There have been somewhere between four and five thousand tv and film versions of “A Christmas Carol.” I’m not going through all of them, because I have junk to do and presents to wrap, but this is a brief guide to some of the best and worst of them.
If you mention “A Christmas Carol” to your grandparents, this is the one they think of. For a lot of people, this is the definitive version.
Everybody knows the basic story, right? Cranky English businessman Ebeneezer Scrooge gets haunted by some ghosts, including his dead partner Jacob Marley and stops being a jerk to his clerk Bob Cratchit and the world in general. Some productions have better Scrooges than others, some have better Marleys, some child actors can pull off Tiny Tim and some can’t. The iconic 1951 film version with Alistair Sim is successful on all counts. If there was some sort of standardized measure of Christmas Carol-ness, a “Dickens Unit,” it would be based on this movie. It’s really the standard by which all other versions are judged. This is almost the best version ever.
Score: 10 Dickens Units
The horrible musical:
There’s a 1970 movie musical version, called “Scrooge” starring Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley. There are ways to do a musical where the music moves things along. The people who made this thing were unaware of this. The movie periodically grinds to a halt so someone can croak out an atonal boring song. There’s a weird extended scene–not in the book–that has Scrooge going to hell and getting chained up by sweaty, greasy, shirtless devils. It’s an awful movie.
Score: 0.9 Dickens Units
The Jim Carrey thing:
Oh yes. There’s a version with Jim Carrey done in that disturbing, dead-eyed “Polar Express”-styled animation. The previews creeped me out and I never saw it. I’m not a damned Dickens scholar, I don’t have to see them all. I assume it’s blasphemous and awful.
Score: 0.0 Dickens Units
The Patton Version:
George C. Scott starred as Scrooge in a 1984 made-for-tv version. The casting is weird and shouldn’t work, but it does. Frank Findlay portrays, for me, the best Marley. David Warner is terrific as Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s nephew is played by the British ambassador guy from West Wing. There’s a particularly creepy Future Ghost. No one sings.
Score: 9.5 Dickens Units
The Captain Picard Version:
I just have a hard time accepting this one. It’s not bad, it’s just…well, I was able to forget George C. Scott was George C. Scott and accept him as Scrooge, but Patrick Stewart never stopped being either a) Picard, or b) “Look at me, I’m Master Thespian Patrick Stewart!” During the first half, I kept expecting Riker and an away team to come rescue him. Later, it’s like he’s racing William Shatner in a ham-eating contest. Picard is kind of…over-acting. His over-acting makes me wish there was some lost 1970s William Shatner version. (My god, what a treasure THAT would be). It’s made for tv, and the cinematography is very late-stage Star Trek: The Next Generation, which doesn’t help. The Ghost of Christmas Future is not very spooky. It looks like an adult-sized Jawa costume made of cardboard. Tim looks too healthy. Oh, if only Tim had been played by Wil Wheaton. On the plus side, this production has the creepiest version of Ignorance and Want. They hiss like vampires or something. They are extra creepy.
Score: 6.5 Dickens Units
The Chuck Jones animated version:
This lost-for-years 1971 version produced by master animator Chuck Jones is spooky as hell. Alistair Sim reprises his role as Scrooge. It scared the crap out of me as a kid. This version aired a few times in the early 1970s, then more-or-less disappeared. The animation, some based on original illustrations for the Dickens story, is effective and creepy, especially Marley. My only complaint is that it was cut to fit on tv and feels a little rushed. Watch it on youtube or buy a 16 mm film version on ebay.
Score: 8.5 Dickens Units
This is the best version ever. It’s the Citizen Kane of heartwarming puppet movies. “There goes Mr. Humbug, there goes Mr. Grim.” Michael Cane is Scrooge, Kermit is Bob Cratchit. Sure, there’s singing, but aside from one dullish love song, the music is really well done, unlike the ghastly puppetless 1970 “Scrooge” musical. This version, even though it’s done with pig and frog puppets, really captures the tone and message of the Dickens story. It’s a work of Christmas genius.
Score: 11.50 Dickens Units