Top Ten: ‘A Christmas Carol’ Adaptations
It’s that time of year to watch A Christmas Carol! But which one? Browse the cable guide or pick your favorite streamer and you’re bound to find everything from musicals and animation to Barbie and the already essential Muppets all in the Dickensian spirit. Read on for an eclectic mix of A Christmas Carols be they vintage finds and dark performances or lighthearted tunes and family-friendly ensembles.
10. The Christmas Carol (1949) – Streaming on Amazon Prime
A young Vincent Price (House of Usher) reads Charles Dickens in this early 1949 television production, anchoring onscreen transitions with enjoyable suave and a touch of holiday cheeky. Though black and white, a fittingly aged, green patina on the video transfer adds vintage to the quintessential merry dialogue and memorable spirited iconography. The acting is dated amid stilted direction, bare-bones designs, choppy editing, and basic camera work. The considerably condensed time frame also means an unusual Ghost of Christmas Past and the subsequent timely visitors only receive one essential scene each. Fortunately, most of that trimming is forgivable in the medium’s post-war infancy, and the ghostly effects are surprisingly well done for the time. Fun music accents the paired-down dressing, and the quick, festive simplicity makes this adaptation just right for the whole family.
9. A Christmas Carol (1954) – Streaming on Amazon Prime
Originally this December 23 1954 musical television event was in color, but the black and white tape adds a certain frost to the church bells and gas lamps. Unfortunately, the shrill holiday notes immediately date the caroling, detracting from Fredric March’s (Best Years of Our Lives) perfectly miserable mannerisms. Thankfully, melancholy notes from Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) fit Scrooge’s counting house grim. The ghostly overlays on Basil Rathbone’s (Sherlock Holmes) Marley are well done creepy, and that haunting score matches his raspy voice and contorted movements. Cravats, tricorn hats, and Regency gowns also push the timeline back compared to the usual mid-Victorian Dickensian generic. It’s likewise fascinating to have Scrooge’s lost love play our Christmas Past and Nephew Fred double as Present for a cost effective, smaller ensemble with an intimate, stage-like presentation and more personal angst to the lessons learned. It’s surprising more adaptations don’t do this, but the mid-century song interludes sadly waste too much time – leaving this story without all the ghostly appearances when Scrooge himself could have been our Future phantom. Why have a largely faithful script with quintessential holiday specters bowing to music numbers? Trading the silent, wouldn’t carry a tune Christmas Yet to Come for immediate convenience compromises the reform, leaving March to carry the inspirations himself anyway. Although I wish there was more time to relish the fine performances and some will tune out over the singing; the songs can be skipped and fans of the cast can make merry.
8. The Man Who Invented Christmas – Streaming on Hulu
Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as Charles Dickens alongside Christopher Plummer (Somewhere in Time) and Jonathan Pryce (Hysteria) in this whimsical 2017 account of what really happened during the 1843 writing of A Christmas Carol. Fancy garb, quills, whispers of holiday sprites, and humorous crescendos create charm before dark cemeteries, bitter mourners, and snobby friends wishing the poor would die inspire Dickens to write about a vile money maker learning the err of his ways thanks to spiritual intervention. Scenes we know and love are acted out before him as bemusing characters add their opinions on the Carol quotes whether Dickens wants them to or not. The whimsy stalls, however, as real-world Victorian parallels interrupt the characters arguments, leaving the narrative uneven when we shouldn’t leave Dickens’ breakthrough frenzy. His struggle about what of himself to put on the page is enough yet problems are created just for a third act resolution assuring hope wins the day. This isn’t necessarily a Christmas movie, and the family friendly fantasy may be too much for those seeking hardcore Dickens, not gimmicks, but there are enough wholesome nuggets and inventive twists here.
7. Scrooge (1935) – Streaming on Amazon Prime
Festive carols belie frosty streets and a lone candle flame for warmth in 1935’s Scrooge, and Seymour Hicks (also a star of a silent 1913 Scrooge) is a deliciously ornery, cranky money lender. Establishing scenes between Scrooge and Cratchit hit home the desperate divides, but our hunched, crusty miser isn’t wrong when he says Christmas wishes are humbug. Some of the extra contrasting thirties jolly, however, is a bit much – regal balls, sweets, toasts, and God Save the Queen. Fortunately, the ominous door knocker, ghostly bells, and haunting footsteps add spooky alongside the story’s cruelest love lost, death shrouds, and dire consequences. Silent style direction matches the solitary Scrooge, but many characters are eliminated – even the ghosts responsible for our spirited intervention are reduced to voiceovers, shadows, and comic relief. Scrooge can see them but we can’t, which is both cutting corners shrewd and disappointing. One should see the longer seventy-eight-minute original here, as the colorized option is only sixty-odd minutes with important moments missing. I often confuse this with the 1938 version starring The Lockharts, yet amid so many Carol options, this fit the bill for quick holiday amends.
6. Mickey’s Christmas Carol – Streaming on Disney+
This Oscar-nominated 1983 half-hour has Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit against who else but Scrooge McDuck. Familiar phrases mix with new humor as cruel Ebeneezer has Cratchit doing his laundry for half a penny and Nephew Fred Donald Duck is kicked to the curb amid sarcastic slapstick and tossed wreaths. The script pairs Dickens down to what young audiences understand in this short amount of time. It’s wrong to swindle and put money above people and kindness should be the measure of a person not height – so says our Ghost of Christmas Past Jiminy Cricket. Subtle quips anchor time transitions, for why should Scrooge be fearful of flying with spirits when he enjoys looking down on the world? The animation is also fine with hand-drawn nostalgia, snow, and shadows that don’t need unrealistic action once Goofy Marley is creeping up the stairs. Festive Fezziwig music, giants, and choosing gold over love mistakes lead to graveyards, tears, and surprisingly hellish imagery mixed with endearing family charm. Even the House of Mouse won’t let us forget that the redeemed Scrooge is scared straight!
5. Scrooge (1970) – Available for Rent on Amazon and Apple TV
Golden Globe winner Albert Finney (Tom Jones) stars as the titular miser with Sir Alec Guinness (Star Wars) as the chain rattling Jacob Marley in this acclaimed 1970 musical adaptation. The cranky tunes and somber notes may seem counterproductive as the begrudgingly vocal Ebenezer encounters scary ghosts, dark imagery, and freaky effects. However, the bitter remains superior to the occasionally questionable music selections and extra sing song sentiment that may be too much for some. Thankfully, many faithful lines from the book remain, and Finney is absolutely delightful as both Scrooge the grump and a younger Ebenezer in an almost unrecognizable dual portrayal that should be done more often. Although some sequences might be too scary for super young viewers, the glorious locales, period costumes, Victorian décor, and upbeat tunes create unique holiday enchantment.
4. A Christmas Carol (1984) – Streaming on Roku Channel and Starz
Christmas Present Edward Woodward (The Wicker Man), Cratchits David Warner (Titanic) and Susannah York (Superman), oft-excised sister Fan Joanne Whalley (Willow), and many more join Patton George C. Scott as Scrooge in this 1984 faithful adaptation. Schoolboy Ebeneezer, festive Fezziwig, holiday games, and memorable quotes are restored amid on location snow and ghostly carriages hitting home the frigid as ever. Scrooge is on the money when he says Christmas is nothing but being another year poorer because spending what you don’t have doesn’t do anybody any good. His hard business at the exchange is menacing, but Scrooge is also holly staked through the heart sarcastic, effortlessly delivering the line for line Victorian wordy with demented ease. Making idle people merry is bad business and they should die to decrease the surplus population, and the something afoot this night suspense builds with shadows, lighting, ringing bells, and rattling chains. Phantoms bellow while visual attention to detail accents the spirited awe and restlessness. These ghosts are pretty fed up with Scrooge’s entitled attitude by the end of each encounter! Although this captivating tale speaks for itself without anything fancy and the eighties special effects are weird, the surreal fantasy mood adds to the nightmarish revelations before blankets of smoke and hooded figures snuff out the light of truth. Death is nothing but time to divvy the money when you place profit over passion; Ignorance and Want lead to doom and denial – but reclamation is at hand.
3. Scrooged – Available for Rent on Amazon and Apple TV
It’s an A Christmas Carol as only heartless television executive Bill Murray (Ghostbusters) can deliver in director Richard Donner’s (Superman) 1988 Scrooged. An off the rails live Carol production with all the cliché Victorian trimmings adds show within a show parody to the dark Dickensian tension, fired employees, and network competition. Lost love Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), violent Ghost of Christmas Present fairy Carol Kane (Taxi), Marley-esque John Forsythe (Dynasty), Cratchit cum secretary Alfre Woodard (Miss Evers’ Boys), and more teach this bitter towel giving boss a lesson. Yes, the back and forth structure and the improvisational performances can be uneven. However, while dated in some eighties looks, sing alongs, and falling flat slapstick; the fifties flashbacks, parents struggling to afford luxury beef, traumatized fatherless children, homeless plights, workplace shootings, and working to live or die are more relevant than ever. Memorable quips, nostalgic humor, and a frightful, fiery prophecy parallel the Dickensian commentary and capture the bleak, depressing side of the contemporary holiday season with deliciously brutal zing.
2. A Christmas Carol (1951) – Available for Rent on Amazon Prime
I never get tired of the 1951 Alastair Sim (Green for Danger) A Christmas Carol! The melancholy structure and morbid silver screen atmosphere feel Dickensian faithful compared to other happy, condensed editions despite understandable character tweaks and changes in Scrooge’s past here. We can also forgive the iffy colorized version thanks to the chilly Victorian frost and fun smoke and mirrors ghosts. Period carols mix with ominous notes and frightening wailing as the ugly and unlikable Sim goes from miser to redemption. While the rest of the ensemble feels like British caricatures with holiday cliches and ear damaging put on Cockney, the spiritual undercurrent comes across with familiar bah humbug dialogue and nearly complete ghostly visits. This version helped create the expected pattern most A Christmas Carol adaptations follow, and today we relate to the “weigh everything by gain” mentality more than ever. The Dickensian economics, unfortunately, may not have changed, but this swift ninety-minute encapsulation tugs at our heartstrings with hopeful possibilities.
1. A Christmas Carol (1999) – Available for Rent on Amazon and Apple TV
A.K.A. the one with Patrick Stewart (Picard), this ninety-three minute TNT original movie also features Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I), Dominic West (The Wire), and Joel Grey (Cabaret) amid bleak churchyards, snows, and shadows blending together. Quotes here are reused in different places as more book details return – scaring child carolers, wailing spirits beyond the window, Silent Night around the world, and bedside vigils. It’s disturbing to see the charitable men so aghast when Scrooge’s cruel sentiments are more common than ever, yet lovely locales, fiddles, and festivities remind us how giving others happiness costs very little. Some special effects are low budget, but personal ghostly winds, the aging Present, and simple period details accent Scrooge’s doubt, defiance, and disbelief at the suffering he has caused and this chance to change his ways. He tries to get out of it, look the other way, blame the spirits for tormenting him with sad schooling and money over love. The meager are happier and more hopeful, and our wealthy miser is less fit to live compared to the innocent enduring the consequences of his offenses. The often shortened bartering scene is here in full cackle rings and all while the mantilla-esque Yet to Come design invokes a medieval, last rites funerary. Scrooge is afraid to face what he has become, and despite Stewart’s other iconic characters, we believe his transformation. Of course, it happens in one night and Scrooge struggles to laugh and sing along – rusty at warm welcomes after such worship of profit. If you’re not moved to take pause and look at yourself, particularly this year when the backs that would help others have been turned on so many, watch this and regain your hope that we are not beyond spirited redemption.