By Nick Maylor
When I was asked to do a list of my top 5 Christmas movies, I found myself at the inescapable truth that at least three of them would be versions of my favourite story. So in lieu of that particular list, I’ve decided to focus solely on this one story for my countdown.
It has long been my contention that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843) is the single greatest story ever told. It is my favourite story in any medium…. and of all time.
In 1842, the year prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol, no London newspaper had any mention of Christmas in the December 24th paper. No one was into it. Right bunch of humbugs they were!
Christmas had not been popular in early Victorian England. Many protestations were that the holiday was unbiblical, paganistic or heretical…
They might have been on to something there; but nevertheless, after the release of Dickens’ novella, the cultural Zeitgeist shifted and the Christmas Holiday was rejuvenated, starting a long trek to become the massive cultural sensation it is today.
Everything anybody needs to know about Christmas is in Dickens’ book. Fred’s speech rebuking his uncle Scrooge’s miserable disposition is one of the material’s many famous passages and it would be uncivilized for me to think that I could sum things up any better than Fred did:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from… the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
If that doesn’t sum up the meaning of Christmas, nothing can.
The holiday owes a tremendous amount to Mr. Dickens and his story. Think of our favourite red-suited gift giver, Santa Claus. While historically taking cues from St. Nicholas, the Norse god Odin and several other sources, Santa’s personality largely came from A Christmas Carol.
Santa Claus’ British counterpart is/was Father Christmas. While the two may have had separate origins, they are now considered synonymous and interchangeable with each other. Our beloved gift-bearer seems an awful lot like this guy:
The Ghost of Christmas Present may have a red beard and a green coat, but he’s clearly recognizable now as Santa. If you don’t believe me just watch the Muppet version of this story. Santa Claus with some short-term memory loss. He’s straight up “Ho Ho Ho”ing all over the place.
In summary, I love this story and what it has brought to our culture. In the history of film, it has been adapted several times. Here are my top 5 versions of the story and why.
Merry Christmas and enjoy.
5. DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)
This Robert Zemeckis-directed film isn’t the greatest or most unique adaptation of the story. It is (like the best versions) incredibly loyal to the source material. It manages to achieve two things that no other version has. First, it accurately portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past as an androgynous, anthropomorphic candlestick; the description given in Dickens’ novella. Secondly, it captures some tremendous, other-worldly time travel magic (although the carriage chase might be a bit overdone. I will also tip my hat to Mr. Carrey, who inspiringly portrays Scrooge (at all ages) and the 3 ghosts that visit him.
The most effective part of the film (in my opinion) is the dark, premonition of Scrooge’s death in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Also Carrey). It gets pretty intense in this one as the Ghost of Christmas Present dies.
4. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984)
Although made for television, this one is worthy of being included with these other theatrically-released films. Again faithful to the source material, it features a brilliant performance by George C. Scott (at the time, the first notable American actor to portray the legendary British character); the cornerstone of any good adaptation.
3. THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992)
Something about A Christmas Carol is so fitting with music and thusly, musicals. Singing is described in the novella and even in non-musical adaptations, carollers are regularly seen, just before they are shoed away by Scrooge like street rats. Rats, mice, Muppets and Michael Caine; this winning formula brings this annual treasure. It was Steve Whitmire’s first big role as Kermit the Frog after the death of Jim Henson. Jim’s son Brian directs this charming romp which employs everything that makes The Muppets great and combines it with a faithful (mostly) rendition of the tale. The Great Gonzo fills the shoes of Dickens himself, acting as narrator. By his side is Rizzo the Rat who is just there “for the food.”
I’m not 100% on board with how Scrooge swipes the story’s final “God bless us, everyone” from Tiny Tim; but the whole film is endlessly rewatchable, as the story demands.
Michael Caine singing the final number is a joy. Keep your eyes peeled at 2:40 for the cameo of Caine’s real surname on a corner sign.
2. SCROOGE/A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)
There is nothing more satisfying than Ebenezer Scrooge redeemed. When he wakes up in his own chambers, alive, coming to realize that it’s Christmas morning; we share in his giddiness and joy as he realizes the future is full of potential. Alistair Sim’s legendary performance as Scrooge is the reason why most writers would place this classic adaptation at the top of their lists. Sim’s Scrooge set the bar for all of those who followed in his footsteps. None of the other great versions of the story would be what they are, had it not been for Sim’s winning performance that some argue was worthy of an Oscar nomination.
I would not protest that claim.
Sit back and watch the pure joy on Scrooge’s face, laughing like a schoolboy.
1. SCROOGE (1970)
I love music and so so does Christmas. When I’m not writing about film, I pretend to be a musician sometimes. Only a musical deserves this top spot on my list and this is the best one there is. Long before Jim Carrey utilized motion-capture technology to play Scrooge at all ages, an actor in his mid-thirties pulled it off with little makeup, merely a genius performance.
Albert Finney’s portrayal of Scrooge is a wonder of acting talent. Through physicality and not much else, he fully inhabits the crotchety, old miser with every muscle tweak and facial tick. This British production features music by Leslie Bricusse and “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Albert Finney won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his performance as Scrooge.
As my mother always says, “The joy of tradition is the constant repetition”. So it goes with this film and my Christmas traditions. These songs are the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases. The film is a faithful adaptation of Dickens’ work and contains brilliant performances and contagious energy. During the film’s finale, the entire city of London seems to join together in a massive, choreographed musical number that revisits each of the songs previously heard throughout the film. Scrooge dons a Santa suit and brings joy to the masses. It’s infectious. If you watch that sequence and feel nothing, you might be dead inside.
However, as stated in the last entry on this list, nothing is more satisfying that Scrooge redeemed. Albert Finney’s depiction of these moments on Christmas morning is set to the brilliant ballad “I’ll Begin Again” (later recorded by Sammy Davis Jr.) To me, there is nothing that sums up the holiday and its true meaning than the chills I get everytime this comes on.
Merry Christmas to all.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor