Friday, December 14, 2012

Books on Film: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens, is arguably the most popular Christmas story of all time. It's certainly one of the most-adapted, with more feature-length and TV-film versions than you can fit in a single blog post. The story is so famous, you can say just one word and everyone will know what you're referencing. But if you've only ever seen it on film, you don't know the whole story.


The Book

In a very real way, Charles Dickens is the father of the modern Christmas. When he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, Christmas itself was in a transitional phase. Newfangled trends, like Christmas trees, were mucking up this traditional season of church-going, quiet reflection and somber celebration. 


And so Dickens wrote about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old miser who loves money more than people. It's a very short story told in only 5 chapters, or staves, and it starts on Christmas Eve. It is 7 years to the day of Jacob Marley's death, Jacob Marley who is definitely dead. This makes it quite odd indeed when Marley appears that very night to Ebenezer, who has as usual been kicking around his much-maligned clerk at the counting house.

Marley is here, a ghostly apparition, to warn Scrooge. A wicked afterlife awaits him if he continues to value money more than his fellow man. He will suffer for his lack of kindness and charity. Scrooge thinks Christmas is a "humbug." He doesn't want to give his clerk time off for the holiday, or spend time with his nephew Fred, or donate to any charities that help people. To him, the holiday is "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!"

It's good stuff. Ebenezer is subsequently visited by three spirits who arrive in succession after Marley. First comes the ghost of Christmas past, who shows Scrooge shadows of things that have already been. The ghost of Christmas present is a garrulous gentleman who shows Scrooge the horrors that are happening outside the walls of his fancy townhouse. There is suffering in the world, even in the home of clerk Bob Cratchit. He has a very ill son, Tiny Tim, who is also the sweetest child ever born. They are a merry family, but so horrifyingly poor.

It's all fun and games until the third spirit, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, arrives. He shows Scrooge a terrible future. Tiny Tim is dead, and so is Scrooge, and things are not good.

When Ebenezer wakes on Christmas Day, he realizes he still has a chance to change those shadows. He still has a chance to celebrate Christmas! And boy, does he. The final scene of A Christmas Carol is just as fine as anything ever penned by the hand of man. 


It took Dickens 6 weeks to write the most beloved, most repeated and most famous Christmas story we all know. A Christmas Carol is credited with popularizing the phrase "Merry Christmas," and "Scrooge" is often applied to anyone expressing miserly qualities. "Bah humbug" has also entered into language because of the story. Some historians even credit the book with creating customs of family gatherings, consuming food and drink, playing games and behaving generosity in association with Christmas.

The Many Movies

A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the movies for as long as movies have existed. It was a silent film in 1908 and again in 1910, but you'd have trouble finding either version anywhere.

You can still see the 1938 version, which is darned good. The only version of the story ever made by movie giant MGM, it's still shown on cable TV to this day. Reginald Own plays the leading role, along with real-life couple Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. You might recognize Ann Rutherford, who later played Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister, as the Spirit of Christmas Past.

Lionel Barrymore, one of my favorites and unquestionably one of the best character actors in history, was originally slated to play the leading role. He was well-known for playing Scrooge on the annual radio production that ran at the time, but his health wasn't strong enough. You can see Barrymore in my all-time favorite holiday movie, It's a Wonderful Life, playing the role that was pretty clearly inspired by one Ebenezer Scrooge. At the time Barrymore made the Capra flick, he did need the wheelchair.

Reginald Owen does a good job anyway, and the film is very faithful to the book. But it was made by MGM, and it is a holiday film, so some stuff had to be changed. The love interest aspect of Scrooge's life is dropped in total, as were the companions who travel with the ghost of Christmas present. The thieves who so shock Scrooge in the vision of the future are also omitted.

But it's not the best version. That was made in 1951, and it starred Alastair Sim. He was born to be Scrooge. Sim looks the part and acts the part beautifully, making this the definitive version of A Christmas Carol. Ironically, that's not the movie's name. This version was originally produced as Scrooge, though sometimes it's listed under the proper title of the book instead. Once widely-run on TV during December, now you have to really search to find this simply fantastic (and very faithful) version of the story.


This version actually expands on the story, showing more scenes with Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas past. Now, we see exactly how Scrooge and Marley forged their partnership, and learn of some unscrupulous business practices besides. The love interest's name is changed from Belle to Alice, inexplicably, and she is given very charitable qualities in this version. This better explains why she eventually leaves Scrooge later in the story. We also see Scrooge's sister Fan dying in childbirth, something that's hinted at in the book but never told in detail.

The 1951 film has been re-released and colorized, and you can find it in pretty much every available format.

More versions of the story followed in 1954, 1962, 1971, 1977 and 1982. Another definitive version of the Dickens work would not be created until 1983, when Disney got ahold of it. This animated version remains one of the best-loved, and stars the entire pantheon of classic Disney characters. Scrooge (McDuck), Mickey Mouse (as Cratchit), Jiminy Cricket, Donald Duck, Goofy and Daisy Duck all appear.

One of the best-known versions was made in 1984, with George C. Scott in the role. This is still one of the most-recognized adaptations, because it's been aired on TV every single December since its original release. Scott is a broad, be-whiskered Scrooge who truly breaks down in the climatic scene with the ghost of Christmas yet to come. The tombstone used to film the scene is still standing where it was shot at St. Chad's Church in Shrewsbury, England.

Many more versions of the story followed, including one starring Patrick Stewart of X-Men and Star Trek fame, but nothing would stand out until it was re-created by Disney in 2009. This 3D extravaganza stars Jim Carrey in the leading role. Carrey also voices all three ghosts, which probably really saved on the talent budget. Despite the slick animation, the addition of magician Robert Zemeckis, and all the might of Disney, it's not a very good film. You'd do much better to watch the 1951 version in color if you want to see some wild animation.

What Got Adapted?

You always lose a little something in the transfer from page to screen, even when a story has been transferred as often as this one. In the book, the ghost of Christmas past has a hand with no skin, a hand that never appears on film. It's also a strangely childlike creature, something often changed for film. It's also rarely mentioned that Belle was actually Fezziwig's daughter, and that she broke their engagement on Christmas. This is another reason why Scrooge hates the holiday so much. Christmas Present is a giant, and near the end of the day he has markedly aged. Christmas Yet to Come appears immediately after the giant fades away, and this specter does wear a black, hooded cloak as is so often depicted.

The book is very short, and it's a delight you shouldn't miss. Once you're done, compare it to your own favorite film version of the story, and look for the differences.

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