“Marley was dead: to begin with”. As Rizzo the Rat might say, spoiler alert!
In December 1843 Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” (unnecessary full title: “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”) and it was a hit. Each edition published quickly sold out and prompted Dickens himself to undertake hugely popular public readings during Yuletide in the following years right up until his death in 1870. An inevitable staple of the leadup to Christmas, Dickens’ timeless story has become one of the most frequently adapted titles for stage and screen in the English language.
This is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a cruel, miserly and solitary businessman who despises charity, human warmth and empathy shown to others, especially during the festive season. To Scrooge, Christmas is “a humbug” and those who keep it and make merry, such as his impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit and kindly nephew Fred, are merely deluding themselves and others of the notion that we are kindly by nature. Following his usual 24th December dismissal of cheer and goodwill, Scrooge is visited the night before Christmas by three ghosts offering visions of his his past, present and future, and in so doing inspire lasting change in his outlook on life and his treatment of others.
If we considered every film, television special, miniseries and animation, we wouldn’t be done in time even for next Christmas, so we’ve limited our selection in this edition of Ranked to the most prominent film adaptations released theatrically. Based on creativity of the adaptation, critical reception and how each version evokes the spirit (pun intended) and message of Dickens’ work, this is The Film Magazine’s A Christmas Carol Films Ranked.
7. Scrooged (1988)
You don’t tend to get that many adaptations of this story set in contemporary times, so Richard Donner’s flawed cult classic film certainly gets to stand out from the pack in that regard.
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is the Scrooge stand-in here, a narcissistic cruel bastard of a TV executive persuaded to change his ways during the filming of – guess what? – a “Christmas Carol” TV special.
You don’t have the jingling of bells or jangling chains before the ghosts show up here but the rattle of ice cubes in Frank’s disgusting drink (vodka and sugar-free Tab) shaking in his hand. Frank decides to try shooting his first spectral visitor (John Forsythe) with a gun before his reality is called into question, “You’re a hallucination brought on by alcohol, Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl!” (much like the original story’s “you may be an undigested bit of beef…”).
The three ghosts in this version are a New York cabbie (David Johansen), a physically abusive sugar plum fairy (Carol Kane) and a robed figure with a TV screen for a face. The modernist take on Dickens is an interesting idea, but it’s very obviously a film patched together where the star didn’t share the same vision as his director. Scrooge/Cross’s development feels pretty rushed and it’s hard to sympathise with an 80s film where a rich guy continues be be exactly as rich as he began at the film’s finale when he’s now got plenty of friends and employees who could use his help, something beyond trying extra hard to be nicer at Christmas.
The only outright comedy on this list isn’t as funny as some of the more direct adaptations, a damning indictment of how badly most of this 80s comedy’s getting-away-with-being-an-asshole schtick has aged.
Murray’s final monologue is a good moment of manic performance, just don’t think too hard about the actual content of the speech itself.
6. A Christmas Carol (1938)
With “Greater than David Copperfield” plastered over its marketing, it might look like they were aiming for real prestige in this American adaptation by MGM-contracted director Edwin L Marin, though in reality it was put on fast track to meet the looming Christmas deadline weeks away, a decision that would prove to be highly financially lucrative for the studio.
A now wheelchair-bound Lionel Barrymore (Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life) had to be replaced as Scrooge by English stage actor Reginald Owen (the Admiral in Mary Poppins) who does a serviceable if unremarkable job of it under heavy old-age makeup.
This is a pretty typical-looking Hollywood studio movie of the time, lacking the visual flare of earlier adaptations and the narrative boldness of later reinterpretations of this much-loved story, and all the famous scenes are presented pretty much exactly as you might expect them to be.
There are also quite a few new additions to the story in this version, the film opening with a cute scene of Scrooge’s jolly nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) playing with Bob Cratchit’s boys in the snow (Terry Kilburn makes for easily the most adorable portrayal of Tiny Tim on film). There’s also an unnecessary added scene where Bob (Gene Lockhart) gets sacked on the spot for inadvertently throwing a snowball at his miserly employer and another where Scrooge calls the night watch up to check his rooms after first seeing the apparition of Marley (Leo G Carroll).
There’s not a whole lot actually wrong with this version of A Christmas Carol, but it is really safe and rather uninspired, just the kind of film a studio might want to rush out for the holiday season… which they did.
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