Three Christmas Carols
There have been hundreds of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, not to mention the countless homages, winks, and flat-out thefts of the original narrative’s structure. It’s like when different bands cover the same song: By and large, those adaptations keep the words and the tune (so to speak), but change how it sounds. I’m sure you know the story by now: Ebenezer Scrooge, a Yule-despising miser who loathes charity, ignores his nephew, and mistreats his sole employee, is visited one Christmas Eve by four ghosts. These ghosts endeavor to warm Scrooge’s heart, show him all he’s been missing by being such an utter creep, and scare him straight with the threat of dying alone and unloved. The spirits are successful in their efforts, and Scrooge wakes up Christmas morning a changed man. Half-mad with joy, he goes about setting right decades of bitterness and contempt so he can go to heaven, play charades, and make sure a limping kid fails to give in to his natural Darwinian destiny.
All of this is likely so familiar that it’s barely worth the effort required to recap it, but stories don’t need to surprise to be worth telling. I’ve seen my fair share of Carol productions, I’ve read the novella a couple of times, but watching the three made-for-television adaptations we chose for this review, I still found myself engaged, nodding in time to each plot beat like a tune so well-loved you can’t help dancing to it. Yes, Tiny Tim is and always will be a mortifying chunk of treacle, and the cast by and large are little more than archetypes with clever names, but most of them are charming and fun, and the world they inhabit is a warm one, even if it is a bit scary and dangerous at times. There have been great film versions of Carol (my personal pick would have to be 1951’s Scrooge, as Alastair Sim’s performance of the title role is about as definitive as you can get), but in a way, the story is better suited to television. For all its well-worn comforts, it’s slight—going strictly by narrative, there’s maybe 45 minutes’ worth of material all told. If movies entice with sights we’ve never seen, television is all about the attractions of home, and there aren’t many Christmas stories more inherently homey than this one.
For this essay, we’ll be looking at three strikingly different Carols. There’s the 1971 version, directed by Richard Williams, an animated adaptation that has Sim reprising his role as Scrooge in the voiceover. This 28-minute short is one of the eeriest, bleakest, and most beautiful renderings of Dickens’ work ever produced. Next up, we’ve got Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a 1983 Disney cartoon that cast Scrooge McDuck as his namesake, and Mickey as the perpetually poor Bob Cratchit. This one’s a slight cheat, as it was originally produced for theaters, but it’s become a television staple in the decades since its initial release. And finally, there’s the 1984 TV movie starring George C. Scott, the longest of the three, and the only live-action one. Given that each of these adaptations tell essentially the same story, for comparison purposes, I thought it might be fun to break down the basic components of the original Carol and see how the different versions approach the material. All three of these are readily available on YouTube, and all three are worth watching in their own right, although maybe not in a row, which is what I did, and now I keep asking small children what day it is and then demanding they buy me a goose.
Part one: You’re a mean one, Mr. Scrooge
The opening act of A Christmas Carol sets the scene: Scrooge and Cratchit in the counting house. Nephew Fred shows up and starts going on about the wonders of the season, and Scrooge rants about how Christmas is a “humbug,” and he wants no part in Fred’s festivities. At some point, there’s an encounter with men soliciting donations for charity, and they, too, get a helping of Scrooge’s sneering wit. All three Carols stick largely to the same script here, hitting the familiar quotes about “boiled in his own pudding” (although the Disney version leaves out “a stake of holly through his heart”), and Scrooge’s belief that poor-houses and prisons are suitable facilities for the destitute and suffering. These scenes (or scene, in the case of the two animated shows) firmly establish the somewhat lacking nature of Scrooge’s character: his bitterness, his greed, and his unshakable belief that everyone is doing their best to screw him out of a fair shake. This sequence also establishes the tone each adaptation takes, as it shows Scrooge at his absolute worst. We get a little more backstory about our protagonist later in the narrative, but this is a redemption story, and in order for it to have its full weight, we need to see the soon-to-be-redeemed demonstrating his need for salvation.
One of the reasons it’s fun to watch so many different interpretations of Carol is that, given the small amount of material each adaptation has to work with, it’s remarkable how far apart they can seem. As mentioned, each of the three Carols features the same characters, and many of the same quotes, but each comes from a far different perspective, and each creates a different effect. Williams’ version is sparse; the visuals are inspired by woodcut illustrations from the original book, and the voiceover work has a slightly muffled quality to it, distancing it from the animation to a ghostly, unsettling effect. Of the three, Williams’ is by far the spookiest, even labeling itself “A Ghost Story Of Christmas” in the opening credits. The George C. Scott film is less alienating, due in no small part to Scott’s performance. Most Scrooges are caricatures of some form or another; despite being so famous his name became an adjective, Scrooge is surprisingly under-realized in the novella, most likely become he’s more symbol than man, an icon of rapacious greed and curdled love. Scott’s interpretation is more humane and recognizable, as the actor takes his usual gruffness and modulates it downward. It’s possible to see the person underneath all that griping, and it’s even possible to be somewhat sympathetic toward him from the start, although this may be due to Roger Rees’ Fred, who comes off more invasive than cheerful.
Then there’s the Disney version:
Mickey’s Christmas Carol is the most overtly comedic of the three, and the most energetic. While Williams’ Scrooge is unpleasant and mean, and Scott’s Scrooge is a bastard you kind of like in spite of yourself, Scrooge McDuck is goofy and fun, a slapstick menace who clearly gets a lot of pleasure out of being a jerk. Arguably, this is the least effective approach of the three, as one of the key points of Scrooge’s character is his joylessness. In turning away from the world and in on himself, he’s cut off all possible sources of light and hope in his life, and you don’t get that impression with McDuck. But Mickey’s is charming in no small part because of its energy and brisk pace. It hits for laughs consistently throughout, but still knows when to pull at the heartstrings
Part two: The haunting of his house
There are two points in the Carol narrative that allow for maximum scariness: Jacob Marley’s visit, and the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. We’ll get to Mr. Not There Yet shortly, but Marley’s visit is easily the strangest of any of the specters Scrooge meets. He comes with warning signs—the phantom carriage (Mickey’s omits this, but the Williams and Scott versions do not), the phantom doorknocker, and the terrible darkness of Scrooge’s house, almost an entity in its own right. Unsurprisingly, Williams’ interpretation makes the most out of all that space. In many ways, this version plays like a sort of Greatest Hits of the book, offering a more elaborate version of the page illustrations that inspired it and refining the story down to its barest elements until it’s less a familiar chestnut and more a stark parable of potential doom.
Also, it’s Grade-A-quality nightmare fuel:
If I’d seen this when I was 10, I don’t think I would’ve slept until sometime mid-March.
Unsurprisingly, Mickey’s Christmas Carol tones down the scares considerably by casting Goofy as Marley, complete with pratfalls, yuks, and his patented yodel-shout. There are good gags here, and the casting almost works, as it tries to play up the idea that Goofy’s Marley was just too dumb to realize how mean he’d become, but he’s just such an odd choice for the role. The Scott Carol sits about midway between the two. Given a TV-movie budget, the spookiness isn’t all that spooky, and Frank Finlay’s Marley isn’t all that spectacular. For this scene to work, Scrooge has to seem more than a little threatened by the appearance of his dead partner; his “more gravy than the grave” comment comes from a place of desperation, not devastating wit. Scott is so commanding it’s hard to imagine anyone getting the drop on him, dead or not.
Part three: This was, is, and will be your life, Ebenezer.
Of all the elements of A Christmas Carol, I think the three Christmas ghosts are at once the hardest to do right by and the least likely to generate sufficient effect. Sure, the grim figure of Death that haunts the final section is always good for a chill, and it’s fun to see how each adaptation interprets the ghosts’ various appearances, but the formula is so well-established, and its arc so well-trod, that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in Scrooge’s journey from the past to the present to what might yet be. Once Christmas Past shows up, we’re ready for the scary parts of the future, and then to see Scrooge redeemed. It’s possible to wring small amounts of pathos from, say, the sight of Scrooge as a boy, alone and lonely in a school room, or Scrooge finding and losing love, or the Cratchits’ privations, but this is the section of the story that suffers the most from the perennial recitations. We have the wind-up, and now we want our cathartic home run, without a lot of nonsense about pitching and swinging.
Still, there’s fun to be had here, and each version puts its individual stamp on the material as much as it can. Williams’ Carol goes for the melancholy and mystical; its Ghost Of Christmas Past is doubled over on itself, like a vision of the past that can never remain entirely in focus. Mickey’s mixes the gags with some heart; of the three, it manages to make the most out of Tiny Tim, because it’s hard to hate a small talking anthropomorphic mouse with a crutch. Familiar Disney characters take the place of the ghosts, with Jiminy Cricket as Christmas Past, the giant from Mickey And The Beanstalk as Christmas Present, and Pete as Christmas Yet To Come, and these three work much better than Goofy—in particular, Pete (who breaks the rules a little by showing his face and talking) is surprisingly threatening, especially considering his sequence features the implied death of Tiny Tim. A Christmas Carol doesn’t work at all if Christmas Yet To Come isn’t at least a little freaky, and the Disney version thankfully follows through.
As for the Scott version, given the movie’s running time (an hour and 40 minutes, more than three times the length of the other two versions), it can afford to be more expansive. In fact, Scott’s Carol takes the time to add in a few extra details to the original narrative, most importantly in Scrooge’s relationship with his father. But first, check out the design on Christmas Past:
It’s a little much. Angela Pleasence is fine in the role, but her outfit makes her look like she’s late for her Xanadu audition. Still, the meat of the section works, and the additions to the story—the idea that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, and his father was cold and uncaring as a result—help deepen Scott’s performance. While both the Williams and Scott Ghosts Of Christmas Present visit Scrooge’s nephew’s party, the Scott version lingers, and we see Scrooge getting caught up in the games and wishing he could participate. In the animated versions, Scrooge is defined almost entirely by his arc; the live-action version goes for nuance, taking the time to establish what drove Scrooge to value money over all else. All three Scrooges must eventually face their own mortality, and the possibility of a death without kindness or mercy, but for Scott, that knowledge seems especially painful. After losing his beloved sister, and finding his first (and apparently only) attempt at romance grow cold, he determined there was safety in contempt and disillusionment, wrapping himself in his cynicism and plugging up his ears to the world. And then, to learn that even this is no real protection against despair—that even after rejecting the love of the world he could still be devastated by its absence—must be devastating.
Part four: “God bless us, every one.”
For the most part, Dickens’ original is a wonder of structural simplicity. There’s a reason this story gets told again and again: It just makes sense, in a way that’s hard to pinpoint, the way some stories seem to have existed long before anyone ever thought to put them down in words. It’s mechanical in its way, moving inexorably, step by step toward that final, glorious destination, but it’s a machination that never loses sight of the humanity that powers it. I’ve seen my share of mediocre Christmas Carols, but I don’t think I’ve seen any that managed to completely ruin the ending. The narrative is built so solidly that Scrooge’s change of heart is next to impossible to fumble. We’re accustomed, in life and in fiction, to tales of good men who go bad; but a bad man who turns good is rare, entropy being the natural state of all things. Scrooge can’t get back the years he’s lost, but he can, and does, become a better person, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “Oh, he’ll be backsliding and foreclosing mortgages inside a month, you mark my words.” It just works.
Unsurprisingly, all three Carols stick the landing, albeit in different ways. Williams goes more for hushed joy than outright glee, although there’s certainly some of that. Given the cost it takes to get to those final moments, there’s a reverent, tenuous quality to this transformation, a sense of just how hard it can be to keep the faith in such a grim and dreary world, and how precious that faith then becomes in the face of despair. (There’s a wonderful moment when Scrooge reveals his new self to Cratchit, and Cratchit backs away like he’s afraid the old man is going to murder him.) Mickey’s Christmas Carol converts Scrooge’s sour, misanthropic vigor into more wholesome and welcoming qualities; there’s no loss or gain in energy, just simple transference as characters cast off pretense and embrace their true selves. Given the more subtle nature of Scott’s Carol, it’s a relief when he finally kicks off his shoes and starts running around his bedroom like a madman. There should be something more than a little crazed about Scrooge post-revelation, something manic and unhinged and just a bit out of control. It’s the delight of waking from a nightmare that lasted decades. In the end, that’s what speaks to me the most in any version of this story, no matter how wretched: the hope every night will come to an end, and that any morning might, if we’re lucky, lead to Christmas day.
Tomorrow: A long-awaited Christmas phone call