When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he wanted to make people think about the plight of the poor. Over 150 years later the many film and stage versions have kept the evils of poverty very much in the public eye. While it is true that a lot of the versions are not particularly good, any version that leads one person to read the original book has done its job. Here are five versions that should prove to be good introductions to this timeless story. As Dickens said:
May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no-one wish to lay it.
In this early cinematic adaptation, Scrooge is played by Alastair Sim. Marley is played by Michael Horden who created a small piece of celluloid history by portraying Scrooge in the BBC TV version 30 years later. He is the only actor to have played both roles on screen. Familiar names crop up throughout the cast, such as George Cole (as young Ebenezer) and Patrick MacNee, Hattie Jacques and Jack 'Dixon of Dock Green' Warner.
This film is often seen as the definitive version of A Christmas Carol but it actually introduces a number of new scenes that illuminate Scrooge's hardening attitude as money takes over. One scene that has been added is a deathbed scene showing his beloved sister's last moments as she succumbs to the fatal effects of childbirth. Scrooge hears the cry of his nephew as he is about to leave, and looks at the cot with pure hatred. It is an incredibly powerful scene that actually improves upon the book. Scrooge is also shown acquiring Mr Fezziwig's company. We see Fezziwig as a distraught, defeated man whose plight elicits some pity from Scrooge. His guilt is plain to see, but it is clear that this is the last human reaction we will ever see from him. By the time Marley is dying, Scrooge is so hard-hearted that he refuses to answer his partner's plea for a final visit until the counting-house has reached the appointed hour of closure.
It is very much Alastair Sim's film, but the supporting cast allow him to shine by playing even the smallest part with great attention to detail. There are two minor quibbles with this film. One is the final transformation of Scrooge where Alastair Sim plays down the redemption and plays up the humour. It doesn't spoil his performance, but it takes the edge off of it to some extent. The other problem lies in its tendency to gloss over the harsher elements of the story. It means that the film lacks a little of the dramatic tension that gives the story its power. Having said that, its reputation is secure as each new generation falls under its spell.
This is a musical version with songs by Leslie Bricusse that starred Albert Finney as Scrooge. The supporting cast is a 'who's who' of British cinema with Alec Guinness, Kenneth More and Dame Edith Evans amongst others. A revamped version was adapted for the stage in the early 1990s.
The main pleasure in this production lies in watching the cream of British acting talent throwing caution and good taste to the wind as they have a whale of a time. The sheer enjoyment of this production makes it an irresistible film to watch. Kenneth More stands out amongst the supporting cast with his fruity and dominant Ghost of Christmas Present. His one-liners at the expense of Scrooge provide an interesting contrast with Edward Woodward's portrayal. Way down the cast list you find the excellent Anton Rodgers who seizes his chance with both hands as he leads the cast in the showstopper 'Thank you very much'.
The songs are of a high standard for the most part, and they do not detract from the story. Rather, in the tradition of all good musicals, they move the plot along. It is not the most faithful of film versions, and for this reason it is often derided by critics. Purists may not like the film, but the family can happily sit together and watch it for what it is. The most jarring scene comes towards the end when Marley meets Scrooge in Hell. It is completely unnecessary, illogical and badly acted from beginning to end. Maybe it is what scene selection was made for on DVDs! When compared with the stage version it is very much a 'work in progress', but for all that, it is a welcome addition to the filmed versions of this classic tale.
A Christmas Carol (1972)
This version is an animated short lasting just 27 minutes. The voice of Scrooge is provided by Alastair Sim, 21 years after he had created his best-loved role in Scrooge. The animation is directed by Richard Williams, the producing credit belongs to the inimitable Chuck Jones, Sir Michael Redgrave is the narrator and the music is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
For any young child, this is the perfect introduction to this timeless tale. The subject matter is treated with respect, as are the audience, who are never talked down to. The traditional animation was meant to reproduce the appearance of the original illustrations and in this it succeeds brilliantly. The effects are stunning, but the cartoon makers never use an effect purely to impress. Every frame carries the story on, as the tale is told verbally and visually. The appearance of Marley's ghost will chill many adults, especially as he removes his handkerchief and lets his jaw drop. The journeys of Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are realised more effectively here than in any other version. The miner singing a carol in the flickering firelight is a mesmerising image. There are no weaknesses in pacing as every strand of the story is told with fantastic precision. The narration is perfectly paced, and Alastair Sim complements the animation with a more subtle performance as Scrooge.
The film-makers create a Scrooge that does not resemble Alastair Sim, which is a wise move as it does not distract the attention. The only allusion to the 1951 film is the character of the pawnbroker, a marvellously-realised cartoon portrait of actor Miles Malleson who played the part in that production. It succeeds where all other cartoons have failed by refusing to tone down the frightening aspects of the original story. The appearance of 'ignorance' and 'want' is genuinely shocking at any age.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
This Scrooge is portrayed by the great American actor George C Scott, the Ghost of Christmas Present by Edward Woodward, and David Warner plays Bob Cratchit. The whole production was shot on location in Shrewsbury, England.
This is the version closest to the original novel. You see 'a time when want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices'. It shows a dark, grimy and uncomfortable life for the average working man. In the novel it is mentioned that Scrooge's nephew married a penniless girl, but most film versions show him living in a large opulent house. This version shows a small but comfortable dwelling that is more in keeping with middle-class Victorian England. You catch glimpses of the upper-class Christmas, but it is the poor that this film is chiefly interested in.
George C Scott plays Scrooge as Dickens intended him to be played. He is not a pantomime villain, but a flesh and blood character who 'fears the world too much' as a result of his experiences. The scene where Fan comes to take her beloved brother 'home for good and all' is beautifully turned on its head when Scrooge's bitter father announces that he is only leaving the school in order to start work. He tells Scrooge that two days is as much as he can stand of him. Scott does not resort to any histrionics. A man of his standing would be calm, logical and pitiless as Scott plays him. Even the final scenes are played in an understated way, which give them a power and reality that is missing in the other versions.
Edward Woodward is the antithesis of the usual Ghost of Christmas Present. He is a nasty, vengeful and sarcastic spirit who delights in taunting Scrooge. He is, again, closer to the original novel because the ghost was a mouthpiece for Dickens' concern for the poor. He despises Scrooge and all his kind for the havoc that they have wreaked on the poor.
The only weak points in this version are Scrooge's nephew and Bob Cratchit. They are both fairly unsympathetic characters whose innate goodness is not allowed to shine as brightly as it does in other versions. Dickens intended both of these characters to be shining lights who could show us how to live in the true spirit of Christmas. This is, however, a minor quibble. It is a marvellous production that does justice to the true spirit of the original novel, and in George C Scott you have the definitive 'Dickensian' Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
This is Patrick Stewart's version of A Christmas Carol. He plays Scrooge, while Richard E Grant is Bob Cratchit. The film is an American-backed production, but the cast is resolutely British apart from Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Patrick Stewart almost turns this film into a filmed version of his one man show. After the film you can remember Stewart's performance in detail, but the other aspects are very difficult to recall. Luckily his strong performance carries the entire film in a role he was desperate to play. His stage heritage shows itself clearly in the portrayal, but his dominance of every scene only serves to highlight the imbalance of this production. His is a robust Scrooge who has energy and presence. Although Dickens never alludes to Scrooge's age in the novel you feel that the virile Scrooge is more in keeping with the original intention.
The scene with Marley and the wandering phantoms is extremely well-handled. The book is faithfully rendered, and the travels of the Ghost of Christmas Present are fully covered, in contrast to most other versions. The Cratchit family Christmas is affecting, and the nephew is the personification of bonhomie. The scene where Scrooge sees his nephew's wife brings a tear to the eye, and a lump to the throat. You can see Scrooge's palpable regret at the realisation of the happiness that this extended family could have brought him, if only he had 'opened his shut-up heart' earlier.
This film is a good, live-action version to introduce to the children, and an effective film because of the central performance. It is, however, a missed opportunity in many other ways.
The Surplus Population!
There are many versions of this classic tale. Nearly every cartoon character has transformed into Scrooge with uniformly poor results. The one exception to this was Mickey's Christmas Carol which, while not 'classic' Disney, is a good introduction to the tale for the under-sixes. Blackadder's Christmas Carol was, arguably, the weakest programme of the whole series. As a rule, updates never work, because they are too worried with camera trickery and sly in-jokes. Scrooge has been a cowboy, a woman and a TV executive in three poor-to-average films. Films with more than a nod to Scrooge are more successful, with Bill Murray's Scrooged and Groundhog Day, or Nicolas Cage's The Family Man all worth searching out. Only the Muppet Christmas Carol rises above the morass with its manic humour and Michael Caine's excellent Scrooge. It only missed out on the top five because of its weak songs, and the toe-curling embarrassment of Waldorf and Statler as the Marley Brothers. Otherwise it is an excellent introduction for the very young with its faithfulness to the story.