To me, no other Christmas movie can come close to matching A Christmas Carol. After all, no other Christmas screenplay has been based on work by a writer of the quality of Charles Dickens. That being said, since his writings are public domain, anyone and their kid brother can make a movie based upon the book. Or cartoon. According to the great guru Wikipedia, there have been 22 film versions, 26 TV versions, with the first one (Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost) being made in 1901. There have also been theatrical versions, radio versions, audio recordings, parodies and even 3 operas. When you add what Wikipedia terms “ Pastiches, continuations, and other uses,” it’s a tremendously long list. Since my time and space as well as your interest are limited, I will confine my reviews to a very few that I consider the most notable live-person effort. That means if your favorite is Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the Muppet Christmas Carol, the Smurfs A Christmas Carol or any other such version, it will not be covered. Sorry, I just have a hard time taking cartoon or puppet Scrooge or Marley’s ghost seriously. I also will be ignoring ones that change the time and/or locale of the story, such as such pathetic efforts as Scrooged and an American Christmas Carol. Besides being poorly done efforts, I am a traditionalist. I even have a live tree rather than a fake and like my Christmas carols sung in the way they were composed. I will go in year order.
A Christmas Carol – 1938 with Reginald Owen as Scrooge
Although this was not the first one I ever watched, it is the oldest one. From my readings about the movie versions, it is also the first really watchable version. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the real essence, the mood, of Dicken’s book. Scrooge is a bit crotchety, somewhat arrogant, but not cruel and mean-spirited. His change at the end does not have the dramatic quality that better versions have. His makeup is also not the best. The grittiness of the book is also lacking, without the starving poor and no Ignorance and Want under the robe of Christmas Yet to Come. Greedy thieves don’t ransack the dead Scrooge’s possessions. Gone is the scene of the ghosts of those who were greedy in life unable to help the living needy. Gene Lockhart’s Bob Cratchit is too much of a jolly buffoon. Tiny Tim is a healthy-looking, nonentity that is hard to care about. The Ghost of Christmas past is a sweet-looking young woman without any strangeness to her. Fred and Bess are courting, not married, and too much time is devoted to them. When you add in that Belle, Scrooge’s greatest sacrifice to the god of mammon, is completely missing makes this a saccharine film of a salty tale. Watch it once, but don’t make it your yearly tradition. I rank it as the worst of the four I am reviewing.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol in America) – 1951 with Alistair Sim as Scrooge
This is the first version I saw on TV as a child in the mid-Fifties. Marley’s ghost scared me so badly I had nightmares. Many rate this version as the all-time best. I rate it a close second, mainly because of Sim. He is a harsh and cold-hearted Scrooge. You don’t like him, but you are not meant to. It has much more of a Dickens feel than the earlier verison, with the ghosts of the once-greedy helpless to aid the needy living when Marley’s ghost exits by the window. Yet the screenwriter Noel Langley felt he could improve upon Dickens’ book. He spent far too long on Mrs. Dilbar, the unnamed charwoman in the book. Belle becomes a social-working Alice. Fan becomes Scrooge’s younger sister who dies in childhood rather than his older one. The worst crime against the book was the addition of Mr. Jonkin. Evidently, Langley felt there was a gap in the original between Fezziwig and the formation of the Marley and Scrooge partnership. Having Mr. Jorkin financially destroy Fezziwig and then be destroyed by Marley and Scrooge was not necessary to make the story work. It is definitely worth multiple views. However, while Sim gets top marks, the changes to the story and average acting of some of the supporting cast makes this version the runner-up for the top spot.
A Christmas Carol – 1984 with George C. Scott as Scrooge
This is the best and most faithful to the book. While now the property of the Hallmark Channel, it is obvious they did not make it. The cast is excellent and all portray their characters with amazing skill. As Scrooge, Scott chose to make him have a sense of humor, but a twisted one. He is unfeeling and cold, with a mercenary streak that makes Madoff look like Santa Claus. There are only two criticisms of this Scrooge: he is portrayed by an American and he is not quite the Dickens version. However the rest of the movie is almost perfect. By filming in Shrewsbury, England, phony sets were not needed to portray England of that era. As I said, the cast is awesome. David Warner’s Bob Crachit, Susanna York’s Mrs. Crachit, Frank Finlay’s Jacob Marley, Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present, Roger Rees’ Fred Hollywell, and Liz Smith’s Mrs. Dilbar were all worthy of an Oscar for Best Supporting. Even the minor roles were well acted. The grittiness when Mrs. Dilbar sells Scrooge’s bedclothes is spot on and the faces of Want and Ignorance are haunting. The scene where Mrs. Cratchit is sewing and Bob Cratchit arrives home after Tiny Tim’s death is a real tear-jerker. Even the original song “God Bless us, Everyone” sounds perfectly period, as does all the music used. The music is another thing that makes this version stand out. I read a review that criticized Tiny Tim, saying he was talentless. I thought the kid did a great job of portraying a sickly child. The scene where Scrooge leaves his business and sees Tim is classic.
Tiny Tim: [outside Scrooge’s office] Merry Christmas, Mister Scrooge.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Don’t beg on this corner, boy.
Tiny Tim: I’m not begging, Sir. I’m Tim Cratchit. I’m waiting for my father.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Tim Cratchit, eh? Well, you’ll have a long wait, then, won’t you?
Tiny Tim: Merry Christmas, Sir!
Ebenezer Scrooge: Humbug.
It defines Tim and Scrooge so well. The oft-wry humor is a big bonus and meakes the dialogue more realistic. If I wanted to pick nits, I would add that Scrooge dressed too well. Also, I do not understand why the ghosts outside Scrooge’s window when Marley flew out were omitted. While not perfect, it was done so well that I consider this to be the top dog. If you only watch one version, this should be it.
A Christmas Carol – 1999 with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge
As a fan of Patrick Stewart and a Trekkie, I had great hopes for this version. But Stewart came off a little too much Captain Picard and a little light on the Scrooge. Although the one that worked the hardest to be faithful to the original book, some of the feeling of that book was lost. The Cratchits looked the most like underclass Londoners of that era, but did not garner the empathy that the fine acting of the 1984 version did. On the whole, the acting was competent, but not great. If strict authenticity is your bag, it might be your favorite. If you want high authenticity with the best acting, it will not be. It is worth watching, but not being made the one to re-watch every year.
These are the cream of the crop. All have a few flaws, some more than others. All take a liberty here and there with the original story, some more than others. All are worth watching. However, you might have another favorite, one I have not even mentioned. Feel free to express your opinion. But, whichever version you prefer, I say in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”