The holidays are upon us, Constant Reader. As soon as I post this, I’ll be off to spend Christmas with my family. And being the good Americans we are, we’ll be spending a large chunk of that watching Christmas movies. I’m sure those infernal Hallmark movies will get through somehow, but I’m a traditionalist, so the Yuletide viewings will be full of as many versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as I can find. The more, the merrier – after all, there seems to be an abundance of cruel businessmen in need of visits from the Ghosts of Christmas nowadays.
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the question of whose Scrooge is definitive – be it Alistair Sim, George C. Scott, Mister Magoo, etc. Personally, I don’t think such a thing as a definitive Scrooge exists; like Hamlet or Lear, Scrooge is a role rich enough for endless reinvention, with every new interpretation of the role finding something worthwhile to say. But just as Hamlet and Lear are surrounded by a vast gallery of rich supporting characters and colorful incidents, there’s more to A Christmas Carol than its sleep-deprived miser – and yet questions as to which Scrooge is the best Scrooge always seem to ignore them.
So, while I can’t claim to have seen every single adaptation of the tale ever made (heck, there’s a new one starring Guy Pearce airing on FX right now), I’m still going to go ahead and piece together my own “definitive” version, based on the best elements of the tale to be found in a broad spectrum of different adaptations. As with most things on the internet, this list is completely subjective, opinionated, and inarguable, because I’m completely right about this. This must be understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the tale I am about to relate.
Best Intro – Scrooge, 1935 (Seymour Hirsch)
The usual mise-en-scene for our story is some version of the storybook Victoriana we’ve all grown up with – a world of crooked figures in heavy cloaks striding through the London fog. It may be old, but it still feels familiar – and safe, which A Christmas Carol should never be. (Dude gets terrorized by ghosts, after all.) Which is what’s so remarkable about the opening minutes of the Seymour Hirsch version from 1935, one of the oldest extant film versions, whose star was a veteran of Victorian-era stage productions. Everything about its opening scene-setting – from the look of the sets to the off-key blatting of the Yuletide brass band – feels somehow alien. This isn’t the Hollywood version of Victorian England – this is some distant echo of the real thing, and it’s astonishing to watch. (Note that the spell is broken in this version the second the ghosts show up, and the movie falls apart, so be forewarned if you decide to watch the whole film some winter’s night.)
Best Jacob Marley – A Christmas Carol, 1971 (animated, dir. Richard Williams)
A common refrain you’ll find me making here is that A Christmas Carol is, at heart, a ghost story. A horror story. It’s supposed to be scary. Not a pageant of things we say are scary, presented in a visual language we find safe and comforting – it’s supposed to be unsettling and terrifying. Few versions are as innately unsettling as the Oscar-winning animated version from 1971 – its line drawings seem to be in constant flux, inducing a low-key unease in even the most mundane moments. When those drawings turn into a grotesque thing that’s somehow speaking even though its lower jaw is fixed in place somewhere around its navel – well, if there is more of gravy than of grave about him, that must be some strong gravy.
Best Wandering Spirits – A Christmas Carol, 1951 (Alistair Sim)
For some reason, many versions skimp on the procession of wandering spirits – those poor damned souls Marley reveals at the end of his visit. And those that do include the sequence make the mistake of making a big visual production of it, throwing in whatever spooooooky effects were cutting edge at the time. As with many elements of the tale, the best balance is to be found in the classic Alistair Sim version; the focus is lesson on the appearance of the spirit, and more on the pure anguish of the Richard Addinsell score, and especially on the homeless beggar woman that the ghosts surround – trying, at long last, to do some good in the world, and being eternally helpless to do so.
Best Ghost of Christmas Past – The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992
The most ethereal, most alien of the Christmas ghosts – Dickens describes something at once ancient and like a newborn babe, with a flame burning atop its head – the Ghost of Christmas Past is the hardest to visualize on film. Many versions cheat, making it something more recognizable – the Father Time figure of the Alistair Sim version, Edith Evans’ prim governess in the 1970 Albert Finney version. Those that attempt a more faithful rendering can wind up looking silly – and many just wind up looking silly in general. (In the 1938 Reginald Owen version, Christmas Past is an angelic young woman wearing a tin foil star on her head. We will not be speaking of the 1938 Reginald Owen version again.)
But if you’re the Muppets, you know exactly how to make this work. You craft a puppet that matches Dickens’ description exactly. Then you plunge it into clear oil and shoot its scenes through that, giving it the proper ethereal quality. I find it one of the most beautiful images in any version of the tale; I likewise know many people legitimately terrified by it. Either response is perfectly appropriate.
Best Young Scrooge – Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, 1962
The whole point of the journey to Scrooge’s childhood is to show that his father’s callous shipping him off to boarding school, abandoning him even over holidays, helped warp Scrooge into the person he became. It’s an obvious point, but one that can become lost amongst all the picaresque snowscapes and morris-dancing children. Want to guarantee that we understand that young Scrooge was all alone in the world? Have him sing a gut-wrenching song by Bob Merill and Jule Styne called “Alone in the World.” This is Dickens, after all – it’s not supposed to be subtle.
Best Party at Fezziwig’s – Scrooge, 1970 (Albert Finney)
By far the happiest of Scrooge’s memories, just about every version of this scene is good jolly fun – with the wistful undercurrent of knowing he’ll never be this purely happy again. So, memory being what it is, I’m going with a purely sentimental choice here. When I was a small boy, putting tinsel on the Christmas tree, it was inevitably the Albert Finney musical version that was playing. When Christmas Past comes to give me the guided tour of my own life, that’s the Christmas Eve I’m bound to see.
Best Ghost of Christmas Present – A Christmas Carol, 1984 (George C. Scott)
“Long past?” Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Past, to which the reply comes, “no, your past.” The ghosts are tailor made to the miser they’re haunting – and the actors playing them are cast to best play off against the leading actor. When that leading actor is George C. Scott – the surliest, most defiant, most dangerous of all Scrooges, who straight up murders Angela Pleasance’s Christmas Past at the end of that sequence – that means when Christmas Present’s time rolls around, you send in the freaking Equalizer. Edward Woodward’s spirit is filled with almost as much rage as Christmas cheer; given this film’s critique of capitalism, and this Scrooge’s resistance, that’s exactly what this particular Christmas miracle requires.
Best Cratchit Family – The Muppet Christmas Carol
Okay, sure, we all love the Muppets, so I can already hear you saying that me giving pride of place to Kermit and Miss Piggy might be some sort of cheating on my part. Of course they’re the best – they’re Kermit and Piggy! But the Muppets don’t have this place on our list because they’re funny or cute. The Muppets are the definite Cratchits because they’re unspeakably heartbreaking.
Usually, when Tiny Tim hobbles to the corner and Emily asks Bob how their son is doing, they have the sort of stoic, hushed conversation that stage actors love to use to indicate “concern.” Not the Muppets. They’re warm, effusive, always trying to remain calm – until little Robin-as-Tiny Tim coughs. That’s when they shudder, and their faces practically turn inside out, and they cling desperately to their little child, with no actorly stoicism to be seen. Yes, it’s puppetry, yes they’re made out of felt – but these are the only Cratchits who truly act like they’re in mortal terror that their child is going to die.
Think about the puppeteers working that scene. Think about all the children they’d worked with all over the years. Think about how many of those children might have been handicapped, or sick, and think about everything those puppeteers would have observed with those children and their families. Think about them playing the Cratchit scenes so soon after the deaths of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt. I can’t think about these things without a little tear in my eye – and I can’t hear Kermit the Frog give his halting little speech – the one that begins “Life is made up of meetings and partings” – without falling to the damn ground in paroxysms of ugly sobbing.
Best Party at Nephew Fred’s – Alistair Sim
One of the tricky parts of Dickens’ story is that Scrooge’s estrangement from his nephew Fred is supposed to be one of the great tragedies of his life, one of the problems the ghosts are there to solve – but in the wrong hands, Fred and his friends can come across like a bunch of jerks. Sure, Fred comes to his uncle’s defense during their Christmas party, but it’s the most tongue-in-cheek defense possible, and it’s only necessary because he brought up the subject of his uncle in the first place, in front of his louche friends. If you’re in a particularly anti-social mood, you might that these Victorian proto-Santa Con revelers completely justify Scrooge’s misanthropy.
The Alistair Sim version sidesteps all of this by having some helpful pianist play “Barbara Allen” at the party – the song which we’ve already been led to associate with Scrooge’s late sister, Fan. After all, the tragedy of Scrooge’s estrangement from Fred is really that he’s cut himself off from his sister’s legacy, the legacy of the one person he was ever truly close too. The Sim version has already drilled this point home through the most gut-wrenching version of Fran’s death that’s ever been put to film; the party at Nephew Fred’s is just one more turning of the proverbial knife. It’s a brilliant invention of the filmmakers’, and it makes you completely forget how Topper’s kind of a dick.
Best Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – George C. Scott
It’s hard to mess up the Ghost of Christmas Future – but at the same time, it’s hard to something truly special with a guy in a big black cloack. Do something like put a spooky skull head on him – lookin’ at you, Albert Finney version – and you wind up looking silly.
There is nothing silly about Michael Carter’s ghost of the Future in the George C. Scott version. Like all of the ghosts Scott encounters, he’s made up of equal parts diva complex and mood lighting. He doesn’t surprise Scrooge, looming into frame with the jump scare so many other versions use. No, this time, there’s a sudden lighting changed, and this…thing…is just standing there in the background. It nods – but it doesn’t move like there’s a human being beneath the robes. It’s not clear if it’s wearing robes at all, or gauze, or a funeral shroud. Its hand isn’t bone, but it isn’t flesh. It’s all…wrong…this unnatural, implacable thing that reeks of death and is terrifying enough to humble George C. Scott. All Ghosts of the Future are supposed to be scary – this one is.
Best Joe the Beetler Scene – Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol
This scene – where the charwoman, the laundress and the undertaker go to Old Joe tofence everything they’ve looted from Scrooge’s corpse (spoiler alert, I guess) – is another one that can easily go awry. The point – that Scrooge died alone and unwanted, a carcass to be picked at by metaphorical vultures – is made in an instant, but the scene itself goes on and on. Even the version in the Alistair Sim version, the usual choice for the definitive Christmas Carol, feels interminable – and that version has Ernest Freakin’ Thesiger as the undertaker.
In Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Broadway pros Merill and Styne smartly realized that, if the scene’s going to stop the show dead in its tracks anyway, it might as well be a showstopping number. I hope to avoid this grisly fate myself, but should I die alone and unwanted and the metaphorical vultures come to pick clean my carcass, they damn well better belt out the “Plunderer’s March” when they do it.
Best Redemption – A Christmas Carol, 1999 (Patrick Stewart)
The conventional approach to Scrooge’s post-vision Christmas morning is to make it jubilant. Hooray, Scrooge is reformed, the church bells peal as he runs around forgiving debts and handing out Christmas presents. It’s fun – but it misses the point that Scrooge is now aware of how awful he’s been to people his whole life until now, and somehow has to live with that as he tries to put everything right.
The Sim interpretation hits these notes of guilt and shame – indeed, the Sim interpretation hits just about all possible notes you could possibly play with this character. That said, no version of the story has stressed this particular aspect quite like the 1999 telefilm with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Scrooge legitimately mistakes his happiness for the signs of a heart attack. He’s profoundly awkward as he tries to reenter human society on that fateful Christmas morning, being just a little too loud when he greets people, not knowing to take his hat off in church. He’s had no practice for decades, after all, and it clearly hurts him even as he makes his sincere efforts to reform. The shame of facing the family he’s turned his back on hurts him – he’s in clear physical pain, and anguish. Anybody who’s ever known this sort of estrangement – or even just been alone on the holidays – knows what that pain feels like.
The version I’ve stitched together above doesn’t actually exist, of course – but with sufficient binge watching time you could make it exist if you want it to. Or you could turn off your television and go out caroling, or stay inside with family and friends. However you do it, Happy Holidays to you all!