Home Op-ed ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Cinema’s Past and Present

‘A Christmas Carol’ in Cinema’s Past and Present

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A collage of the different versions of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol throughout film history.

In 1843, Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, the story of a man who, over the course of a night, is visited by four ghosts who help him transform from a selfish miser into a kind-hearted gentleman. The book was a hit, turning the protagonist, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and other pivotal characters, such as Jacob Marley, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, or Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim, into household names, instantly recognizable to people around the world. By the time cinema started blooming into the story-telling medium we know it as, filmmakers wanted to adapt this popular tale, and that is exactly what they did. Then they did it again, and again, and again, and now we have well over 100 different film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, making it one of the most filmed stories in all of cinema history, alongside the likes of Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur. While it’s one thing to make all these films, it’d be insane to actually watch them, right?

Hi, I’m Jackson, and it’s a personal goal of mine to watch every available version of A Christmas Carol. While I’m nowhere near complete, I’ve already seen 56 different versions of it, which is a lot. I’ve seen this story at its best, and I’ve seen the depths of hell that it can be dragged down to. While I haven’t seen everything, I’ve seen enough to be considered an authority on the matter and promptly dragged off to an insane asylum. But amongst the insanity of these films, a theme emerges. Over the 119 years since the first adaptation of the story, there’s an arc that prevails when looking at the grand picture: first, a quest to perfect A Christmas Carol in film, then, to take the story in unique directions.

We see the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1901, titled as Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, made just past the turn of the century and in the very early days of cinema. It’s a short film that runs under four minutes and somehow tells the entire story in brief visions, from Scrooge in the shop to Marley’s ghostly head appearing in the door to Scrooge seeing his own grave in the future. We haven’t reached a perfect adaptation just yet, the film is forced to cut out a lot due to its short runtime, and the opening and ending remains lost, but what we do have is simply the beginning of the journey to that ideal version. We had to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. However, we spend the rest of the silent era not evolving much from where we started. There are a few more films, and we see more and more of the story being told, but all the adaptations still suffer from a lack of time to really dive into it. There were feature films being made at this point, but none of that effort was being put towards A Christmas Carol. It was not until 1935 that we saw our first true film adaptation of the source material. 

The Ghost of Christmas Future visiting Ebeneezer Scrooge in the first black and white and silent film adaption from 1901 titled Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost.
‘Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost’ (1901)

Scrooge (1935), starring Seymour Hicks, is both the first feature length telling of A Christmas Carol as well as being the first version with sound. Being the first major adaptation, the film had free reign to tell the tale how it wanted to. Scrooge leans heavily on the horror aspects of the story, spending a lot of time building a dreary, creepy atmosphere by covering London in shadows and fog. However, though the film is feature length, at 78 minutes, there is still a lot of the plot cut out. Major characters and scenes are completely removed, evident in how the Ghost of Christmas Past segment is reduced to only two scenes. All of these aspects were likely due to the film having a low budget, but the final film does feel whole and complete, even if it doesn’t contain everything from the source material, which is a big step up from the silents that came before. Yet, despite all the milestones this film achieved, it gets forgotten, so cinema still searches for its definitive Christmas Carol

The next adaptation could be considered somewhat of an antithesis to Scrooge. A Christmas Carol (1938) is a big-budget studio picture and, rather than being dark and gloomy like the previous film, is a rather light-hearted version of the tale. Reginald Owen, our Scrooge, unfortunately lacks a lot of the bite needed for the character and the film just generally doesn’t dwell on any of the scary or more serious aspects of the story. Perhaps this is for the better, as Christmas is a time of cheer and merriment, not sadness and fear, but the original story was built on that foundation, and those aspects are key to making it work. While the film gives its best shot, this adaptation too fades away, forgotten to all but those who seek it. 

This journey for our definitive adaptation has taken 37 years so far, but we only need to wade through 13 more years before arriving at our destination. In 1951, the film Scrooge was released, starring Alastair Sim as the titular miser. This is the perfect balance between the two previous adaptations. It has a sizable budget like the 1938 version and still maintains a lot of the Christmas cheer and spirit that a Christmas movie requires, but it is not afraid to depict a lot of the pain and trauma inherent to the story. In some of the film’s few changes from the source material, it actually emphasizes the trauma, making Scrooge more present in the deaths of his sister and Jacob Marley. And there is also a lot of praise heaped onto Alastair Sim, with many calling him the greatest Scrooge ever put to film. 

Ebeneezer Scooge being visited by the Ghost of Christmas present in the 1951 film adaptation titled Scrooge.
‘Scrooge’ (1951)

Scrooge (1951) is our definitive adaptation, the film we have spent the last 50 years looking for. It’s the earliest version that many people do know and makes its way onto plenty of “Greatest Christmas Film” lists. That leaves us with one question: where do we go from here? We have our film, we have the ultimate version, but it is impossible for humanity to stop making A Christmas Carol movies. It is still a classic story that many still want to see told, but in making another version, there’s risk of being judged not on the film’s own merits but on how it compares to the already famous version. So what is a filmmaker to do? Enter Mr. Magoo.

Perhaps one of the most important Christmas Carol adaptations is Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol from 1962. It asks the question which had yet to be asked up to that point: “What if we take A Christmas Carol, but make it…..different?” And, by different, they mean animate it (the first animated adaptation) and put the classic film and television character Mr. Magoo (famous for jokes about his poor eyesight) at its center. Oh, and also make it a musical, because why not? And it is surprisingly good! The film adapts the story well, though of course it has to make some cuts as it is an hour long TV Movie Musical that also needs to fit in some blind jokes for Mr. Magoo. But, even with all that, it still maintains a lot of the charm and emotion that any decent Christmas Carol adaptation requires. And, it is with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol that we enter the second phase of Christmas Carol films, one that will potentially never end. 

So, with our definitive adaptation already taken care of, the only thing left to do is to alter the story in ways that’ll make the future versions stand out. People no longer need word-for-word retellings, they want new spins! The people want more films like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, something that takes A Christmas Carol and makes it feel fresh again! The goal from here on is to become a Christmas classic alongside the movies that came before, not in place of them. How can filmmakers convince viewers to watch their version of the story rather than the classic versions they already like? Some don’t even bother to do something different, like the 1984 George C. Scott or 1999 Patrick Stewart versions or even the 2009 Jim Carrey motion capture film (which, while being animated, is one of the most faithful retellings of the story). While those are all good, they simply aren’t remembered as classics in their own right, only as simply “other versions”. We want to find the films that stand on their own both among Christmas Carol adaptations and among Christmas movies in general. (Side note: Before we continue, there are over 100 Christmas Carol films made after Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, so I can’t cover every step in the 60 year journey to today, but instead give a taste of all the various ways that you can tell the story.)

Mr. Magoo being visited by the scary ghost of Marley in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.
‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ (1962)

The first way to adapt A Christmas Carol in a new way is to modernize it. One of the reasons the story has survived this long is because of the universal and eternal emotions that it taps into, so an obvious way to change it is to change the setting. While some films change the setting to some other past time period, the most common way is to just bring it to the present. The first one to do this is also the most famous to do it: Scrooged (1988). From London, we go to New York. Instead of an uncharitable banker, our Scrooge is a heartless TV executive, played by Bill Murray. Even at its core, it changes the tone of the story to make it more modern, turning it into a typical 80s comedy. Other adaptations try to modernize too, such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) or the uncountable amount of cheap made-for-TV movies that use the story as merely a crutch, but none have replicated the success Scrooged had in bringing A Christmas Carol to a modern era. 

Another category of Christmas Carol adaptations is trying to make it funny (which Scrooged also happens to do). People have gotten sick of the same, cheesy story of the old fart who hates Christmas, why not give them a laugh while they’re here? So, a lot of times, we have parodies of A Christmas Carol or previously established comedy groups who take the story and do a riff on it. From this, we get Carry On Christmas (1969), Rich Little’s Christmas Carol (1978), An American Carol (2008), A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong (2017), or, our next focus, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988). This is a TV Special of the UK Comedy series Blackadder, and tells a reversed version of the A Christmas Carol. The main character, Ebeneezer Blackadder, is the kindest man in London, so kind in fact that everyone exploits his generosity for their own gain. The Ghosts then visit Blackadder and convince him to be more selfish, using clips of other episodes of Blackadder. It’s a unique twist on the classic tale, filled with clever lines that’ll make any fan of dry British humour bust a gut, and this special has grown into a cult classic.

The final category is also the most prominent trope: The Branded Christmas Carol. If there is a brand with an old or mean character, they have likely already made A Christmas Carol with their own characters . Franchises that have made a Christmas Carol adaptation include, but are not limited to: The Jetsons, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Beavis and Butt-Head, Doctor Who, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Thomas the Tank Engine, Barbie, The Smurfs, and so many more. It’s become a cliche in its own right, but even selling out can still produce great art. 

Michael Caine as Scrooge happily sharing a meal with the Muppets in The Muppet Christmas Carol.
‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ (1992)

The ultimate branded Christmas Carol adaptation, which is also one of the most highly regarded versions of the story, even rivaling Scrooge (1951), is also the most widely known version today: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Not enough can be said about this film to truly do it justice. Even though Muppets make up the majority of the cast, it is probably the most faithful retelling of A Christmas Carol, even when compared to the straight adaptations. It takes most of its dialogue directly from the novel, it matches the character descriptions to a tee, and the only true differences are the Muppets and the fantastic songs. It’s an absolutely great movie, too. There is lots of Muppet humor to keep the film light while also making way for the earnest emotions that come through with this story, which are extremely potent. If you were to ever only watch one adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it should be this one. Scrooge (1951) may be the “definitive adaptation”, as that is the legacy it holds, but The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best adaptation of the story AND the best film based on the story.

And that’s where the journey ends, from four minute silent shorts to becoming a staple of Christmas cinema to having The Muppets wipe the floor with everyone who came before or since. A Christmas Carol is an enduring classic and is something that we feel compelled to tell this same story time and time again. But why? I have a theory. No matter what changes are made to it, there’s one thing that always remains, the fundamental part of the story: a person, who has grown to hate, learns to love once more. As humans, we believe in an ultimate good of humanity, that people aren’t naturally hateful, and are simply molded to be that way by the harsh world surrounding us. And within us, perhaps deep down, there is a hope that life will be better, that all that is bad can eventually become good as we imagine they once were. A Christmas Carol panders to that hope and makes us believe that if this person, who after years of hatred building up inside, can be returned to good in one night, maybe everything else can become good once more too. It’s something insanely cheesy and idealistic, but what better time is there for cheese and idealism than Christmas time?

Follow contributor Jackson DeStefano on Twitter: @jacdeswilliams

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