Most of us have traditional ways of celebrating or observing the re-occurring events in our lives. An anniversary might call for dinner at a certain restaurant. A promotion or sale might call for buying a round of drinks. The great life milestones—births, graduations, weddings, retirements, deaths—all come heavily freighted with traditional behaviors.
For me, an important tradition at Christmas time is watching—and reading—the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol! I think it is one of the most engaging, endearing, wonderful and important stories ever. It is a story of redemption and re-discovery of lost joy. And it is an affirmation that how we choose to live our lives matters.
Plus it has ghosts!
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
-Scrooge to Marley
Let me start with the source material, the original 1843 novella by the great English author Charles Dickens. (Who also wrote some other classics that might ring a bell: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. That’s a pretty impressive resume!)
In counterpoint to Scrooge’s uplifting story, the book is also an indictment of the industrialized era of the time. A key turning point is when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the children of Man, Ignorance and Want. It is the final note that sets Scrooge up for his final visitor and his terrifying glimpse into his future!
A work this old (this classic!) is in the public domain. Every year I read it online at the Project Gutenberg for free! (Well worth a visit if you love books. You might be surprised what’s in the public domain! Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Kama Sutra,…)
A tale as venerable as A Christmas Carol is retold in many variations. As with any good melody, other musicians can play it straight or really jazz it up. And while I love the straight versions, some of which you can almost follow along in the novel, there are some wonderful jazz versions. One might even say there are some “rock ‘n’ roll” versions!
For me it begins with the Mr. Magoo version, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was a key Christmas tradition of mine as a child. For whatever reason, I was never particularly into The Wizard of Oz. another Christmas tradition in our house, but one much more for my sister than for me. (I donno. There’s just no part of that movie that particularly grabs me. [shrug])
[Incidentally, that thing about watching TWoO while listening to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon? It’s bogus. Tried it once at a party; parts make you go, “Whoa!” but most of it is a miss. Funny thing: left the album on but switched to another channel. Got about the same, “Whoa!” hit ratio. Any random music just sometimes really works right with any random video.]
I just loved that Mr. Magoo version! I went looking for it many years ago and could only find it on eBay (it’s long out of print). Used VHS versions were selling for 90 USD and up. I would have paid that much, but I didn’t trust the “used VHS tape” part. Now it’s a simple matter to just link to the YouTube version!
[We must have been delicate kids. I was always afraid something awful was going to happen to Lassie. My sister had this weird reaction to the Ghost of Christmas Future and its outstretched pointing skeletal finger. I could freak my sister out my pointing my forefinger and shaking it…]
When it comes to movie versions, the gold standard is probably Scrooge, from 1951, with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. (The British title is Scrooge; it was released in America as A Christmas Carol.)
The movie plot takes some liberties with the book, most notably elevating the role of Scrooge’s charwoman, Mrs. Dilber. (In the book, his charwoman is not named, while his laundress has that name.) The movie also adds scenes showing how Scrooge fell into becoming the miser he did.
This older version has Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as the Cratchits along with—in her first role—a young June Lockhart (Lassie Mom and Mrs. Lost in Space) as daughter Belinda. Plus you get Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as Marley’s Ghost.
This one also adds material (the nephew’s role is expanded), but more noticeably it lacks the grimmer parts (the avatars Want and Ignorance, for example). This was to make the film more family-friendly. (Interesting that the Mr. Magoo cartoon had the stones to be more faithful to the source!)
It was directed by British director Clive Donner. (No relation to Dick Donner, although interesting coincidence ahead! Clive Donner did What’s New Pussycat [cheers!], but he also did The Nude Bomb [jeers!].) The movie sticks very close to the plot of the book, and it was very well-received critically.
Patrick Stewart also did a very good version in 1999. As with the one above, also made-for-TV, also a straight retelling of the tale, and also just called A Christmas Carol.
This one is a bit grimmer; more patterned on the 1951 Alastair Sim version than on the 1938 Reginald Owen or 1984 George Scott versions (both of which are more cheerful, especially the 1938 version).
My final entry for don’t-miss (straight) versions is the new 2009 Disney version, A Christmas Carol. It’s an animated version directed by Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Contact, Forrest Gump, etc.).
Jim Carrey voices Ebenezer Scrooge in present day as well as in the Ghostly visions, plus he voices all three ghosts! It generally sticks very close to the book, plus there is the exhilaration of modern animation. Some critics faulted it for being too showy (not uncommon in general with 3D animated films).
Last, but not least, a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (so to speak). I have a soft spot for Bill Murray, plus I really love the Dickens story, so a movie like Scrooged (1988), which combines them both, can’t help but delight me.
Bonus: it’s directed by Dick Donner (two Christmas Carol movies, each directed by an unrelated Donner; weird). Donner directed some Get Smart episodes (which ties him to the other Donner) and some Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes (which ties him to Leo G. Carroll).
Yes, it’s over-the-top Bill Murray at times, and yes, they made it a RomCom, but Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present alone is worth the trip. I also find it fun seeing how they hit the notes of the original story.
And there have been many, many other versions over the years. The Jetsons have done one and so have the Flintstones. Naturally The Muppets have gotten in on the act. I can’t count all the half-hour sitcoms and cartoons that have done takes on it over the years.
The story is also well-represented on stage. Our local fine arts theatre, The Gutherie, stages it every year. The stage plays are a good place to see wildly divergent versions sometimes; live theatre loves to be experimental. One thing I’ve learned: I don’t really care for the singing versions. A singing Ebenezer Scrooge just isn’t right somehow.
So there it is, a multitude of Christmas Carols, although not the kind you sing. It’s such a classic (in the true sense of the word) and utterly Christmas without being religious (which broadens its appeal). And just consider that the word, “scrooge,” is part of our language. I hope you will be able to enjoy at least one version this Christmas.