A Christmas Carol

Scrooge and MarleyMost 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

Ignorance and WantLet 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,…)

Ghost of Christmas PresentA 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])

DSotM[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…]

A Christmas Carol - 1951When 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.

A Christmas Carol - 1938Until the 1951 version came along, the one to see was A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, from 1938.

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!)

A Christmas Carol - 1984I think one of the best of the modern versions (and a real contender overall) is the 1984, made-for-TV A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott.

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.

A Christmas Carol - 1999Patrick 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).

A Christmas Carol - 2009My 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).

ScroogedLast, 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.

A Christmas Carol - on stageThe 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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “A Christmas Carol

  • aFrankAngle

    Great tribute to this holiday classic … and especially because you gave so much credit to Mr. Magoo! …. but hats off to George C Scott’s version!

    Happy holidays to you and those you love!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It really does begin there for me, with that Mr. Magoo version. Watching it on YouTube really evoked childhood memories. (I was delighted to see you’d mentioned it and linked to it as well! I’m not the only one with fond memories!)

      The Scott version is playing as I write this (the Stewart one was on earlier, and the Disney/Carrey one will air this evening)…

  • charmarie221

    did that say Walter C Scott? not George?

    I used to love the Wizard of Oz… TERRIFIED of that witch, omg! and I immediately recognized her years later as the Folgers coffee lady… I remember when I watched the movie I used to look closely at the 3 characters and seeing how much (or not) they looked like the 3 farmhands throughout the movie

    and two years ago I saw Wicked onstage–absolutely fabulous production that gives the “backstory” of the two witches… the girl we saw as Glinda was good, but I would love to see the Kristen Chenoweth version

    I don’t think I realized there were that many versions of the movie, certainly not the Magoo one… it’s not a fave story of mine as I feel like I’m being hit over the head with the “live right; be kind to people; don’t die a miserable miser” idea, ha

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I really do think the universe is trying to drive me insane (to “gaslight” me, as another blogger said).

      I originally wrote it as George Scott. And somehow I ran into something that made me go, “What? It’s not George? I thought it was George? It’s Walter Scott?! WTF?!” But fine, so I want and changed it.

      It’s like that old joke, “I thought I was wrong once. But I was mistaken.” Of course it’s George… how did I ever think otherwise? Where the hell did I get the impression it was Walter? [sigh]

      Thanks muchly!! I’ve corrected it back to what it should have been all along!

      Chenoweth is fun; she’d make a good Glinda!

      Are you generally bothered by moral parables, or is it more related to how heavy-handed it is? (Or how visible the machinery is?)

  • charmarie221

    possibly the heavy handedness… because he’s a bit of a caricature of the work-driven, callous, grinding, heartless creature we all struggle not to be: hating this, bah-humbugging that, denying love the opportunity to have a place in our lives… UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE!

    Of course the redeeming part is that it’s not too late, it’s never too late… even at 107, we can throw off the shackles of self inflicted doom and gloom and rage and save a symbolic lame child and share the giant raw turkey hanging in the window….

    and I do like his nightcap

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s also a story of how a person can slowly become sour over a lifetime. Scrooge was originally a happy fellow. Some versions of the tale even focus a lot on how Scrooge (and in some cases even Marley) became what they were. That’s really the point of the first ghost’s visit, reminding him what he once was and what he’s lost. The second ghost, of course, shows him who he is now and what he’s missing. And then finally, look out, here’s what comes next.

      A bit heavy-handed, sure, but it was written in 1843, so it reflects the times. Kind of like Captain Kirk’s love’m and leave’m and “Prime Directive, what Prime Directive” attitude was of the time compared to Picard’s far more politically correct reflection of the 90s.

      And parables are often more iconic than realistic… I suppose it’s to make them more accessible to a larger audience at the expense, perhaps, of those with a more cynical view.

      • charmarie221

        or perhaps I reject it because I identify too closely with it! I think of this side of it sometimes… how Scroogey I can become if left unchecked… how jaded and cynical life has made me… so perhaps hearing such stories makes me reflect on these tendencies and see the message in the book/movie and scream “I know!! I KNOW!!!”

        but I do still like his nightcap

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’d say you are entitled to a little jaded and cynical.

        And a nightcap. Would you like that in wool, Nyquil or straight gin?

      • charmarie221

        oh some soft comfy cotton or light flannel, to be sure… followed by something sweet and fruity

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Little tiny umbrella optional? How about the little plastic pirate sword with chunks of fruit on it?

      • charmarie221

        yeah that’s good… or some high quality tequila, straight from the freezer… on the rare occasion that I do imbibe

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh! Got one of those little bottles of Patron in my freeze (next to some gin and two bottles of vodka)!

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