When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, cinema was still some 50 years away. Television, over 100. And yet it almost seems like it was written with the screen in mind — maybe because its great anti-hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, is almost like a moviegoer himself when he gazes upon images and events that he can’t directly influence. Certainly A Christmas Carol‘s countless adaptations for film and television bear out its endless visual appeal. But what precise mixture of malice and humor makes a great Scrooge? Here are our picks for the finest to grace screens big and small. Who’s your favorite?
10. Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)
Scrooge may have found Christmas goose and plum pudding indigestible, but Albert Finney seems ravenous. At least when it comes to him chewing the scenery. He plays Scrooge less like a Dickens character and more like that crooked man who walked a crooked mile, of Mother Goose nursery rhyme fame. But it’s fun to see him cut a rug at Scrooge’s own funeral to the tune of Leslie Bricusse’s “Thank You Very Much,” the great show-stopping tune of this otherwise ho-ho-hum musical.
9. Reginald Owen in A Christmas Carol (1938)
Owen (National Velvet, Mary Poppins) played many a great curmudgeon, but he found his greatest outlet for geriatric snark in MGM’s charmingly studio-bound 1938 production.
8. Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988)
Does anyone play a comical jerk as well as Bill Murray? Five years before he perfected the form with Phil Connors in the decidedly Dickensian Groundhog Day, he played TV executive Frank Cross, as fearsome a miser as any Yuletide ghosts have ever tried to redeem.
7. Mr. Magoo in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
With his face pinched tight like a crab-apple — and his purse-strings even tighter — TV’s lovable near-sighted misanthrope (originally conceived as a McCarthy-esque reactionary) was born, er, drawn to play Scrooge.
6. Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)
A Jetson Christmas Carol is possibly the most subversive version of the tale on this list. Yes, the Jetsons play the Cratchits — if the Cratchits were upwardly mobile, conspicuously-consuming members of the literal jet set — to sprocket entrepreneur Mr. Spacely’s Scrooge. However, Scrooge doesn’t reform because he’s touched by a vision of the Jetsons’ grief over the loss of family dog Astro (the Tiny Tim of this scenario), but instead because he’s jealous of their fantastic wealth after they sue him for making the sprocket that killed the pooch.
5. Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol (1951)
British theater vet Alastair Sim, perfectly described by comedian Ronnie Corbett as “a sad-faced actor with the voice of a fastidious ghoul,” is often considered the silver screen’s definitive Scrooge, though his 1951 flick looks a tad creaky today. Still, it embellishes Dickens’ narrative with so many details on Ebenezer’s slide into moral (although certainly not financial) bankruptcy that it could be alternatively titled Scrooge: Money Never Sleeps.
4. Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Hard to believe it took Walt Disney Animation 36 years after his first comic book appearance in 1947 to put Scrooge McDuck in an animated telling of the story that inspired his creation. A po-mo Carol, it reuses old Disney characters, like J. Thaddeus Toad as Fezziwig, while exaggerating certain parts of the story for comic effect — Scrooge doesn’t just break up with Daisy Duck, he forecloses the mortgage on her honeymoon cottage!
3. Vanessa L. Williams in A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000)
As Ebony Scrooge, lead singer of an ’80s girl group who ditched her partners and went solo at the first opportunity, Williams gave us a glimpse of the catty ‘tude that she’d later perfect as Wilhelmina Slater. Kathy Griffin is on hand as a fame-whoring Ghost of Christmas Past, and, even better, the Christmas Future segment is an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, with a deliciously insincere tribute to the “deceased” Ebony from Brian McKnight (as himself). Still not sold? Check out Ebony’s ’80s-homage dance anthem “Heartquake” and A Diva’s Christmas Carol will be in your letter to Santa.
2. Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Why does Michael Caine’s performance work so well? Because he doesn’t act like he’s in a Muppet movie. At all. Take away Gonzo, Kermit and their buddies, and you’re left with Caine’s deeply felt take on the tragedy of Scrooge’s life — that even though he becomes a better man, he can never get back all the decades he wasted. Just look at his performance during the song “The Love is Gone,” when he stands weeping behind his beloved Belle. Devastating. But with Caine and the Muppets, the film becomes a daring collision of opposites: literate storytelling and non sequitur pratfalls, sincerity and irony, even art and criticism.
1. George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984)
Yes, it took an American to perfect the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. While there are many things to love about Clive Donner’s 1984 adaptation for CBS — its authentic recreation of 1840s London, its use of period music, its deeply talented ensemble of David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees, Edward Woodward, and Joanne Whalley — it’s really Scott who stands out. Never has there been a Scrooge more resistant to change, more thoroughly nasty, more clueless as to the nature of his circumstances. When he explains the function of clothing to poor Bob Cratchit, one senses his disappointment over the gross inadequacy of the whole human race. When he’s abandoned by the Ghost of Christmas Present in a dangerous part of London, Scrooge almost rhetorically asks, “What have I done … to be abandoned like this?” and genuinely doesn’t perceive the answer. Scott’s performance is at its most heartbreaking at the very moments it’s at its funniest — the mark of a true master. Made-for-network-TV movies used to be this good?
Who are your favorite Scrooges, PopWatchers? Any glaring omissions from our list?