As the great Noddy Holder once famously proclaimed in December of 1973:
I love Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. To give it its full title), not only is it a great story, it’s become one of the best and most adapted novellas ever. In fact, I believe it is the most TV and film adapted story ever made. Current count, there have been over ninety… yes nine-zero versions of the original story on TV and film since Scrooge (Marley’s Ghost) from 1901 to 2019. That’s a lot of different versions to cover and a list that would take me way too long to go through… and that’s exactly why I’m just going to pluck some of the many, many versions and take a look at them right here in this article.
When Mr Dickens first published A Christmas Carol back in 1843 (that’s a hundred and seventy-seven years ago for those counting), I don’t think even he knew it would be such an everlasting tale. One that has put in place many of the Christmas staples that we still hold dear today. In fact, up on its original publication, Charles Dickens had more than his fair share of critics. While A Christmas Carol was mostly enjoyed by many, some called the story out for its nonsense and as being rather hackneyed. Plus there was the high cost of the novella itself, being sold at five shillings in 1843, that’s around £25 ($33) in today’s money. The high cost of the book really came down to Charles Dickens’ insistence that it be printed on the highest possible quality paper and in hardback/leather covers too… for a small novella. Just to put it into perspective, A Christmas Carol has a wordcount of 30,953. Let’s get into the Christmas spirit and round that up to 31,000 words. Dickens’ previous publication, Martin Chuzzlewit, had a collective wordcount of a little over 375,000. £25 for a novella with only 31,000 words? But then again, when first editions of the book go for several thousand today, £25 doesn’t seem that expensive I guess.
Did you know the first public reading of the novella was carried out by Charles Dickens himself? On the 27th of December, 1853, Dickens read A Christmas Carol in the Birmingham Town Hall, England (my hometown). It was a reading to a selection of literary art types, before a repeat performance a few days later for the ‘working classes’. Also, Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol to the public at many events right up to his death in 1870. A Christmas Carol is simply the greatest Christmas story ever told and did you know that since its original publication in 1843 right up to today, it has never once been out of print? That’s pretty impressive.
Anyway, I’m here to yak on about and pick some notable adaptions of the story, and not bore you with pointless trivia on the novella itself. So here we go, my favourite adaptions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. I’ve provided links to trailers of my choices, just click the titles for a peek.
I guess the first place to start is with the first believed to be filmed adaption, Scrooge (or Marley’s Ghost) from 1901. Now, it can not be confirmed that this was the first ever filmed adaption, but this is the earliest one known to have been filmed and the only one that still exists today. Its a silent film and only a little over three and a half minutes long too as not all of the footage is available anymore (sources claim it was either originally nine or eleven minutes long), unfortunately lost to the ravages of time. Still, for the era it was made, it really is quite impressive how they got the main thrust of the story across with no dialogue. The ghost effects work and are quite damn good to be honest, for a film that is almost a hundred and twenty years old anyway. Directed by Walter R. Booth, who was a British magician and a pioneer of early filmmaking. Short and basic, but very ambitious and the beginning of a very, very long celebration of the famed Charles Dickens yarn.
Jumping forward a few decades or so and I believe that this is the first movie version of the story that I ever saw. Retitled A Christmas Carol in the U.S., this one stars the legend that was Alastair Sim as the titular Scrooge and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. It’s a rather gloomy and grim film, but that definitely works in the movie’s favour and really capturers the tone of the original novella well. Originally shot in black & white… which really does look beautiful in a darkly-gothic way, even today. There is a colourised version too, and it’s terrible, avoid! Alastair Sim really is just sublime as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. A wonderful performance and easily up there as one of the finest to take the role on. Not the first live action film adaption, but the one that set a very high bar that very few could match.
‘What the Dickens have they done to Scrooge?’, the trailer asks. Well, they’ve gone and turned it into an all signing, all dancing musical. That’s what I love about A Christmas Carol adaptions, they come in all shapes, sizes and variations, all adding their own unique flavour to the tale. Albert Finney takes on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and was only thirty-three when he played the old and miserly Scrooge, using make-up to age the young actor. Scrooge was nominated for various awards, including four Oscars, plus Finney won a Golden Globe for best actor. Some wonderful set design and memorable songs, even if the ‘ghosts’ are a tad unimpressive if I’m being honest. This is a very good and solid version.
Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
An animated (one of many) take on the classic tale from 2001. This one actually strays quite a fair bit form the source material, while the basic story is the same, changes have been made to allow for some alternate storytelling. Scrooge, voiced by Simon Callow, is far younger than usually depicted. This lends way to rekindle his relationship with his old flame, Belle, played by Kate Winslet. There are a handful of new characters not found in the original novella. The art style and animation is really quite bleak and foreboding, and all works really well for the story. Oh yeah, Nicolas Cage voices Marley’s ghost, which is reason enough to watch. Scrooge in this version is particularly nasty and is even indirectly responsible for killing Tiny Tim. Certainly more embellished over other versions, but the changes are (mostly) well implemented. Not a brilliant take, but one that does a few new things that I feel are worth a watch… plus Nicolas Cage.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
If you’re looking for a way to introduce the young ‘uns to Charles Dicken’s timeless Christmas narrative, then this is definitely the best place to start. First, it has a relatively short runtime of around twenty-five minutes. Second, it features pretty much every well known Disney character to boot. Of course Ebenezer Scrooge in this version is played by Scrooge McDuck… for blindingly obvious reasons. While Micky Mouse is the long suffering Bob Cratchit. The likes of Goofy, Jiminy Cricket, Donald and Daisy Duck, and Minnie Mouse fill out most of the rest of the roles too. Not as dark and gloomy as other adaptions… cos it is a Disney cartoon, but it really does act as the perfect way to get kids interested in the tale. I put it on for my three year old and she watched the whole thing. Plus, Pixar supremo, John Lasseter, was one of the animators on this one too… before he was ‘let go’ at Disney for wanting to explore computer animation. Yeah, as if that would lead anywhere.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
So, this one is directed by Clive Donner, who was actually the editor on the Alastair Sim starring 1951 Scrooge. This version was a made for T.V. movie, which usually are notably terrible, this one manages to turn out pretty damn good though. With the awesome George C. Scott as Scrooge, and a fantastic take on the character too. Scott just has one of those on-screen presences that works, plus his gravely voice is perfect for the role. One of my favourite depictions of the character ever. In fact, there’s actually a pretty impressive cast throughout, David Warner, Susannah York, Angela (daughter of Donald) Pleasence and Edward Woodward as one of the best versions of the ghost of Christmas present. Definitely one of the better takes on A Christmas Carol and one any fan should seek out.
WILMA!!! I used to love watching The Flintstones as a kid, a true Hanna-Barbera classic. It was basically a precursor to The Simpsons and the two shows share a lot of similarities too. The story in this one doesn’t follow the Dicken’s tale as closely as others. In fact, the plot features the residents of Bedrock putting on an amateur production of A Christmas Carol with Fred playing Scrooge in a play… which doesn’t make sense seeing as The Flintstones is set in the stone-age and the story didn’t exist then. Still, historical inaccuracy aside (as if The Flintstones was ever accurate), the writers of this one have put together a very clever and surprising take on the tale. There’s some great humour with clever meta references and jokes. If you want a family fun and very different take on Charles Dickens’ Christmas yarn, then you can’t really go wrong with this one. I really was genuinely surprised at how good this one is.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)
Blackadder is one of the greatest comedies ever created. One that is set in different time periods per series, but all connected via the central characters. This Christmas special is set between Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth. Of course, Rowan Atkinson plays Ebenezer Blackadder with Tony Robinson as the ever loyal Baldrick. In fact, pretty much every Blackadder actor is back in one form or another playing ancestors of their characters from previous series of the show. This version really turns the whole story on its head, I don’t want to spoil any surprises here, but I will say that this is not quite as ‘traditional’ as other takes on the tale are. Also, try to seek out the uncut version as a funny but disturbing joke was edited out after its original airing. Blackadder + Dickens = brilliant.
A Christmas Carol (1971)
I couldn’t find a trailer for this one… sorry. But we are back in animated film territory again and one produced by animated legend, Chuck Jones. It even won the Oscar for ‘Best Animated Short Film’ too. Beautiful hand-drawn animation that really helps to bring the characters to life. In fact, the art style is inspired by the original illustrations found in Dickens’s novella. Only a short twenty-five minutes runtime, yet it captures everything the novella offered really damn well. Plus, Alastair Sim voices Scrooge, playing the character for the second time… and doing it really well too. It really is a beautifully striking piece of animation that often gets a bit dark, scary and surreal, almost Pink Floyd’s The Wall surreal animation at times. In fact, I’d probably say that this is the most authentic and accurate version when compared to the original story. You know how I said I couldn’t find a trailer? Well I couldn’t, but I did find the whole film on YouTube instead. Highly recommended.
A Christmas Carol (2009)
This is a version I have a very deep rooted love/hate relationship with. I mean, it’s written and directed by one of my favourites, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). It stars Jim Carrey, who can either be amazing or just plain annoying. And it really is a visual treat too. But it just feels a bit flat to me, all show and no substance. Carrey plays multiple roles in this one, not just Scrooge, but also the three ghosts that come to visit Scrooge to show him the error of his ways. It’s too much Jim Carrey for me and his performances soon began to grate my nerves. There’s a really good cast here too, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth… but they get pushed to the back burner to make way, for what becomes, the Jim Carrey show. As I said, visually, this is sublime. The CGI work and motion capture is amazing and it’s a great way to see just how far we have come since the 1901 version. I bet this was a blast seeing in 3D on the big screen. But as a telling of the classic tale, there are far better versions out there.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
Another made for T.V. special, though it was later released on DVD. The mighty Patrick Stewart play Ebenezer Scrooge, and a damn fine job he does too. The idea to make this version came after Stewart performed one man versions of A Christmas Carol on stage on Broadway and London. A much more serious and sombre take and it handles the darker tones of the story really well too. The ghosts are genuinely creepy and effective too. But overall, this one is a little off target and doesn’t really hit the spot. A very average version, but still worth checking out even if only for Patrick Stewart.
Okay, so as I’ve been compiling this list, I’ve not put them in any particular order. They are just versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that I feel are worth looking into. Some great, some okay-ish ones. Some older classics, some more modern takes and even fun cartoons that really play around with the story. But now, I am going to put my final two picks into an order, my top two versions of A Christmas Carol. You can most probably guess which are my top two anyway…
We’ve already had a good mix of different takes on the story, but most of them tend to stick to a traditional and obviously Dickensian feel and tone, Victorian England setting and all that… except for The Flintstones which broke quite a few expectations. Very, very few adaptions try to break tradition and go for a more contemporary setting. Then you have Scrooged. Directed by Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, Superman: The Movie, The Omen) and starring Bill Murray. This one is very different to other adaptions before or even since, like The Flintstones version, Charles Dickens’ novella actually exists in the universe the film is set in. In fact, Bill Murray doesn’t even play Ebenezer Scrooge. Murray is Frank Cross, a slimy and hard nosed T.V. network president looking for ideas to gets viewers to tune into the network he works for over Christmas. So far, so very not A Christmas Carol at all.
Cross comes up with the idea to broadcast an overtly extravagant and live production of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve on his network. This means staff are forced to work over the festivities instead of being with their families. Frank Cross fires anyone who doesn’t like his idea or if they refuse to work, he’s particularly mean to his brother and all that stuff. Yes, Frank Cross is essentially Ebenezer Scrooge. So while the set up and modern setting is very different to the original tale, its basics are the same as Cross is visited by the ghost of his old mentor, who tells him that he will be visited by three ghosts. So the standard Scrooge character learns to be a better man and everything ends up working out for the better as the end credits roll and Bill Murray gets the audience to join in with a sing-a-long to Put a Little Love in Your Heart.
For me, its really Bill Murray who sells this one. He’s just great at playing those loveable arsehole types. Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. Speaking of Ghostbusters, this was the first major starring film Murray did after taking a long break after filming the 1984 spooky, comedy classic. He even thought about quitting from acting all together before signing on for this flick. Reports on set state that Bill Murray and director, Richard Donner didn’t get on at all, with both of them agreeing that making Scrooged was one of the worst experiences of their respective careers. There were disagreements on the direction the film should go, arguments over Murray’s famed ad-libbing, fights about the story and more. Yet despite all of the behind the scenes shenanigans, the end result is surprisingly great. The chemistry between Bill Murray and his love interest, Karen Allen is fantastic and the film features one of my favourite depictions of the ghost of Christmas future in any A Christmas Carol adaption. A nice and refreshing take on an age old story that has been done so many times the same way before.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Not only my absolute favourite version of A Christmas Carol, but also my all time favourite Christmas film ever (sorry Die Hard). I grew up watching The Muppets, Mom tells me that I was always transfixed to the T.V. whenever they were on. I’m now in my mid-forties and I still love The Muppets. It’s the anarchic and zany comedy, the weird and wonderful creatures (what is a Gonzo?), the amazing music and songs. The Muppets creator, Jim Henson was a legend and for me, this was his greatest achievement with the characters. Yes, yes, I know that Jim died in 1990 before this film (directed by his son Brian) was made. But if it wasn’t for everything he did before his death, to take The Muppets from unwanted pilot T.V. show (it was originally turned down by every major network in the U.S.) to worldwide phenomenon that is still going today, then The Muppet Christmas Carol would never had existed.
Anyway this version is strangely, a much more traditional adaption of Dickens’ story. As ‘traditional’ as you can be with The Muppets anyway. Back to the Victorian England setting and that very Dickensian tone…. but with The Muppets, and yet it works perfectly. Pretty much all of the cherished Muppets are here, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Mr. Fozziwig (Fezziwig), Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit and more. With Gonzo the Great (whatever he is) playing Charles Dickens himself. This is actually one thing that (I don’t think) any other adaption has ever done, use Dickens as the narrator, cos he narrates the original novella. In fact, The Muppet Christmas Carol takes several direct quote from Dickens’ and delivers them through Gonzo… seriously, what is he? And then you have the mighty Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. What I love about this particular performance is just how straight Caine plays it. He’s performing with the most (in)famously anarchic, ragtag and unruly ‘actors’ on the planet… they are The Muppets. Yet Michael Caine is 100% straight with them, as if he’s treading the boards at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with Sir Lawrence Olivier. It’s utterly brilliant, a lesser actor would play up to The Muppets, gurn to the camera (see the newer films) and try to fit their humour. Caine doesn’t, he treats this role as if he was acting with real performers in a straight take on the tale… and I love it.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is wonderfully chaotic and yet, beautifully grounded. The acting is brilliant, from both Michael Caine and The Muppets. The sets are gorgeous and cleverly designed, what with all the puppet work going on. The songs are amazing and still stick in my head all these years later…
“There goes Mr. Outrage.
There goes Mr. Sneer.
He has no time for friends or fun.
His anger makes that clear.
Don’t ask him for a favour.
‘Cause his nastiness increases.
No crust of bread for those in need.
No cheeses for us meeses.”
It’s stupid and zany, yet the source martial and story are still treated with deep respect too. A wonderful cocktail of various messed up ingredients that work perfectly together. My all time favourite Christmas film and one that I always watch on the big day.
So there you have it, my picks of A Christmas Carol adaptions that I feel are worth looking at. An eclectic mix of straight and traditional versions, to more absurd and comical takes. Live action, animation and even The Muppets. I think the reason my last two top picks are both comical is because the original tale is so dark that the juxtaposition of seriousness against comedy somehow works.
Still, whatever version of this tale you personally enjoy, I hope you have a good Christmas and all that stuff. I have one more article to end this year with, as I look at one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2020… and try to point out how much bullshit it all is… coming soon.