“I’m going to watch every version of A Christmas Carol available on streaming services and decide which is best”, I Tweeted one bright winter’s day. Every reply I got said it was “The Muppets one”, which in fairness would usually be my answer too. But when was the last time anyone actually checked? And what happens when you watch 25 versions of the same story in a row? Why do people keep making new ones?
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella is one of the three core Christmas myths, trailing just behind the one about the baby in the stable, and the one about the big fella who hands out presents to children without having undergone a CRB check.
Though the nativity and the Santa/Father Christmas myth are explored extensively in cinema and television, A Christmas Carol has a unique place in popular culture – unlike those other well-trodden tales, it’s not based on folklore, myth or history, it’s a fire-side ghost story, devised by one man, self contained and wholly fictional, yet it feels mythic, with an allegorical core of social commentary.
Like any mythic story, it couldn’t be contained on the page or nailed to just one person’s interpretation: almost as soon as it was published it was being performed as readings. Within a year it had been adapted for a full cast on the London stage. Whenever a new form of mass entertainment was established, be it cinema, radio or television, the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge quickly followed.
The first filmed Christmas Carol appeared in 1901, and the most recent will be broadcast by the BBC over Christmas 2019, with Guy Pearce in the lead role and a script by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. In the intervening 118 years there have been countless adaptations:- realistic, animated, silent, musical, 3D, updated to the present day and puppeted. The popularity of streaming services means we have dozens to choose from. But which are worth your time? Which are the cheap cash ins, and which over-egg the pudding? I fired up Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTv, YouTube and the BFI website and tried to find out.
The earliest version of the story dates from the birth of popular cinema itself. Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (BFI.org.uk) is a silent short, first screened in 1901, and absolutely worthy of your time. Relying as much on the audiences pre-existing knowledge of the story as it does inter-title cards (still a new technique at this point) and based on a recent stage version, this is a ruthlessly economic retelling, with state of the art visual effects for the era. Many tropes that would be borrowed for future versions originate here, from shortening the title to Scrooge, to condensing the four spirits into one (a common trick for television specials). It’s also a fascinating snapshot of movie history. Alas, only six minutes of the film has survived and we’re forced to abandon old Ebenezer as he’s confronted by his own tombstone.
Fortunately, a handful of silent versions of the tale have survived in full, two of which are available in their entirety on YouTube. A 1910 version, made by the Edison company, is another brutally shortened telling, with Marc McDermot as an excellent Scrooge; wiley, wiry and threadbare – a better look for the character than some of the more comfortable, mutton-chopped Scrooges that would come later (George C Scott, I’m looking at you).
Better still is a British take, made in 1914, and starring Charles Rock as the old meiser. At 22-minutes this was the longest Christmas Carol yet, and the first really satisfying version that could stand on its own cinematically, rather than just illustrating a few scenes from a well-loved book. The longer running time means more detail (the three ‘Spirits of Christmas’ are present for the first time), and better characterisation, especially for Bob Cratchett and his family. What’s more, this is a version that knows it’s a ghost story, not just a cosy festive yarn, something all too many Carols are guilty of. It’s genuinely creepy.
A feature-length version of the story with sound wouldn’t emerge until 1935. Scrooge, made by London’s Twickenham Studios, stars Seymour Hicks in the title role, a part he had been playing onstage since 1901, even appearing as the character in a silent version 22 years earlier (alas unavailable to us).
Scrooge was Hicks’s signature role, and it shows; he’s excellent as a brutish and brooding Ebenezer, whose gradual softening at the hands of the Spirits is done believably and feels natural. The movie itself has a novel solution to a low SFX budget: It misses out the ghosts altogether, representing them as disembodied voices and leaving the tantalising suggestion that the whole thing is happening in the meiser’s head.
There are several versions of this particular telling on offer (Amazon Prime’s somewhat-lax attitude to quality control means the service is a GOLDMINE for Scrooges)- including two different cuts in black and white, and a colourised/restored version. None of them are what you’d call pristine transfers, with only grimey prints having survived, but the scrungey look does add to the creepiness. Sadly, through no fault of its own, this is isn’t a film often discussed or fondly remembered. Four years later, Hollywood got in on the act, and MGM’s shiny and energetic 1938 A Christmas Carol, (Amazon Prime again) quickly became the go-to movie Scrooge. It’s a shame, because the earlier film has a far better grip on Dickens’ morality and tone. The latter version, which stars an aged-up Reginald Owen in rubbery prosthetics, zips along with an air of festive delight, skimming quickly over the sections of the book dealing with poverty and injustice, and defanging the scares. It’s probably the lightest telling done by a major studio, though it’s enjoyable enough.
America has always struggled with A Christmas Carol. Nearly all the better Scrooges are British (with a few notable exceptions), with Hollywood usually telling a cosy, family-friendly story that misses the dark humour and bottled fury of Dickens’ writing. The worst offenders are the schmaltzy TV specials (as brilliantly satirised in 1988’s Scrooged). A syndicated television one-off, Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol (Amazon Prime again), filmed live in 1949, is a typical example, all stilted dialogue delivered by actors either not bothering to attempt an accent or, worse, absolutely butchering one. It’s almost worth watching for a young Vincent Price delivering Dickens’ narration in the style of a kindly, young uncle, and the sight of future Bond-girl Jill St John as a button-nosed nine-year-old. Almost… but not quite.
British filmmakers, on the other hand, tend to really understand this story, though it took a decade for the MGM version to fade from memory enough to be tackled again on the big screen. It was worth the wait.
1951’s homegrown Scrooge (Amazon Prime) is arguably the best screen telling of the story of all. Alistair Sim plays the title role, and his Ebenezer is note-perfect, both as the formidable meiser and the cheerful old man of the story’s conclusion. It’s rare someone is believable as both. He also understands that Scrooge is funny – cracking jokes almost from the very start, despite his miserable demeanour.
It’s a trait of the character few actors exploit. Dickens’ key beats are all here, but Noel Langley’s screenplay isn’t afraid to expand the canvas, showing us more of Ebenezer’s relationship with Jacob Marley and the dastardly business maneuvers that put the pair on the road to wealth. George ‘Arthur Daley’ Cole is also excellent as the young Scrooge, artfully playing his hardening from damaged idealist to flinty businessman. It’s a compelling piece. Alas, America could never let a gritty Scrooge stand unchecked.
Three years later, New York’s CBS countered with another television special, this time broadcast as part of a series called A Shower of Stars (yes … it’s now on Amazon Prime). This first fully musical version of the story is a better take than the cheap-as-chips broadcast of 1949 and features songs by the legendary Bernard Hermann, who also provides a beautiful score. As is common with American productions, this is a lighter viewing of the story, slightly marred by expanding its middle section, leaving the Ghost of Christmas yet-to-come to be depicted rather oddly as a bird that guides Scrooge to his own grave.
For a while it seemed that musicals were the way to go, perhaps because the Sim version had nailed the straight story so successfully. In 1970 the production team behind the smash hit Oliver! decided they were onto a good thing with this Dickens stuff, and hoped their apples-n-pears-ave-a-bannana-all-singing Scrooge (British Christmas Carols always seem to be called Scrooge – this one is on Amazon Prime as well) would have similar success. It certainly looks the part, with huge production numbers, and hundreds of extras knees-upping through London’s snowy streets.
Albert Finney dons the stocking-cap and night-shirt here, aged with makeup to allow him to play his younger self in flashback. Finney’s Scrooge is absolutely grotesque, a slurring, spitting monster who sings about hating people; yet his is also one of the tenderest performances of the character. Ebenezer and Belle’s love story is beautifully handled, and his portrayal of pain as he loses his fiance is wrenching. It’s a note of human simplicity in a film that is, in all other ways, anything but simple. This version is one of the most ostentatious. Alec Guiness plays Marley with a strange, lurching camp, and for the first time the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is depicted as the skeletal Grim Reaper. At one point all of Scrooge’s debtors dance his coffin through the streets singing about how happy they are, and toward the end of the ‘Christmas Yet to Come’ section Scrooge falls into his own grave and literally goes to hell, where he’s fitted with his own chain. It is, if we’re honest, a bit much.
The following year, possibly as a reaction to the all-singing-all-dancing Finney version, a very different Christmas Carol emerged. Richard Williams Oscar-winning animation is perhaps the most beautiful-looking, and certainly most respectful to the spirit of the book of all the on-screen Carols. Artistically this short film takes its cue from the original illustrations in Dickens’ novel, with the sketched ‘camera’ panning and zooming in styles unfamiliar in traditional hand-drawn animation.
The story is cut to the bone to fit a short run-time of just half an hour, but instead of leaving the film hamstrung and rushed, this seems to concentrate the tale down to its barest, starkest themes. This is a lean, almost unforgiving version of the story, and is quite terrifying in places. A now-elderly Alistair Sim leads the voice cast, reprising his most-famous role, though it has to be said he adds little to his earlier performance. The first animated Christmas Carol had emerged in 1969, with Australian actor Ron Haddrick voicing the lead role without bothering to modulate his accent. Despite airing on US television for years the day after Thanksgiving, it’s a version of the story only really notable for adding unnecessary zingers to the script, and for depicting Jacob Marley as a flaming, screaming skull. Haddrick would return to the role in 1982, in a version that is, if anything, even less charming and even more Australian. It also, for reasons unknown, depicts the Ghost of Christmas Past as a nubile-looking young man in a short Ancient-Greek style tunic. It’s weirdly homoerotic. Neither take the crown for worst animated Scrooge though – that honour belongs to a 1997 musical, with Tim Curry voicing the lead, that gives Scrooge a pet dog called Debit, thus undermining the idea that he doesn’t care for anything anymore. Even Whoopi Goldberg as the Ghost of Christmas Present can’t save the car-crash.
All four versions are on Amazon Prime. I’m just grateful that 2001’s A Christmas Carol: The Movie, starring Kate Winslet and Simon Callow, isn’t available to stream and I’m spared having to see another syrupy animation. NowTV meanwhile (for, other platforms do indeed exist) has Bah! Humduck!, a Looney Toons telling of the story with Daffy Duck in the Scrooge role. It’s comfortably the funniest of the cartoon takes.
It took the Muppets, recently licensed to Disney and long away from the limelight themselves following Jim Henson’s death, to bring the story back to the big screen. The Muppet Christmas Carol (available on NowTV) emerged in 1992, and is quite rightly hailed as a classic. In fact, to a whole generation it’s pretty much the definitive version of the story, to the extent that there are genuinely people who believe that Jacob Marley always had a brother called Robert, and Scrooge’s old boss was called Fozzywig. There hadn’t been a big-screen Christmas Carol for decades, and the older versions syndicated every Christmas looked tired. If you’re seven years old, Alistair Sim is grumpy, Albert Finney weird and Seymour Hicks an inconceivable nightmare.
Michael Caine, on the other hand, is a Scrooge you could understand. The genius of this puppeted musical is the way Dickens’ story remains the heart of the tale, with the Muppet madness going on around it. In fact, this is a far more faithful Christmas Carol than many of the “classic” versions, often with dialogue taken directly from the page. It’s important that, though Miss Piggy is Bob Cratchett’s wife, and Gonzo is acting as a narrator, the three spirits themselves, while puppets, rarely stray from the characters described in the book. Caine treats the role extremely seriously, never over-figging the pudding or mugging for the audience. The added silliness also acts as a counter that allows the film to go to genuinely dark places – the famous scene in which Scrooge’s belongings are looted after his death and sold to a pawn broker is genuinely the creepiest interpretation in the entire Christmas Carol canon, with Old Joe depicted as a bug-eyed spider. The film also boasts the scariest of all the Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come. Despite being a Hollywood musical made with puppets and containing a scene with rats in Hawain shirts singing “this is my island in the sun”, this is one of the big-screen versions that comes closest to Dickens in tone.
This isn’t Disney’s only crack at the story. Seventeen years later Robert Zemeckis would helm a 3D, motion captured animation starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge, and indeed all three spirits. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (NowTV) twists itself in knots trying to maintain the details of the books, even dramatising some scenes almost never depicted (it is the only version to date to include the guide dog that drags its blind master away from Scrooge in the street), but for all of that, always feels hollow. Partly it’s the creepy uncanny valley, zombie-eyed animation, and partly it’s the “pointy-pointy”, migraine-inducing style designed to show off the 3D tech, a fad which thankfully seems to have settled down.
No small amount of blame can be given to Jim Carrey, either, who sets his performance to maximum and never lets it rest, despite some wildly unreliable accents (if you can place the geographic origin of the Ghost of Christmas Present, then please let me know). In 1983 Disney had made Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a short animation that pulled the same trick as the Muppets by casting popular characters in familiar roles, with Mickey Mouse playing Bob Cratchett. Almost every line of dialogue from the book is rewritten, and yet it gets closer to the heart of the story than Zemeckis and Carrey ever do. The Carrey version plays out like a Christmas Carol greatest hits, borrowing here from the 1951 version, the 1938 version, the 1970 version, here from a 1999 British TV adaptation. The constant magpieing makes for an unsettled tone, and ten years on it has dated horribly.
Not so, the aforementioned 1999 TV mini-series (Amazon Prime). This production, broadcast by TNT in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, can be seen as a deliberate antidote to the popular Scrooges of the 70s, 80s and 90s, especially the George C Scott US TV movie, mercifully unavailable for streaming in the UK. Respected playwright Peter Barnes created one of the most grounded takes on the story yet filmed, focussing on both a physical and emotional realism amid the ghostly goings-on.
He was assisted by one of the very best on-screen Scrooges in Sir Patrick Stewart. Stewart, who had been performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man show on Broadway and the West End, brings a humanity to the character that almost no-one else, save possibly Seymour Hicks or Alistair Sim, seems to have gotten close to. In his hands the famous opening scene of the book (here pushed slightly back to accommodate Jacob Marley’s funeral), from which many of Dickens’ most famous quotations can be found (“Are there no prisons?”, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding”, “Humbug!”), becomes riveting. Stewart’s Scrooge doesn’t just hate Christmas, he is absolutely wounded by it. His is one of the few interpretations that understands the pain of the character – a neglected child who would later lose the love of his life, and see the death of his best friend, all at Christmas. A decade on, Zemeckis would try and put Dickens’ book on-screen in as accurate detail as he could, but he never got close to really understanding it as Barnes and Stewart did.
And still the adaptations of a Christmas Carol never stop. Aside from the literal versions, another common trope is to take the format and either graft it onto an existing TV show (Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, both available on Netflix), or else simply update it to the present day. Amazon Prime’s somewhat dubious quality control means we’re well served here, too, though not with anything you’re likely to watch twice. A 2018 low-budget update, set in Scotland and starring Harry Potter’s Bonnie Wright as Scrooge’s love interest, is charming if awkward, while in 2019 another retelling moves the story to Miami and focuses on “Ellen Scrooge” a ball-busting business woman in killer heels, who spends her time being awful to her Hispanic colleagues. It’s dreadful. Don’t watch it.
This is a story of continual relevance. It’s about Christmas, yes, but the best versions know that Christmas is just the excuse to tell the tale. A Christmas Carol is about materialism, about class, about poverty, family and kindness. About death, and ghosts and living. The reason it endures isn’t because of a cosy, holly-tinted view of Victorian Christmas that gives us a warm glow – a mistake the worst interpretations make – it works because its themes are universal. The way those themes have been interpreted down the years, through opulence and jollity as in the MGM 1938 version, or stark realism as in the 1971 animation, or even via respect for the source material and puppets with great jokes, tells us about the history of cinema as much as it does about our evolving values. There’ll always be another Scrooge, another Christmas Carol, animated, updated, musical or literal.
And just when I think i’m finished? Amazon Prime uploads a one-man version starring an actor called Martin Priest, shot on a single camera with a locked frame and no audience. It looks awful. I’m going to have to watch it anyway. God bless them. Every one.