The Film Adaptations of A Christmas Carol Part One

Nearly every Christmas season I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and watch one or more of its film adaptations.  It’s one of those stories in which I never fail to find something new, something I haven’t previously considered.  And it has ghosts.  I wish there were more ghosts in the American tradition of Christmas.  So here are my thoughts on the many adaptations of A Christmas Carol.  In this post, I’ll look at the faithful ones, films that attempt to film the story without any major divergences from the text.  In the next post, I’ll look at films “inspired” by A Christmas Carol or that take a radical approach to adaptation.

Except for Shakespeare, more TV and film adaptations of Dickens’ works have been made than any other writer.  Christmas Carol leads the pack, with dozens of derivatives.  You can watch silent versions of the story, like Old Scrooge (1913) and A Christmas Carol (1923).  However, I haven’t been particularly impressed with any of the silents.  They are necessarily short and watered down versions, although I do like the ghost in Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901) with just a sheet over his head for a costume.

The two most famous early sound versions are A Christmas Carol (1938) with Reginald Owen as Scrooge and A Christmas Carol (1951) with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  Until the 1970s, the Owen CC was the version traditionally shown on television every year, but the Sim one has come to replace it as the adaptation that everyone thinks is the most traditional.  I don’t love either of them.  Sim’s performance is outstanding, utterly convincing as the miserly, hate-filled Scrooge and also as the gleefully reformed Scrooge.  The ghosts aren’t very scary, but you get a real sense of how Scrooge’s past has been emotionally haunting him.  However, the rest of the film is rather pedestrian.

In the 1938 CC, Reginald Owen sports one of the worst bald wigs in movie history and seems like he’s just doing an imitation of an old man throughout the film, never physically convincing.  And Owen’s Scrooge isn’t merely the ruthless miser, he’s just a dick, pushing people out of his way, being nasty with no provocation.  It’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.  He even learns his lesson before the arrival of what should be the most terrifying spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Future, but here is just an old guy in a holocaust cloak that’s too big for him.  None of the ghosts are scary.  Marley’s scream (a terrifying moment in the story) is just a pathetic moan.  However I do like Ann Rutherford as the Babe of Christmas Past and Gene Lockhart is great as Bob Cratchit.

Two other notable versions are the 1999 television movie with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and the 1984 one with George C. Scott.  I remember being very excited for the Stewart adaptation because he had performed a one-man reading of the story for years on stage and listening to a CD of that show had become a Christmas tradition for me.  But wow, what a letdown of a film version.  Stewart is not very good with a kind of automatic line delivery, as if he’s recited these lines thousands of times already (oh wait, he has) and his obvious physical choices to match the lines, complete with double-takes and grimaces of distaste, are just silly.

Ghosts are the best part of CC and the ghosts in the Stewart version are terrible.  Bernard Lloyd as Marley’s Ghost gives a very stagey performance.  His ghost is like a 19th century actor, declaiming his lines with faces to match his emotions, thinking the back row needs to see this grimace, too.  But this is so unsuited to not only film, but to a television movie, when your face fills nearly the entire screen on a close-up.  Television films also have the potential to be so intimate because of their delivery right into our homes that small gestures and slight expressions go a long way.

Patrick Stewart visited by Marley’s Ghost:

And then there’s Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. I’m not the only one who finds Joel Grey too creepy to look at, am I?  Especially when he smiles.

But this isn’t the same kind of creepy I want in a ghost.   And whose idea was it for that Future Ghost costume with the Jawa eyes and the very human, female arms poking out to periodically point the way.  Everything in this version screams, “Bad TV Movie,” from the sets and lighting (nearly every room is as brightly lit as a sitcom), special effects, and especially the hammy performances.

That brings me to the last adaptation of this post, the 1984 A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, my favorite and one that still holds up to repeated viewings.  In spite of being made for TV, this one looks like a feature film from the start (it’s also directed by Clive Donner) and was released theatrically in the UK.  One of the problems watching for someone who knows the book so well, or even a problem for someone who rewatches the movies over and over, is that the lines and scenes are so familiar that they cease to resonate.  I hear the lines in my head a split second before they’re spoken on film and that robs them of their impact, makes them sound hollow.  Not with George C Scott.  Unlike most Scrooges, Scott’s not afraid to smile and laugh, if only derisively.  He commands every scene he’s in and I’m still impressed (and convinced) with his reclamation at the end of the story.

Of course, I love the Scott version best because of the ghosts.  Frank Finlay as Marley’s Ghost is so terrifying that my children won’t even watch that scene.  Finlay is loud and histrionic, but his grief is so convincing that he doesn’t seem melodramatic.  His scream scares Scrooge and me.

George C Scott visited by Marley’s Ghost:

Angela Pleasance’s Ghost of Christmas Past is suitably ethereal and unsettling. Edward Woodward is lively and brimming with joy as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  And the Future Ghost is as scary as ever, with a very creepy screeching sound that accompanies its gestures.  You believe it when Scrooge is scared to death of him.  And isn’t that why I love A Christmas Carol?  I want a Christmas story that also scares the hell out of me.


Check back tomorrow for Edward’s rundown on the more nontraditional adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Author: Edward Pettit

Edward Pettit is the Philly Poe Guy and his book Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia will be published by The History Press in the Fall 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *