It’s Christmastime again, and what book encapsulates the season more than Charles Dickens’ classic tale, “A Christmas Carol”? Just about everyone has heard some version of the story of miserly money counter Ebenezer Scrooge, who one night is haunted by three spirits who take him through his past, present and future to teach him the meaning of Christmas and change his ways to make him a good person.
The story is remarkable in that it captures just about every aspect of humanity, from childlike fancy to pure horror, all set within the universal setting of Christmas. It is in many ways a perfect story, and it only makes sense that it has been one of the most reproduced tales in history.
There are so many TV and film adaptations of this tale that reviewing just one hardly seems just. And while there have been several excellent straight, live action adaptations, there has been so much imagination inspired by this story that it’s more fun looking at what the different thinkers out there could do with it. Over the years, Dickens’ classic has been modernized and Muppet-ized, has gone 3-D and has even gone into the sci-fi genre.
So, here is a look at five of the more unorthodox versions of “A Christmas Carol” and how they stack up with the original. Did I leave one out? Which version do you like best? Leave a comment or vote on the poll and let me know!
A Christmas Carol (2009) – Robert Zemeckis
The most recent film iteration of Dickens’ classic hit the theaters in 2009. This one was different in that it’s a visual spectacle: It was done entirely in CGI and released in 3-D. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (who also did the CGI “Polar Express”), it also has the rare distinction of having actors play multiple roles. Jim Carrey not only voices Scrooge, but he’s also all three spirits (yes, for some reason, he’s credited as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, too). Gary Oldman also portrays Marley, Bob Cratchit and … Tiny Tim?
This version is mostly a straight translation from the book (I stress the word “mostly” for reasons I’ll explain later). More than 90 percent of the dialogue comes straight from the pages, and the design for the Ghost of Christmas Past was closer to the source than most. It was cool seeing the faces of those Scrooge came across flash in the spirit’s face, though its voice was hard to make out sometimes. The Christmas carols that appear throughout the movie are quite epic, though, especially “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” during the Ghost of Christmas Present section and “Joy to the World” after the spirits leave. It also did a good job capturing the scary moments, especially Marley’s ghost and Ignorance and Want, though the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come felt comparatively uninspired.
While the movie did look rather nice and it did try to stick right to the source, this actually served as a strike against it. The characters were speaking Dickens’ lines, but the tone throughout the entire movie felt all wrong, making it seem disjointed. This is obvious right from the get-go, as Fred seems so angry during his initial debate with Scrooge that I was afraid he was going to start fighting his uncle. The acting is also completely over the top, and Carrey’s Scrooge is the biggest offender (not a big surprise considering Carrey’s career resume). There is very little subtlety, partially because of the atmosphere surrounding the 3-D gimmick. The whole misadventure with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, in which Scrooge shrunken down and chased for about 5 minutes by a ghastly carriage, is completely removed from the plot and actually detracts from the story. If used in moderation, the concept could have worked out OK. But executed as is, the 2009 film is just a lot of noise.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – Brian Henson
Some of the best takes on “A Christmas Carol” are the ones that take the story, characters, themes and ideas and gives it a company makeover. In this version, Michael Caine stars as Scrooge, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as the Cratchits, Statler and Waldorf as the Marleys (yes, there are two of them in this one) and Gonzo as Charles Dickens.
That last bit of casting should give a sizeable clue about how strictly Brian Henson and Co. were sticking to the source material. Gonzo and his sidekick Rizzo tail Scrooge throughout his journey, with Gonzo delivering the narration and the two of them supplying a yeoman’s share of fourth-wall jokes and physical comedy. Gonzo’s narration is closer to the script’s version of Dickins’ tale than a true reading of the book, though he does deliver plenty of the author’s most notable phrases. There’s all the usual Muppet shenanigans: meta-humor, anachronisms, general silliness and, of course, songs. There are no fewer than six full-on musical numbers (seven if you have the 10th anniversary DVD), and most serve the story well.
Fun as “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is, it has two significant shortcomings when compared with the source. First is the spirits: All differ greatly from Dickens’ depictions. Past is the usual deviation — a small child instead of a shifting entity — Present shrinks down to be only slightly taller than Caine rather than maintaining his giant size, and Future, though ominous enough for children, doesn’t pose the same kind of dread and fear as other iterations, namely because he appears too rubbery and easily malleable. The bigger issue is the main character himself: Though Caine is an enjoyable Scrooge, he is almost an entirely different character than Dickins wrote. Dickens’ Scrooge is miserly, bitter and cold-hearted, but he is not an overtly wicked and evil man as he is depicted in the Muppets’ opening song and scenes. The Muppets’ journey through the past paints Scrooge as someone who’s always hated Christmas because he was alone. His father’s story is left out entirely. His attitude at Fezziwig’s (or Fozziwig’s, in this case) is completely different; he does enjoy and appreciate the holiday at this point in the book, whereas the Muppet version has him already bringing up how much money is being wasted on the party. But even with these issues, Caine does play a good Scrooge, and he has said it is one of his personal favorite performances, something that really shows (though he could have done without a song).
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) – Disney
Another cartoon version of “A Christmas Carol” comes from the heart of Disney. This one is much shorter than the others, clocking in at just over 25 minutes, but it includes all of the important themes and ideas from the book and throws in some good humor from the classic Disney characters. Scrooge McDuck gets the role of Scrooge (no surprises here), Mickey is Bob Cratchit, Donald Duck is nephew Fred, and Goofy pulls off a surprisingly good Jacob Marley. The spirits, though their appearances are significantly brief, are cast well, too, with Jiminy Cricket as Past, the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk as Present and old-time villain Pete as a truly horrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Despite its brevity, this special is superb as an adaptation because of the way it mixes both the light-hearted feel of Disney with the dark nature of the story. Pete is one of the scariest ghosts in any “Christmas Carol,” as he actually casts Scrooge into his own grave on the verge of a fiery chasm, smoking a cigar and laughing all the while. Unlike the Muppets’ version, it’s not afraid to scare the kids who are inevitably watching. Scrooge is another highlight of the cartoon, and though he is closer to the Scrooge McDuck character than Dickens’ Ebenezer, he still possesses the same kind of greed as his namesake. He doesn’t come off as the lonely, miserable creature he should be, but he does have a sense of humanity that often goes absent in many Scrooges. He lets Cratchit leave for work early on Christmas Eve (albeit two minutes early) without much thought, showing he does still have a heart, that there is something in him to redeem.
Because it’s so short, not all of Scrooge’s adventures made the final product. Each ghost only really gets one trip: Jiminy Cricket takes him to Fezziwig’s and his breakup, the Giant shows him the Cratchits’, and ol’ Pete takes him to the graveyard. While his time with the spirits is short, the pacing in those moments never makes them feel rushed and leaves the audience wanting more, which is never a bad sign.
Scrooged (1988) – Richard Donner
Of course, not every version of Dickens’ classic has to be a straight adaptation. In 1988, Paramount decided to give the 19th-century classic a 20th-century update. In “Scrooged,” Bill Murray plays a self-obsessed TV executive named Frank Cross who is trying to take advantage of Christmas ratings with a live, over-the-top taping of “A Christmas Carol,” complete with Vegas-style showgirls and celebrity appearances (including Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim). He has a secretary (filling in for Bob Cratchit) whom he constantly takes for granted and who has to provide for a large family, he gleefully fires an employee and leaves him to destitution (symbolizing the poor in general), he has a well-wishing brother whose cheerful holiday spirit goes annually unrequited (like Scrooge’s nephew Fred), and he has a very caring former girlfriend who works for a charity and who he drove off in the past because of his own selfish desires.
Of course, Cross gets a visit from the Christmas ghosts, but these are not the same ones from Dickens’ story; the spirits are personalized for him. In place of business partner Jacob Marley is Cross’ old boss, who raids Cross’ office bar while making his visit. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a deranged taxi driver who likes to pick on him. Christmas Present is a fairy who keeps trying to beat some sense into him — once with a toaster. Christmas Future is the same Grim Reaper-like character as he is in most versions, though he takes Cross on a twisted elevator ride through what lies ahead. The spirits’ visits are interspersed throughout Cross’ day, leading him down a path of near psychosis as everyone around him gets to watch him take this journey toward redemption.
If you’re a fan of other Murray movies, you’d love this one, too. It’s basically “Groundhog Day” set at Christmas. Murray is his usual enjoyably jerky self who the audience can’t help but pull for, and his chemistry with Karen Allen (of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fame) is fantastic. The movie’s adaptations of characters and themes from Dickens are all very imaginative and they all work well in the story; I especially loved its version of Tiny Tim. All of the key elements are there, though Murray’s Cross and the spirits may not be for everyone. It’s a Bill Murray classic, though, and his transformation provides one incredibly happy ending.
A Christmas Carol (2010) – Doctor Who – Steven Moffat
There are plenty of comedic takes on “A Christmas Carol” … but what if you’re more into science fiction? What if you not only want a stubborn old miser’s story of salvation, but also a crashing spaceship, a giant machine that can control the weather and a carriage pulled by a flying shark? Thankfully, the British TV series “Doctor Who” has all this covered in its 2010 hourlong Christmas special. In this version, the time-traveling Doctor (Matt Smith) is trying to save a spaceship, on which his two friends are honeymooning, from crashing through an electrically charged atmosphere into the planet below.
To do so, he has to change the ways of the callous old Scrooge character, Kazran Sardick (played by Michael Gambon, Dumbledore from the “Harry Potter” movies), who won’t turn off his machine controlling the clouds because it’s not convenient for him. The Doctor proceeds to go back in time and befriend Kazrat’s child self, kicking off a whirlwind adventure through which they meet Abigail, who is frozen in Kazran’s mansion as a kind of security payment for her family’s debts. Over the years, young Kazran and Abigail form a relationship that ends tragically, leading the elder Kazrat to begin his metamorphosis.
Needless to say, this version is the farthest removed from the source material, but the bare essentials of Dickens’ story are all still there, making it an excellent adaptation. The Scrooge character has a well-developed reason for being the way he is (even using the father issues from the book that are left out of several adaptations). The three spirits of Christmas past, present and future play significant roles (The Doctor is Past, his companion aboard the crashing ship is Present and Future … well …). Writer Steven Moffat brilliantly incorporates the idea of decreasing the surplus population, among other homages. As long as you can overlook the time-travel paradoxes from the show’s continuity (isn’t this supposed to happen when the past and future versions of the same person touch?), the story is touching, exciting and a ton of fun. I think Charles Dickens himself would have enjoyed it.