Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was released in 1843 in the thick of Victorian-era Britain. Industry was thriving, prosperity and poverty were the only social parameters and the great staples of a British Christmas became tradition in this era. Christmas trees, crackers, cards and turkey – a lot of what is considered the norm now was forged in the time of chimney sweeps.
A Christmas Carol was met with instant success when it was published, and no sooner than motion picture was invented the novella was translated to the big screen. There have been innumerable adaptations and interpretations of Dickens’ classic, from film to TV, from stage play to musicals and beyond. So what is it about this film that has captured the hearts and imaginations of everyone that has seen it, and coined the most famous anti-Christmas catchphrase?
The story is the epitome of Christmas: forgiveness and second chances, with a dash of the extraordinary. It encompasses all of the great traditions of Christmas and it features true characters that, though they may not have much, certainly embrace life to the fullest. It allows the filmmaker to visualise the old-fashioned and classical Christmas as seen in the streets of Victorian London, where you can smell the roasting goose but also feel the biting cold. A Christmas Carol certainly is a Christmas Classic, but there are so many great adaptations it was difficult to choose one. Instead, we’ll look at a selection of the best interpretations ranging from the classic Alistair Sim to the motion-captured Jim Carrey as the eponymous character, meeting Muppets and a filthy New York taxi cab driver along the way.
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)
The first known interpretation is the 1901 silent film Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost directed by Walter R. Booth. The film used inter-titles to tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by Marley’s Ghost who, instead of the three ghosts of Christmas, shows Scrooge the visions himself. The film was impressive for its time, superimposing images in an attempt to amp-up the supernatural factor. Only 5 minutes of the footage remains thanks to the BFI, but its interesting to watch.
Other interpretations followed the original entry in 1901, but the next best was Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim as the title character. I first watched this film in its colour transfer and though I enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I had seen its grass-roots black and white edition that you could truly appreciate this film. It’s original black and white version supplements the lack of colour with stunning scenery and adequate use of greyscale. When transferred to colour the vibrancy is too far removed from classic Victorian-era colours. This adaptation is also well known for its additions to the storyline, expanding on the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, beautifully portrayed by Alastair Sim whose haggard face is only exacerbated by the black and white.
The first musical entry into the Christmas Carol canon, Scrooge released in 1970 stars Albert Finney as the lead character, mixing in a number of musical entries to further the story. I can’t say I’m exactly a fan of musicals, particularly when it comes to this particular story, but in some parts it works well. The Beautiful Day performed by Tiny Tim is a crushing little number that only amps-up the emotional factor surrounding this little but larger-than-life character. The film received several nods across the awards board and is widely considered to be one of the best entries – despite the final musical number where Scrooge is dressed up as Father Christmas…
Bill Murray as the Scrooge-alike Frank Cross is gold. This interpretation of Dickens’ classic moves us from Victorian England to 1980’s New York, where Frank Cross is a hated television executive who is just as ruthless and humbug as his Victorian counterpart. When he is tasked with producing a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, his life begins to mirror the events of the timeless novella. This film has all the sensibility of a Murray-led 80’s comedy, with inventive and somewhat frightening interpretations of the three ghosts. It’s an interesting take on this well-known story and its particularly appealing for Frank’s final speech in front of the live cameras.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Hands down this is my favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol. I don’t know whether its because it pretty much took over my childhood every Christmas and managed to capture me at my youthful and innocent stage, or whether it’s simply because Michael Caine smashes it as Scrooge – one thing is for certain, this version gets me every time. It’s actually quite easy at some points to forget that you’re watching a film with Muppets in it, particularly in the moments with Tiny Tim. It’s a brilliant interpretation, the musical numbers feeling more at home with the Muppets. Caine gives a heart-wrenching performance and despite his Dad-dancing, he pulls off the legendary character perfectly. It’s a film of my childhood and will be a film for the rest of my days.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
The most recent cinematic interpretation was 2009 when Robert Zemeckis brought Victorian England to life with motion capture technology. Jim Carrey played Scrooge as well as the three ghosts, alongside a stellar cast including Bob Hoskins, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. This edition is also known for including new aspects and scenes to the story and with the use of CGI Zemeckis was able to include cinematic scans across the skies of Victorian London from the regal halls to the alleys below where starving children beg the kitchen for food, as well as a frightening chase sequence with dark black horses. Jim Carrey was awesome as Scrooge and the advent of the motion capture enabled him to embody the ghosts that resembled him in voice only.
Undoubtedly we haven’t seen the last of this timeless story. Whether on stage, screen big or small, we’ll continue to see new faces play the same old one, endlessly being touched by the heartwarming end.
TOMORROW: Christmas Classics: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation