Charles Dickens published his story "A Christmas Carol" on today's date - Dec. 19 in 1843. Although owing to the machinations of his publishers, it's financial reward to Dickens was quite modest, its sales made it wildly successful, and the timeless story it told brought almost universal critical praise. In our own modern era, there have been countless cartoon, musical and film versions. I will center our attention here on the four major dramatic film versions which have been produced. Two were for the cinema, and two were produced especially for Television. My purpose here will not be to say which is the best of the four (although I DO have a favorite version -- as I shall make clear soon enough), as I think that they all are very good within there own frames of reference. Rather, my purpose will be to compare and contrast what each version does, and how closely (or not) each version follows Dicken's book.
The first of our cinematic version was produced in 1938. It was originally to have the great actor Lionel Barrymore in the role of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. Barrymore had played the role many times before in a radio adaptation. Unfortunately, Barrymore was injured shortly before filming was to start, and was obliged to bow out. He recommended his friend Reginald Owen for the role, and Owen wound up doing a fine job. His Scrooge is the least nuanced of the four which we shall examine. He barks out his disdain for his nephew Fred, for Bob Crachitt played in this version by Gene Lockhart, and for the whole Christmas holiday with little apparent reflection on Scrooges part, and makes the transition into the better man equally quickly. Of course this version, being just slightly over an hour long at 69 minutes, takes little time to linger very long on anything. But it does have it's own charm. The ghost of Christmas past is played in this version by the beautiful Ann Rutherford. In the book, the gender of this spirit is not made clear:
Dickens goes on to refer to a fair skinned face without a wrinkle, long white hair, and long muscular arms and hands. Nowhere does he describe this spirit as being feminine. Nevertheless, in 1938, MGM gave us a beautiful young woman to accompany Scrooge on his first trip into his soul. It is also interesting to note that this version deals with the character of Fezziwig quickly - he just gives Scrooge and Dick Wilkins some money and invites them to his party later. There is no party scene, and no mention whatever of "Belle", Scrooge's old flame when young.
"A Christmas Carol" - 1951
The 1951 cinematic version with Allister Sim as Scrooge (indeed, the movie was actually entitled "Scrooge" in its British release), is viewed by many fans and critics as being the best of the lot. And Sim does do a superb job.His Scrooge is obviously annoyed by his nephew's greetings, in fact he seems genuinely impatient It is very interesting to note that this version spends more time fleshing out Scrooge's early development than any of the others. At 28 minutes it spends more time with the ghost of Christmas Past (this time portrayed as a long-haired old man)than it does on the other two ghosts combined. In fact this is the most time spent on any one of the spirits in any of the films. Once it goes past Scrooge's break with Belle, it has a host of material on the death of Scrooge's sister Fan (called "Fran" here), the end of Fezziwig's business, and the taking over of it by Scrooge and Marley (played by Michael Hordern)that is not in Dicken's book. But this addition of non-Dickensian material is something that all of the films do to one extent or another.
"A Christmas Carol" - 1984
In 1984, we have the first of two made for Television versions, this one starring George C. Scott as the hard-hearted miser of old London. And I should probably say right from the start, that this version is my favorite. Not necessarily the best, just my favorite. I love the characterization by George Scott - I love his cynical laugh, his gravelly sounding voice - which comes closest of all the versions to Dicken's description of Scrooge's voice as being "grating." Further, I love the full and imposing stature that Edward Woodward brings to his portrayal of the ghost of Chritmas Present, the screeching muted trumpet that is the only sound associated with the ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come, and the kindly, indulgent nature that David Warner brings to Bob Crachitt, and the theme song "God Bless Us Everyone" composed for this version by Nick Bicat. Most of all, I deeply moved by the frustration and angst which Nigel Davenport brings to the ghost of Jacob Marley. At the point where Dickens has Marley lamenting "Woe is me.." Davenport sheds tears and rattles his fetters in anguish rather than saying anything.
"A Christmas Carol" - 1999
The most recent of the dramatic (as opposed to the musical, animated, or computer-animated)versions is that produced in 1999 by the cable TV network TNT, and starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. And Stewart's Scrooge is without a doubt the angriest and most malevolent of the four we have examined. In contrast to Owen who is stingy, but changes quickly, Sim who is irritable but fairly soft-spoken, and in direct contrast to Scott who frequently smiles and laughs, albeit cynically, Patrick Stewart's Scrooge is thoroughly angry. He hates everything and everybody with a passion. His change to the better man comes neither quickly nor easily, he is not at all soft-spoken, and he neither smiles nor laughs -- until the very end when his Scrooge practically vomits out a laugh, something which is clearly every bit that alien to his nature. It is yet another excellent performance by this actor who approaches the story from the viewpoint of a man who had been doing "A Christmas Carol" as a one man show for fully a decade before this TV version.
This version is all around a grittier, more realistic portrayal than any of the others. Richard E. Grant's Crachitt is thinner and more sallow looking than any other, and he and his whole family have bad teeth in this version as the real Crachitt's likely would have, had they been real. Also, a truly delightful version of "Fezziwig" is turned in by the actor
Ian McNease (right) singing at his Christmas party. The instru- ments accom- panying, the violin, clarinet, and the serpent horn are very much what would have been used, although the book speaks only of a violinist. And the song that is being sung at the party of Scrooge's nephew "I'm Shy" is very much the type of song which would have been sung around the piano in Victorian days.
All told, Hollywood has given us four very distinct and very well-done versions of Charles Dicken's story. Each one stays close to Dicken's tale in spirit, though to varying degrees in detail. Each one focuses on it's own facet of the tale, and each one in its own way does a superb job. I would like to take the Crachitt's from 1938, and put them into the 1951 version. I would like to take the ghost of Jacob Marley from 1984 and put him into the 1999 version. But take your pick. They all tell Dicken's story well and bring home the lessons that Dicken's sought to express. God bless them, everyone!
"The Man Who Invented Christmas" by Les Standiford, Crown Publishers, New York, 2008
"A Christmas Carol" dir. by Hugh Harman, 1938
"A Christmas Carol" dir. by Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951
"A Christmas Carol" dir. by Clive Donner, 1984
"A Christmas Carol" dir. by David Jones, 1999