This all started when I went to Disney’s A Christmas Carol back in November, hoping to hate it so I could write a fun review. To my surprise, it was strangely compelling, and got me thinking about Dickens’ story and how it’s been adapted ad nauseam. I made up my mind: I would read through the story, and then watch every adaptation I could get my hands on. Some of them were quite good. Some of them were nauseating. Read on for the results…
The Ten Best
All I could think of when watching this one was “This is really weird.” And it is. And it might not even be that good, but it was definitely different enough to stick in my head. Bill Murray plays a TV exec haunted by spirits that include a golf-obsessed zombie (in the Jacob Marley role) and a fairy with a penchant for beating people up (as the Ghost of Christmas Present). The pacing is off, and the humor is hit-and-miss, but I imagine it gets better with repeat viewings. It’s not too hard to see why this one’s a cult favorite.
Another strange one, this picture is a musical with a snarkily macabre sense of humor. It was a bit jarring, coming off the high drama of the Alistair Sim version (see below), but the use of color is phenomenal and an added sequence in Hell is both disturbing and very, very funny. The finale is just plain weird (Scrooge in the ugliest Santa Claus outfit ever?), but Alec Guinness as Marley steals every scene that he’s in.
I was a little hard on this one when I reviewed it two months ago, but after re-watching it I’m ready to give credit where credit is due. This one just might be both the scariest version and the most faithful to the original story (notably, this is the only adaptation where the Ghost of Christmas Past actually looks the way Dickens describes him). Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture CGI is still a little weird, but it has improved a bit over the years, and Jim Carrey is both well-suited to the animation and arguably the third-best Ebenezer Scrooge ever (after Alistair Sim and Michael Caine, obviously). I still think the action sequences are dumb, though.
7. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
This cartoon short has some great moments and some lazy ones; it’s arguably best when it’s at its most cynical (“Marley left me enough money to pay for his tombstone — and I had him buried at sea!”). That said, the animation here is lavish and beautiful — some of the best that Disney produced in the ‘80s — and many of Dickens’ lines are cleverly rewritten to be appropriate to the characters, which makes it all the more charming. It’s also one of the first times that Scrooge McDuck was animated, which makes it vaguely historic. For whatever that’s worth.
The first sound adaptation of the novella, and also one of the best. Starring Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, this one boasts a dark, brooding aesthetic that owes as much to German Expressionism as anything (watch as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, portrayed as a heavy shadow, gradually swallows up Scrooge). This version also manages to fit the whole story into just over an hour without much strain.
If there’s a famous British novel, you can be sure that BBC produced a bare-bones adaptation of it at some point. A Christmas Carol got the treatment in 1977, and the result is a shadowy, atmospheric version with little in the way of set or special effects, allowing the excellent cast (including Michael Hordem as Scrooge) to shine.
4. Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol (1979)
Not only did Bugs get to A Christmas Carolfour years before his mouse counterpart did, he did it better. Clocking in at a mere eight minutes, this television short feels like a dashed-off screed against the rampant overuse of Dickens’ public-domain tale, and doesn’t disappoint in the laugh department, either. Highlights include a cameo by Tweety Bird as Tiny Tim (“You’d be tiny too, if you had to live on birdseed”) and Bugs’ “Ghost of Christmas” threatening to take Yosemite Sam (as Scrooge) to see “The Man in Red Suit” (which, he clarifies, is not Santa).
Directed by Richard Williams (best known as animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit,as well as director of the notorious The Thief and the Cobbler), this sublime, moody short has the look of an animated woodcut. Alistair Sim reprises his role as the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge, and the Ghost of Christmas Present’s flying sequences — which are cut from nearly every other adaptation — are restored, and done beautifully. A must-see.
I was wary before re-watching this one — I had loved it as a kid, and was afraid that my nostalgia might be painting it in rosier hues than it deserved. To my surprise, I found that it not only held up quite well, but also was actually one of the best adaptations out there, capturing the spirit of both Dickens and Henson quite effortlessly. Michael Caine gives an intelligently understated performance as Ebenezer Scrooge (making the role entirely his own), the look of all three ghosts is pitch-perfect (this just might be the only adaptation of which that can be said), and Paul William’s songs are all beautiful and serve the story quite nicely. Despite some small issues (the entire Christmas Past sequence completely misses the point), this one goes out highly recommended.
For some reason, every adaptation of A Christmas Carol has to be titled either A Christmas Carol or Scrooge (both titles seem equally prevalent), and this one got saddled with both of them, being released as Scrooge in its native England and A Christmas Carol in the States. Despite the confusion, though, this one is by far the best adaptation (just like all the old people you know told you it was), with Alistair Sim showing the broadest range of any actor to ever fill the role of Scrooge. The most dark and adult take on the tale, this one makes the brilliant addition of a Marley death scene to the “Christmas Past” chapter, turning the tale into a brooding meditation on mortality that doesn’t let up until the finale.
AND NOW, JUST FOR FUN, THE FIVE WORST
5. A Carol Christmas (2003)
Tori Spelling as Ebenezer Scrooge (here embodied in a TV talk show host)? Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past? William Shatner as the Ghost of Christmas Present? Actually, it’s better than it sounds, and Spelling carries the material remarkably well. In its more satirical moments (Coleman pokes some good fun at himself), it’s not too bad, but the sentimental stuff (read: every child actor in the production) is completely unwatchable. Not that I’d expect anything less from the Hallmark Channel, but still.
4. Barbie in A Christmas Carol (2008)
Sometime in the last decade or so, Mattel, Inc. got bored of making toys and decided to mine the public domain for a series of Barbie-themed direct-to-DVD movies instead. As you’d expect, most of these are fairytale-inspired, but occasionally you get an odd one — like, for instance, a Dickens story about a greedy old man with one foot in the grave. Weirdly, this one seems to have borrowed more plot points from A Carol Christmas than Dickens’ book, right down to casting a pushy aunt in the Jacob Marley role. And is it just me, or does casting a young character (in this case, Barbie) in the place of Scrooge put a damper on Dickens’ themes of mortality?
3. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
Wikipedia tells me that this animated special was actually based on a live-action version made 22 years earlier and starring Basil Rathbone — but I couldn’t track that one down anywhere, so I had to judge this one based on its own merits. There weren’t many. The Rankin-Bass animation is fluid enough, but everyone looks like a hobbit (go figure), the songs are annoying (“Yes, There is a Santa Claus”? really?) the narrator is an obtuse insect (a humbug! get it?), and despite being a Grumpy Old Man, Walter Matthau isn’t particularly memorable as Ebenezer Scrooge. Not terrible, but definitely forgettable.
2. An American Christmas Carol (1979)
Henry Winkler — yes, the Fonz — stars as Benedict Slade, a businessman in 1933 New England, in this indictment of that most American of trade practices, the credit system. In a Wizard of Oz-inspired plot twist that never works (see also: A Carol Christmas), the Ghosts of Christmas are actually characters from his life. Also, will you people please stop letting the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come talk? He’s not very frightening when he does.
1. An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
I’m not gonna lie: Before watching this one, I really hadn’t thought about All Dogs Go to Heaven since 1989, back when I saw it in theaters. I was four years old at the time. But apparently they made a sequel in 1996, which was followed by a TV series, which was followed by a direct-to-video Christmas Carol derivative. What a sad end to a sad series. Anyway, I have no idea what this one was about, because I fell asleep halfway through. I think there’s an evil dog named Carface (really?), and he can control other dogs’ minds with a magic whistle, so then this angel dog turns these other dogs into Christmas ghosts, and then there’s a showdown in a junkyard, or something. Um, yeah.