I have watched about a dozen adaptations of A Christmas Carol in the last week, and let me tell you: Just about every one of them deserves to be boiled with its own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through its heart, if you know what I’m saying.
Tasked with ranking a variety of film versions of Charles Dickens’ beloved 1843 novella, I embarked on what I expected to be a very festive marathon with great enthusiasm. It wasn’t long, however, before my Christmas spirit was thoroughly extinguished. I came to dread the arrival of Marley; to roll my eyes through every Christmas Past, Present, and Future; and to look upon each Tiny Tim with Scroogeish impatience. My notes consist primarily of such observations as “looks like community theater,” “where did this voiceover come from,” and “Cratchit family awful teeth distracting.”
To begin with, no Christmas Carol stands a chance without a compelling tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. That squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner holds the story together, and any 60-something white male actor (as the vast, vast majority of Ebenezers tend to be) has to be able to hold the movie together. It’s not an easy part, as becomes clear upon viewing one unfortunate attempt at capturing it after another, from the outrageously over-the-top (looking at you, Albert Finney) to those who navigate the conversion from miser to altruist so abruptly it will give you whiplash (Patrick Stewart, yikes!) to one certain General Patton, who put about as much effort into a British accent as Kevin Costner did to play Robin Hood (sorry, George C. Scott devotees).
But it doesn’t all begin and end with Scrooge himself. In the past few days, I’ve suffered through some truly nightmarish — in a bad way — Ghosts of Christmas Past (ahem, Joel Grey), spectacular but absolutely heartless visuals (Robert Zemeckis, I trusted you!), some unlistenable musical numbers (Tim Curry, Whoopi Goldberg, Jodi Benson, what are you doing?), and at least one genuinely excruciating Christmas dinner party at nephew Fred’s house (Dominic West, why?).
And those are just the literal versions! I get that A Christmas Carol isn’t quite as universally applicable as, say, the works of Shakespeare, but it is surprising that so many of these movies are straightforward Victorian adaptations when, really, Scrooge’s tale of redemption could be transposed to any setting where both Christmas and rich people exist. We do have a handful of American takes: 1988’s Scrooged, starring Bill Murray as a greedy TV executive, is utterly unfunny and rather distasteful; 1979’s An American Christmas Carol, with an aged-up Henry Winkler as a Depression-era businessman, renders the whole story toothless with its softening of Scrooge; and 2000’s A Diva’s Christmas Carol, in which Vanessa Williams plays a former girl-band member who went solo and forgot about the people who got her there… Actually, you know what? I have nothing bad to say about A Diva’s Christmas Carol.
As I watched more and more, in addition to getting bored and frustrated, I became increasingly nervous about a growing inevitability: My god, was I really going to end up ranking A Muppet Christmas Carol in first place?
Because that’s the one outlier I can find. I love A Muppet Christmas Carol. I’ve just effectively overdosed on Christmas Carols and would still happily watch the Muppet version again right now. Michael Caine’s Scrooge would be excellent at the center of any adaptation, even though he’s acting opposite Kermit the Frog; every single song is a pure delight; and the script works in more of the original text, in both narration and dialogue, than most adaptations bother to incorporate at all.
However, it’s also a Muppet movie, and much as I love it, it would really be remiss to call it a definitive adaptation when it cuts out so much of the sad stuff, and also when, for instance, after Scrooge says, “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you” (a line almost none of these films dared leave out), Marley responds, “More of gravy than of grave? What a terrible pun!”
Yes, the Muppets are wonderful, but they’re a little too irreverent (a quality these others could use more of) to be considered a true, faithful, grown-up adaptation. As for the rest, which try so hard to adapt the book respectfully, what right have those movies to be dismal? They’re rich enough — in source material at least. For a text of such spirit and imagination, however, the cinema it’s inspired has shockingly little of either. The novella is thrilling and disturbing and joyous at every turn, but these films drag with the responsibility of every coming beat, wearing the chains forged in a million English lit classes.
I can understand the impulse to treat a brilliant text with extreme reverence, but these uninspired takes aren’t doing the book any favors. If Dickens were here today, and he were a filmmaker (gosh, can you imagine?!), I can only think he’d make some strange and wonderful updates for the screen and for modern audiences — and also cast it well, obviously, and use effects thoughtfully, and not let the makeup artist go quite so hard on the Cratchit family’s rotting teeth, for goodness’ sake.
I eagerly await that perfect retelling, but in the meantime… maybe I’m being as ungenerous in my assessment of these films as a certain miserly moneylender is with his debtors. I still think A Christmas Carol deserves a truly great, definitive adaptation, and I am convinced that none we have is worthy of being considered as such. But maybe a tiny Christmas goose — or, you know, an imperfect taste of Dickens — is better than none at all.
So I take it all back! Happy holidays! Everyone queue up your favorite stupid Christmas Carol adaptation, keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine. Yeah, these movies are a bunch of humbugs — but God bless them, every one.
MY OFFICIAL CHRISTMAS CAROL MOVIE RANKING
13. A Christmas Carol (1997), starring Tim Curry
12. A Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), starring Simon Callow
11. An American Christmas Carol (1979), starring Henry Winkler
10. A Christmas Carol (1999), starring Patrick Stewart
9. Scrooge (1970), starring Albert Finney
8. Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim
7. Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray
6. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), starring Christopher Plummer (as Scrooge) and Dan Stevens (as Dickens)
5. A Christmas Carol (2009), starring Jim Carrey
4. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000), starring Vanessa Williams
3. A Christmas Carol (1984), starring George C. Scott
2. A Christmas Carol (1938), starring Reginald Owen
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), starring Michael Caine