Since I was a wee tot, I’ve been enthralled by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his 1843 five-chapter novella, and particularly its filmed adaptations. I’ve seen them all. “Canonical” versions true to the short story, loose adaptations, short cartoon versions, versions with Mickey Mouse, versions with Muppets, versions with Mr. Magoo, and even alternate settings that kind of work. An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler is almost good. 1989’s Scrooged, on the other hand, is a noisy, soulless mess. But over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing up the seven major filmed/animated versions that try to hew closely to the original story.
But first, let’s discuss the points that should be in any version of A Christmas Carol, as well as some important bits that are usually left out.
Dickens published the original novella in 1843 in literary periodicals in five chapters (which he called “staves”). It was pretty much an immediate success, and Dickens, through two literary journals he edited, reprinted the story frequently for the next 25 years or so, along with other ghost stories from other authors, typically around December-ish. In so doing, Dickens kind of single handedly created a Victorian England tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Which is cool.
He also published bound standalone versions of the novella, which included illustrations that guided set designers and costume departments for the next 160 years or so. But Dickens never seemed to be satisfied with A Christmas Carol as a finished piece. And so – crazily enough – there are multiple canonical versions (because they’re Dickens’ own work) notably different from one another. The main reason for this is that Dickens loved to do live readings and recitations of the book, and in order to keep things at 90 minutes or so, you’ve got to make some cuts. And so there are edited versions with Dickens’ own excisions out there which are versions he originally meant for live readings.
(There are two early ways to tell whether you’ve got the full, unabridged novella version of A Christmas Carol, or the truncated version for recitation. We’ll cover that in just a few.)
As far as we can tell, Dickens meant for the story to be set contemporaneously with its release. That puts the date of Marley’s death around 1836, and the events of the rest of the story (we’re told that Marley died 7 Christmas Eves earlier) at 1843. So as an aside: Ebenezer Scrooge as a child was probably growing up around the time of the American Revolution. So there you go, fellow history nerds, as an interesting framing device!
“A Christmas Carol” is a really well-executed piece of fiction. It is absolutely worth reading today, and still holds up. There are some great audio versions of both the unabridged novella and a fantastic Neil Gaiman version using Dickens’ own annotated and edited version for recitation. The story has some fascinating bits that traditionally get left out of movies, and they’re important bits.
And those important bits mostly happen with the Ghost of Christmas Present. For one thing, there’s this [i] super[/i] modernist, almost secular rip job that Dickens does on the hypocrisy of organized religion. As the ghost and Scrooge move through the streets of London, Scrooge thinks he’s spotted a flaw in the way the Spirit does things. Scrooge has decided that the Spirit is an agent of the divine here on earth. He wonders why the Spirit and his kind allow grocers and food shops to be closed one day a week, and on a day when people really need to eat. Why seek to deprive people of that on Sundays?
The Ghost of Christmas Present is having none of that. “I seek [to deprive]?” he says. Well, yes, says Scrooge: “Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.”
The Ghost responds: “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” It’s almost as if he’s speaking right to Joel Osteen there.
There’s one other set piece with the Ghost of Christmas Present that gets excised from most filmed versions. I think mostly it’s a time-saving thing. But also, they’re scenes that present technical issues for filming. But these are important to the whole story, and they demonstrate how good Dickens was about making this story timeless.
The typically edited stuff starts after Scrooge and the ghost have dropped in to watch the Cratchit family Christmas. Dickens tells us that after, they go through many houses to observe Christmas celebrations in what feels like hours and hours and even days, but isn’t. And at this point in the novella, it can feel a lot of like the point of “A Christmas Carol” is that you spend time with family, no matter what, at Christmas. Which is great, if you can. But often there are non-Scrooge-y reasons you can’t. And Dickens recognizes that, and that’s what makes the next scenes from the story so powerful.
The ghost and Scrooge briefly follow a lamplighter, who is singing Christmas songs to himself and dressed up to go to a celebration when his job is done. Here’s an essential worker, working on Christmas. And then the spirit takes Scrooge to the lonely and desolate moors, far from London. It is a dreary and desolate place, but the spirit guides Scrooge to see that there are miners who work here, and they’ve taken time out to sit together and eat and drink and celebrate Christmas. Then the spirit takes Scrooge to a storm-tossed lighthouse. There are two lonely souls tending the place, but sure enough, they’re at the table, having a drink, singing Christmas songs together next to a roaring fire. Finally, the ghost takes Scrooge to a ship at sea. The helmsman of the ship talks to one of the sailors about how much he enjoys Christmas, while below decks — you guessed it! — other sailors are drinking and singing and having a good old festive time.
The point of all that is Dickens pointing out that “Keeping Christmas” doesn’t have to be about traditional family. Sometimes it’s just about making the best of things and enjoying what you can about the season and not letting the difficulties of a current situation weigh you down too heavily. Most adaptations just skip over this important message/ (Weirdly, the half-hour Oscar-winning cartoon manages to cover the miners and lighthouse scenes.)
There’s one last thing to be said about “A Christmas Carol”. As undeniably great a short fiction work as it is, the final “stave” feels weirdly truncated and perfunctory. In the book, there’s this huge buildup to Scrooge’s conversion, and then we get there and it feels like Dickens decided he needed to wrap things up in the final act with 1,000 words or less. It’s a shame, because it slightly undercuts all the details and story beats up to that point. Oddly, it’s here that the filmed versions tend to draw things out, often to very good effect. And yes, I just suggested that 20th and 21st century filmmakers and screenplay writers improved on Dickens. Sue me.
In addition to the versions I’ll be writing up, there are also some good cartoon versions. One created in 1969 has a lot of that Hanna-Barbera Scooby-doo type animation style. It’s decent, but so truncated that it’s tough to include here. There’s another animated version from 1971 that features Alastair Sim handling the voice work for Scrooge, reprising his 1951 career-defining role. There’s so much to love about the 1971 version, which aired originally on ABC and then got a theatrical release which allowed it to win an Oscar for best animated short film. It’s worth seeing for the hand-drawn animation by Ken Harris, with input from longtime legendary Warner animator Chuck Jones. The biggest issue with this one is that it is only 27 minutes long, and essentially skims most of the plot (that said, it manages to include scenes from the novella that are usually excised in other movies).
There’s also an animated version with Tim Curry as Scrooge from 1997. It’s terrible. The animation is amateurish, the adaptation is sloppy, and it feels mailed in. There’s also a 2001 animated version that also stinks out loud. Again, the animation is perfunctory Saturday morning cartoon-level. What’s more, it wastes the talents of Simon Cowell and Kate Winslet (!) in major roles in a poorly adapted screenplay.
For the adaptations I’ll be covering, it helps to think not just by the year it was released, but by the actor who plays Scrooge. That’s how I’ll mostly refer to these going forward. The seven major versions I’m aware of are as follows:
1935, Seymour Hicks
1938, Reginald Owen
1951, Alastair Sim
1970, Albert Finney
1984, George C. Scott
1999, Patrick Stewart
2009, Jim Carrey
Later this month, we’ll get a version teased for BBC, and TNT here in the US. Perhaps we’ll add that one to the review pile. But first, up next is the 1935 version, which is one of the most unintentionally funny things I’ve ever watched.