A Christmas Carol (1938 to 2009)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Christmas Treats (Other Than Your Aunt Mildred's Gingersnaps) | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some content that’ll scare little ones, and some parents will find much of Scrooged inappropriate for pre-teens, but an otherwise harmless morality tale.

I know it can’t possibly be the most adapted story of all time, but A Christmas Carol has got to be up there. Filmmakers have told it (and retold it) more than 80 times, for god’s sake – and there’s no sign of stopping. Hell, even The Flintstones, Jetsons, Looney Tunes, Barbie, and Mickey Mouse have gotten in on the act. So why stop there? Every December there’s bound to be another one or two. Maybe The Jonas Brothers or Spongebob or Dan Brown need to give it a go.

As such, separating the good from the bad is a must, as you don’t want to have to watch Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol or Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol if you don’t have to. So I did the leg work, and discovered that the most memorable/celebrated versions of Charles Dickens’ holiday story seem to be a Reginald Owen-starring pic from 1938, a 1951 retread with Alastair Sim, musicals from 1970 with Albert Finney and 1992 with The Muppets, a comedy with Bill Murray from 1988, and a CGI one from 2009 with Jim Carrey.

But unlike other stories with a formidable string of adaptations, this one’s not as easy to assign one film as vastly superior and write off the rest. It really depends on who you talk to. Purists and people of my parents’ generation like the 1951 version; kids will probably most enjoy The Muppets; teens will like the scares and effects that Robert Zemeckis packed in; people wanting comedy instead of melodrama will go for Scrooged; and those looking for a version not afraid to stray from Dickens (myself included) look to 1938.

The 1951 A Christmas Carol MBDCHCA EC006is a black-and-white costume drama from Britain, and is largely considered superior. Sure, adults may think so, but kids will die of boredom. It’s a very literal adaptation, so has lots of old-timey English, and it’s delivered at whirling speeds that will leave kids’ comprehension in the dust.

The ghosts and effects are decent, the story is well balanced and doesn’t drag in the 85-minute running time, but the reason people regard it as the best is quite simple. Alastair Sim is far and away the greatest Ebaneezer Scrooge to ever bark, “humbug,” making the character his own instead of merely trying to predict what Dickens had in mind when he created him.

Not as though I need to summarize the plot, but just in case … A businessman that lets greed overtake him makes everyone around him miserable, especially during the holidays. That is until three ghosts show him the err of his ways via an epic guilt trip through time.

Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner had a different direction in mind when he hired Bill Murray for the lead character in Scrooged. The 1988 flick has tons of great comedian cameos and SNL writers penned it, but it’s essentially an excuse to have lots of self-reflexive industry jokes and situational/improv comedy. Basically it’s a well-loved mess of a movie, and your feelings toward it will be apparent after the very first scene, in which Lee Majors and a bunch of gun-toting elves defend the North Pole from terrorists.

A Muppet Christmas Carol presented a major  shift for the puppet franchise as it was the first project undertaken by someone other than Jim Henson, its founder. It also was a shift in how the story is presented, as narration and ongoing commentary provide explanatory breaks for kids’ comprehension and opportunities to poke fun. All of the lovable characters are here, with Michael Caine as the formidable Scrooge. Somehow his attempts to be cruel feel more potent than the Scrooges before him, and perhaps it’s because he’s belittling and mistreating characters we’ve spent years growing to love. And he does so a lot.

Not only will kids appreciate The Muppets’ version, but also music lovers. With few exceptions, this 1992 release has better songs than the 1970 Scrooge with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness. Leslie Bricosse’s awful lyrics combine with awful Newsies-esque cockney, and fake sets and costumes to create an England that Americans expect to see based on low-budget movies and no experience being there. Paul Williams’ songs for The Muppets are, meanwhile, catchy and fun. And, granted, it’s no Muppet Movie, but nothing they’ve done since is.

As kids get older they’ll prefer Disney’s carol3CGI fest from Robert Zemeckis. His signature mix of live action and CGI (Beowulf, Polar Express) looks phenomenal – it really does, as much as I hate to admit it, with high contrast lighting and some incredible spaces (most notably the creepy clock room) – but like the others before it, will age pretty fast. And they are only occasionally show-offish, reminding us that the medium allows the camera to go places it normally cannot – basically just enough to annoy you. It’s a surprisingly loyal adaptation, but they obviously amp up the action and add segments with flying and miniaturization. Jim Carrey plays Scrooge and all the ghosts, with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes, and Robin Wright Penn as co-stars.

Nowadays we see Dickens’ 1848 novel as holier than holy, and not up for interpretation or deviation. (Which is beyond me, because we do all manner of things to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.) I shouldn’t even say “nowadays,” because adaptations since 1951 have been almost identical. You have to go nearly 75 years back to find one brave enough to deviate.

Edwin L Marin’s 1938 version was the original “marathon” holiday movie, screening continuously until Christmas morning. It deviates from the original text ever so slightly, and doesn’t try to add anything unnecessary for running time (it’s barely over an hour) or show-offery (the effects are standard), yet has enough steady entertainment to keep kids awake. Plus it makes me want to go out for a smashing good slide on the ice.

Unlike others (that thrust you right into the man-that-guy-is-a-surly-jerk-face angle), this one immediately pulls at the heart strings as a jovial Tiny Tim wishes he could slide on the ice with the other kids. Identifying with their perspective first pays off a few minutes later when Scrooge is introduced, magnifying his cantankerousness when he’s a dick to people we now identify with.

It has moments of hokey Britishness like so many others (“Your governor must be a crusty old bird, I must say”), but there’s not nearly the same amount of depression. Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit as a delightful, roley poley gent caught up in the holiday spirit, not some down-and-depressed dude – despite being sacked by Scrooge (another change in story). And Ebaneezer has a much richer past of fond memories (not just depressing ones), and in the present it’s much clearer the amount of cheer Christmas brings people despite their circumstances (not just a DIY instructional video on how Scrooge can fix everything).

Reginald Owen is far from the best Scrooge – he plays it theatrically with his T-Rex-like walk as his most defining character trait – though Scrooge McDuck was allegedly based on him. But still, the minor changes in story create more empathy and anticipation, and the scenes with Scrooge on Christmas day are phenomenal. His mannerisms are classic, the joy is more genuine, and tears actually possible.

Let’s face it; Scrooge is a one-note, one-dimensional character in a contrived short story that doesn’t compare to It’s a Wonderful Life and barely deserves five cinematic adaptations, let alone 80. Interesting characters deserve more attention, and in 1938 filmmakers had creative integrity enough to forget the text and give him his due.

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