a lot of us remember, and it’s still delightful today. Watch the film here.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
George C. Scott could handle rough and tough roles blindfolded, and he’s a natural as Scrooge. A delightful British TV film that stars some familiar faces in the major roles (look for David Warner as Bob Cratchit and Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit), it keeps to the middle as far as interpretation goes. See a clip here.
Ergh. Scrooged is Dickens’ novel set in the present day, and Scrooge is Frank Cross, a ruthless TV station president who demands scaring viewers into watching and sends people towels as Christmas presents. Bill Murray plays Frank, and he’s almost as much of a sleazoid at the end as at the beginning, only he’s a nicer, more manic sleazoid.
There are two Bob Cratchit characters in the movie. One is Grace (Alfre Woodard), Frank’s longsuffering secretary, and Elliot (Bobcat Goldthwaite), one of his yes-men who makes the mistake of saying no. The former shows Frank what he’s been missing. The latter hangs out in gutters guzzling liquor for most of the film, and in the last quarter shows up at Frank’s TV station with a shotgun, all ready to take revenge 9 to 5 style.
While I have to give the filmmakers kudos for taking some chances with the canonical story elements, Scrooged feels like one of those trick peanut cans with the snakes inside them, only not as fun. It’s mostly just mean-spirited and annoying. Definitely not one of Bill Murray’s best movies. See the trailer here.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
The 1999 Christmas Carol is on my must-see list, because I like Patrick Stewart. His take doesn’t seem to deviate from the accepted format all that much, but it doesn’t matter. Stewart could recite the Amtrak timetable and I’d listen.
However, some of the bits I have seen are slightly weird–one clip shows Scrooge trying to laugh, and at first he sounds like he’s coughing up a hairball. I can’t blame Stewart for interpreting the character that way, because Scrooge was a man who didn’t laugh, and it’s not out of left field for him to have to work at it the first time. It’s just a little odd, especially from the guy who is best known for playing Jean-Luc Picard. Watch a scene here.
A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)
Also on my must-see list, the 2004 Hallmark Entertainment musical stars Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge, Jason Alexander as Bob Cratchit, and Jesse Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Present, among other familiar faces. I’ve heard some of the music, and it looks to be a well-done production. Kelsey Grammer’s in the same league as Patrick Stewart in the voice department, and I always like hearing him sing. Watch the trailer here.
There’s a reason A Christmas Carol has never once fallen from favor in the 165 years since its publication: It cultivates charity and kindness in those who encounter it. Dickens handily succeeded at what he set out to do, and as long as goodwill is important to mankind, the messages of his story will always be welcome.
Thanks for reading, all, and come back on Friday for the Unexpected Blogathon. Two days left–are you ready?