The Best & Worst Adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Forget Dracula and Hamlet…the modern day actor worth his mettle must take a shot at Ebenezer. All the greats have: George C. Scott to Albert Finney, Tom Hanks to Jim Carrey, Captain Picard to Frasier, Kermit to Mickey, Mr. Magoo to Fred Flintstone.
But how to choose the best? Christmas time is already crunched with media options. It’s impossible to keep up with all the major network specials. Hallmark is reviving the career of every single 80s sitcom child one new Christmas movie at a time. And our DVRs already bulge with Rankin/Bass claymations.
How do you choose from the hundreds of Dickens adaptations? While the internet is full of best and worst lists, we're bringing you the definitive A Christmas Carol adaptations specially for book nerds.
The BEST versions for book nerds:
#3: The Blackadder Christmas Carol:
Before he was Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson played Edmund Blackadder, or actually generations of Edmund Blackadders whose misfortunes span from the Middle Ages through modern times. In a 1988 Christmas special, Atkinson plays a Scrooge-in-reverse. Once the “kindest and loveliest” man in England, a ghostly visit on Christmas Eve awakens him to the truth that “bad guys have more fun.” Hilarity ensues. A Merry Messy Kweznuz to all!
Come for the distinctive brand of BBC British humor, stylized comedic dialogue and potty jokes (aka the gold, frankincense and myrrh of nerdom). “Tiny Tom!? He’s built like a brick privy.”
Stay for Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) delights as a daft George IV. Then have fun informing your friends that, historically, this character is the son of Adam Groff’s (#GroffSauce) George III from Hamilton. Tee-hee. Who wants alternative universe nerd pondering for Christmas?
#2: Mickey’s Christmas Carol:
Let’s say we’ve been invaded by aliens this Christmas, and after they have figured out the Trump election, let’s also say that they have demanded to be shown the essence of Charles Dickens’ original story A Christmas Carol. Now, let’s also assume that world domination is time-consuming business, so these aliens only have about 20 minutes to invest in your answer.
What do you do? You show them this cartoon.
All of the heart. All of the joy. All of the epiphanic glory. Even most of the original dialogue. The whole family gets choked up…every time. Plus, Alan Young invents the Scrooge McDuck character and becomes the only Scrooge actor who spawns an entire franchise with his portrayal. Take that, George C. Scott.
Come for the beloved Disney gang. They’re all here, but none play themselves. Goofy is Jacob Marley. Mr. Toad is Fezziwig. Each disappears into his Dickensian role…more like Brad Pitt than George Clooney. Mickey may be an international mega-star and symbol of American economic domination. Not here. Here, he’s good ol’ Bob Cratchit.
Stay for the original Donald Duck, Clarence Nash, in his final performance.
Of all the Scrooges, Alastair Sim, from the 1951 British version by Brian Desmond Hurst, is the Scroogiest.
Reginald Owen (pictured at the top of the post), is often credited as being the first Scrooge of note (in 1938’s A Christmas Carol), but he plays the miser as a jumpy caricature.
Sim’s performance is more emotional. Pain smolders behind his cold stares and deliberate menace tinges his interactions. Later, the happy Scrooge is more manic than joyful, his hair askew and a bewilderment pulsing in his grin.
Overall, Sim gives proper credence to the nuances of the miser as Dickens wrote him.
Come for a screenplay by Noel Langley who adapted another important book to screen — The Wizard of Oz.
Stay for the ending. This version fully commits to the notion that Tiny Tim not only lives, but also thrives under Scrooge’s care. *SPOILER ALERT* While most opt for the iconic Scrooge carrying Tiny Tim final shot, in this one, Tim is walking beside him…without a crutch.
Other Honorable Mentions: A Muppets Christmas Carol & Scrooged
The WORST versions for book nerds:
Same name. Very different outcome. Lots and lots of original songs. Tonal messiness. The tagline for this film was “What the Dickens did they do to Scrooge?” And the movie never offers an answer.
Many of the theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol use Dickens’ exact language. This is a very good thing. But it makes for poor bedfellows with non-Dickens penned songs. In other words, musical versions of A Christmas Carol are often as doomed as poor old Marley himself.
The Muppets pull it off, but, well, they’re the Muppets.
Tune in on the promise of Daddy Warbucks. Annie proved that Albert Finney could over-sing and over-act. This film is his warm-up.
Tune out before Obi Wan (Sir Alec Guinness) shows up as an over-the-top Jacob Marley.
#2: Disney’s A Christmas Carol:
Jim Carrey has played two of Christmas’s most famous villains: Scrooge and the Grinch. He approached both with a zany cartoony quality that only worked for the latter. Nothing about this version resonates. In the Mickey version mentioned above, Disney condenses the plot, but through traditional animation and classic characters, piles on the emotional take-aways.
Here, the opposite is true. The story is lengthened with scary scenes (my kids are terrified of this movie), big chases and other inauthentic action sequences. Such plot points are designed to gussy up the tale for a first-run release and modern movie audience. But the amped up action feels like pandering to us book nerds.
Pointless action is similarly the problem in another Robert Zemeckis Christmas book to Christmas film adaptation: The Polar Express. Both films are big on CGI action, but missing the magic and warmth of their book predecessors.
Tune in because the theming and universal truths are well-displayed.
Tune out because Carrey forgets to act.
#1: A Christmas Carol: The Musical
“Must see TV?” More like NBC community theatre. This 2004 production with Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge isn’t the best. We’ve seen more convincing Dickens characters in department store windows. Still, it was chock full of stars and original songs, but severely lacking in Muppets.
Jesse L. Martin shines as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Tune in because Jane Krakowski is the hottest, most flirtatious Ghost of Christmas Past in any Dickens adaptation ever. Period.
Tune out because to get to her, you need to survive a George Costanza Jacob Marley that will rob you of sleep forever. Finally, a character creepier than Phillip Stuckey from Pretty Woman.
Other Dis-Honorable Mentions: all 500 independently produced cartoon versions & Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol
Joe Costal knows too much about stupid Halloween songs. His writing has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, most recently Philadelphia Stories and The Maine Review. His poetry is included in Challenges for the Delusional II by Diode Editions. An excerpt from his novel is forthcoming in Painted Bride. Joe teaches writing at Stockton University. Visit him online at joecostal.com.