Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” was intended, at least in part, to serve as a constructive critique of how Christmas is celebrated, so it’s perhaps ironic …
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” was intended, at least in part, to serve as a constructive critique of how Christmas is celebrated, so it’s perhaps ironic that it’s since become regarded as such an essential tradition of the Christmas season in its own right.
One consequence of its enduring popularity is that there have been as many, if not more, movie and television adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” than there have been onscreen retellings of the birth of Christ himself, with sufficient variants made that there are enough flavors to suit everyone’s tastes.
I’ve already recommended Bill Murray’s 1988 big-screen adaptation “Scrooged,” so what follows are three other takes on “A Christmas Carol” that I suspect will entertain even those whose hearts are full of humbug.
1. The Revisionist: Henry Winkler in “An American Christmas Carol” (1979)
One of the great things about HBO’s “Barry” is seeing Henry Winkler finally get his due as a dramatic actor, because in spite of a formidable film and TV resume that’s spanned the decades, it seemed for a long time like he would never escape his leather jacket-clad image as “The Fonz.”
“An American Christmas Carol” was made almost exactly in the middle of Winkler’s 10-year run on “Happy Days,” so even when audiences saw him as all thumbs-up and “Eeey!”, he was a man with a lot on his mind.
“An American Christmas Carol” updates its setting from 19th century London to Concord, New Hampshire in 1933, during the Great Depression, when local business tycoon Benedict Slade (Winkler, wearing some admittedly bad old-age makeup) is making his rounds on Christmas Eve, repossessing all the property that people haven’t been able to keep up their payments on.
Part of his haul, from a college book-seller, includes a first-edition copy of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which serves as the prelude for the spirits who wind up visiting Slade at his well-stocked warehouse, each one wearing the face of one of his debtors, after the obligatory warning from his deceased former business partner.
What makes Slade such a uniquely American Scrooge is not only how he espouses a by-your-bootstraps philosophy, at one point handing out pamphlets with tips for financial success to children collecting for charity, but also how he ultimately damns himself by being too focused on efficiency and innovation.
After being orphaned as a boy, Slade is taken in by the owner of a woodworking business with many employees, whose daughter the young man begins courting.
But while young Ebenezer traditionally loses his lady love by focusing too much on making money to care for her, young Benedict also tries to sell his adoptive father on implementing an assembly line, to be more competitive with woodworkers who instituted mass-manufacturing.
It reminded me of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” because while George Amberson is spoiled and thoughtless, and arrogantly dismisses the prospects of automobiles, Benedict Slade is initially motivated by gratitude toward the family that took him in, which makes it all the more cold-blooded when he eventually teams up with his Jacob Marley-esque business partner to stab his adoptive father’s business in the back.
By showing how Slade made his fortune by charging his customers installment payments, “An American Christmas Carol” gives him direct accountability for the Depression in which the story is set, which I can’t help but think must have resonated with audiences at the tail end of what became known as the “malaise” years of the late 1970s.
Look for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by a fresh-faced Michael Wincott, who would go on to play the gravel-voiced Top Dollar in Brandon Lee’s “The Crow” in 1994, cast here as the earnest, bespectacled kid leading the charity-minded young carolers.
2. The Whimsical: Michael Caine in “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
When Michael Caine was offered the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” he told Brian Henson, “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink. I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role, and there are no puppets around me.”
This proved to be the perfect approach. By playing Scrooge as the ultimate straight man, Caine gave the Muppets the freedom to engage in all their characteristic gags and antics, without the core story ever feeling like it was being derailed or overwhelmed by all the side comedy that was surrounding it.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” hearkens back to the sitcoms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, each of which would inevitably feature an episode casting its characters in the roles of “A Christmas Carol.”
As hackneyed and predictable as this formula was, it appealed to audiences by comparing and contrasting those shows’ much-loved personalities with the archetypes of “A Christmas Carol.”
The Muppets lean into this dynamic hard, with aspiring comedian Fozzie Bear cast as young Ebenezer’s festive employer Fezziwig (or rather “Fozziwig” here, a pun too perfect to pass up), and Scrooge’s old school headmaster played by the suitably stern Sam Eagle, who champions business as “the American way,” before Gonzo (playing Charles Dickens, as a fourth wall-breaking Greek chorus) whispers in his ear, and Sam corrects himself by saying it’s “the British way.”
And while one might argue which actor has played the best Scrooge over the years, there is no question that Kermit the Frog, the epitome of forbearance under unreasonable pressure, is the best Bob Cratchit ever to appear on screen.
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” was the first Muppet film to be made after Jim Henson’s death, with his son Brian left to take the reins, but it offers all the same catchy musical numbers, endearingly silly humor and colorful characters that audiences had come to expect from the Muppets under their creator, all while remaining surprisingly faithful to the original text of Dickens’ novella.
Perhaps my favorite example of this improbable balancing act is seeing Caine’s Scrooge reacting to Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf as Scrooge’s dead business partners, Jacob and Robert Marley; for Statler and Waldorf, it’s just another opportunity to crack wise at someone else’s expense, but Caine absolutely sells Scrooge’s seething resentment of their mockery: “You always criticized me!”
3. The Frightful: George C. Scott in “A Christmas Carol” (1984)
Alastair Sim is considered by many to be the best onscreen Ebenezer Scrooge, having played in him both live-action (1951) and animated (1971), but much like how I’ll always see Dracula as Bela Lugosi with the cape and widow’s peak, I’ll always see Scrooge as George C. Scott with those Wolverine mutton chop sideburns.
The 1984 TV movie of “A Christmas Carol” ranks among the few adaptations of Dickens’ novella to remember that it is a ghost story, and its atmosphere is so haunting, even before any spirits appear, that it could air as part of a Halloween block of spooky movies with scarcely any revisions.
To a certain extent, this is by necessity, because once you’ve cast the man who made his name playing World War II hero Gen. George S. Patton as your Scrooge, you have to ratchet up the intimidation factor of your ghosts by a number of notches.
Everyone always regards the Ghost of Christmas Future as the most fearsome of the spirits to visit Scrooge, since his visage is directly cribbed from the Grim Reaper, but Angela Pleasence and Edward Woodward ensure that the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, are every bit as fearsome.
Pleasence’s soft-spoken commentary and wry smile come across as far more sinister than gentle, as she takes stock of Scrooge’s life so far, and Woodward’s broad grin and bellowing laughter are more reminiscent of an animal’s bared fangs and growl, rather than reflecting any sense of benevolent mirth, as he shows Scrooge the lives of those whom he’d dismissed so glibly.
Frank Finlay sets the tone for the rest of the apparitions to come, as the chain-clanking ghost of Jacob Marley, who’s never more than a few seconds removed from bursting into a horrifying howl of outrage at Scrooge, and regret over the irrevocable consequences of his own misdeeds.
“A Christmas Carol” first aired on CBS when I was 9 years old, and the first time I saw Finlay’s Marley untie the bandage holding his mouth shut, the way his jaw just dropped seriously freaked me out.
If you’re a nerd, then in the words of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this version of “A Christmas Carol” has EVERYTHING; Turlough from “Doctor Who” (Mark Strickson) as young Ebenezer Scrooge, Superman’s mom (Susanna York) as Mrs. Cratchit, Alfred from the Tim Burton Batman films (Michael Gough) as one of the charity solicitors, and DAVID WARNER, who’s done everything from “Time Bandits” and “Tron” to multiple iterations of “Star Trek,” as Bob Cratchit.
All three films are available on Amazon’s streaming service, and “An American Christmas Carol” is free.