God Help Me, I Just Watched 8 Versions of 'A Christmas Carol'

Day 1: The Assignment

Great news! KQED wants me to watch different versions of A Christmas Carol and write an essay. What better way to ease into the Christmas season? Plus it gives me incentive to read the book, something I've always wanted to do!

Day 2: The Book

Jesus, I think this is what they call "minor Dickens." Am I crazy or does the author's characteristic social concern and anti-capitalist sentiment coexist uneasily with his paean to Christmas? A little research reveals I'm not the only one with doubts. The English writer Richard Aldington said "the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge is as full of cant as it is improbability."

That's not a spoiler, right? Most people know Scrooge and the three ghosts like they do Goldilocks and the Three Bears. That's part of the problem in tackling Dickens' tale: an overfamiliarity with the main character's redemptive arc. In fact, if you've managed to avoid the story's rudiments to date, you are to be congratulated for attaining the very height of cultural illiteracy. The story practically resides in the collective unconscious, and you don't need to have taken a course on Victorian literature to have digested it. In fact, you might have picked it up while watching a stray episode of The Odd Couple or even a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

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But for the extraterrestrials out there, we'll recap: Ebenezer Scrooge, a banker and all-around horrible person, spends Christmas Eve lamenting the holiday while also espousing a sensitivity to the poor that would appall Marie Antoinette. After launching this one man War on Christmas, he suffers a nighttime haunting by his deceased ex-partner, Jacob Marley, festooned in a terrible chain as symbolic comeuppance for his sins on earth. Marley warns Scrooge that the way things are going, he too is going to need the services of a 24-hour, trans-dimensional locksmith. Three spirits will reinforce the message, Marley says, their visitations to come on succeeding nights. The Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come then come a knockin'.

The unwelcome spirits take Scrooge on a journey through time, each event taking place on Christmas. Included in the temporal travelogue is a glimpse into the goings-on of the Cratchits, the family of Scrooge's long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose angelic son, Tiny Tim, appears to be dying or at least very sick. (From what, we don't know, but he's got a crutch.) Scrooge is finally shown his own unmourned death, and the entire experience convinces him to be more charitable, and to regard the celebration of Christmas as the ultimate expression of regard for your fellow man, at least until the first Black Friday stampede 150 years later.

It's a simple message, really, inscribed in the Bible: Don't be a moneygrubbing prick, lest you lose your soul.

While that's always something worth considering, the moral of the story's linkage to the Yuletide chafes against contemporary experience. And not even contemporary. Scottish author Margaret Oliphant wrote in 1871 that the novella showed that Dickens is "the first to find out the immense spiritual power of the Christmas turkey." (That's first-rate sarcasm, even today). The Christmas theme hasn't gotten any easier to swallow over time. Never mind the commercialism of the season, how about its length? With all the music, store displays, and Amazon wish lists in full swing the moment the last Halloween candy is distributed, by the time Dec. 25 rolls around I'm actually rooting for Scrooge to stay true to himself in the face of buttinsky ghosts.

a christmas carol, first edition

A Christmas Carol the book is also marred by the eye-rolling melodrama of Tiny Tim and, as Oliphant alluded to, an epicurean sensibility amid what's supposed to be a spiritual lesson. (The Ghost of Christmas Present sits atop "a kind of throne" made of "turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs..." The list goes on.) It's also a bit binary in its characterizations: There's Scrooge, who hates Christmas, and most everyone else, who reveres it.

Still, this is Dickens, so there's plenty that compensates. Besides introducing the phrase, "Bah! Humbug," a cultural contribution no human would deny, Grand Master Charlie D can flat out write. His description of Scrooge, for instance:

...a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin...

That sort of villainy is ready-made for manifestation off the page, and since the book was published in 1843, no generation of adaptors, across all forms of media, has been able to resist.

So let's see what the movies have to offer....

reginald owen as scrooge

Day 3: The First Film: A Christmas Carol, 1938, MGM; Director: Edwin L. Marin, Reginald Owen as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: Show me the movies!

We start out with a concise but pedestrian version of the tale. Owen's not half-bad, but the well-fed character actor Gene Lockhart, built like a fireplug, is mysteriously cast as the poverty-stricken Bob Cratchit. Lots of extras mill about the Victorian London streets, also known as the MGM backlot, dimmed by a classic London "fog".

A man losing his soul wasn't enough in the way of dramatic tension for MGM, apparently, so the stakes have been upped with the early introduction of Tiny Tim, who doesn't appear in the book until halfway through, and who really limps up a storm here. There's also an added scene in which Cratchit joins some kids in a snowball fight and mistakenly knocks off Scrooge's top hat, thus getting himself canned on Christmas Eve. Emotionalism abounds: cue the angelic music when Scrooge's nephew gives his pro-Christmas speech, with Cratchit looking on like he's got a severe crush on the man.

As for the ghosts, a translucent Leo G. Carroll is double-exposed into Scrooge's room as Marley, The effects department, however, wasn't quite up to recreating Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Past, "a strange figure -- like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man," according to the author, with a "bright clear jet of light" emanating from his head. Forget it, said Louis B. Mayer, or someone like him. Howzabout whatsername, you know, the one from the Andy Hardy films? That's MGM starlet Ann Rutherford as the knockout ghost with blonde hair and curls. Her spiritual accoutrements include a star atop her hat and some sort of hospital gown; she looks like a strange nun making an ill-conceived guess as to appropriate attire for a night out.

Along with Star Trek, this is one of the better fictional works in which the main character spends most of the proceedings in his pajamas.

Scroogiana: In a two-shot with Lockhart, Owen says that Christmas is a "poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every year," visibly spraying Lockhart with spit.

seymour hicks as scrooge

Day 4: Scrooge, 1935, Twickenham Studios; Director: Henry Edwards, Seymour Hicks as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: Cautiously optimistic

This starts with a bit more directorial flair than MGM's workmanlike effort, as we first see Scrooge only from behind, building up the tension to the reveal of his mean old face. The film also has the virtue of a smaller, enfeebled Bob Cratchit, unlike MGM's Chris Christie-in-mutton chops. Seymour Hicks captures the pettiness of Scrooge better than Reginald Owen, and the tragedy of Tiny Tim is also mercifully less exploited. Once again, there is fog.

But the most striking thing is the skimping on ghosts. Marley is represented by just a voice, who explains to Scrooge, "only you can see me." The Ghost of Christmas Present is also non-corporeal -- just a blob of amorphous light. C'mon, get real. If I plunk down for Godzilla, I want to see a giant, scaly reptile, y'know?

All in all this is less affecting than even the MGM version, though not as sanitized and with some interesting touches. You even see Tiny Tim lying dead as his father hovers over his body -- stick that in your holiday stocking. You also get one of Dickens' best scenes, omitted from the American version: a trio of working class scavengers, who stole Scrooge's things straight off his deathbed, selling them to a fence. They're shot like evil spectres, genuine living ghouls.

Scroogiana: In this truncated 61-minute version, not only do you not get ghosts, you don't get Tiny Tim's famous novella-ending line: "God bless us, everyone." (Scrooge says it instead.) You might as well take the "Rosebud" from Orson Welles' lips at the beginning of Citizen Kane. As in the 1935 film, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" gets the proceedings up and running. In one wholly unnecessary scene, some luminaries on Christmas Eve regale Her Majesty with "God Save the Queen." So money for that, but not Marley's ghost?

bill murray as scrooge

Day 5: Scrooged, 1988, Paramount; Director: Richard Donner, Bill Murray as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: Give me something to work with here.

With so many helpings of the same tale, I'm feeling a bit stuffed. It's like every day is Christmas, minus the presents. What better antidote to our story's earnest heart than a Bill Murray meta-Scrooge vehicle? The many shades of irony Murray can paint can be one of the pleasures of modern cinema. Let's see what we have here....

Yeah. This one stinks like Christmas goose on New Year's. Murray plays the head of a TV network putting on a live Christmas Carol special with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, Jamie Farr as Bob Cratchit, and gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. It's a funny concept derailed by poor execution. Murray's character travels the same arc as in the much better Groundhog Day. But he's off his game here, going all-out-bastard with little of the knowing slyness that often makes his performances intriguingly elliptical. The story is a mess, and the addition of a present day love interest breaks the parallelism to Dickens. From the sets to the script, the entire production is too broad to make the satire work. This is superficial subversiveness, minus any new wrinkle on the ostensible dichotomy between maliciousness and Christmas.

It's also ridiculously sentimental, as Murray hijacks his own show, a la Network, to give an anodyne speech about love or something or other. The film ends with Murray and the entire cast singing "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." With its '80s aesthetic in full tacky bloom, the film seems even more dated than the 1935 version. How dated? There's product placement for Tab everywhere.

Scroogiana:David Johansen, the lead singer of the proto-punk band New York Dolls, adds some zest as one of the ghosts. Scrooge's famous denial of Marley's existence, "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato," is changed to, "You're a hallucination brought on by alcohol, Russian vodka, poisoned by Chernobyl."

kelseu grammer as scrooge

Day 6: A Christmas Carol: The Musical 2004; Hallmark; Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman, Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: Desperate

Really, Western Civilization? I didn't think it could get much worse than Bill Murray singing a schmaltzy song unironically. I caught this made-for-TV movie on the Hallmark Movie Channel, which I'm apparently paying for as part of my cable bundle. This one's based on the stage musical of the same name. Kelsey Grammer is in full Acting! mode; he portrays Scrooge like an elderly Frasier Crane. Grammer stinks at playing a miserable old bastard, really taking the dick out of Dickens. The whole thing is overlit and dripping with non- atmosphere, bad accents, forgettable songs, lousy choreography, and an antiseptic set. Jane Krakowski, two years away from her role as Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, lends her pipes to the kind of ludicrous project in which that character would often find herself cast.

The fictional Jamie Farr/Buddy Hackett version would play less like parody. Only a minor obsessive compulsive disorder kept my hand off the fast forward button.

Scroogiana: Geraldine Chaplin, who appeared in Doctor Zhivago and Nashville, once played Mother Theresa, and is the daughter of one of the most important cinematic figures in history, is here seen flouncing about in a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pantomime that's frightening for all the wrong reasons.

albert finney as scrooge

Day 7: Scrooge, 1970, Cinema Center Films; Director: Ronald Neame, Albert Finney as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: They're not paying me enough for this thing.

I hereby declare this musical version to be the most entertaining, intelligent, and inventive of the lot. So don't believe the haters. (I'm looking at you, Pauline Kael.)

No one does a more incisive job with the lead character than Albert Finney, who applies a little modern acting technique to a 19th century caricature. Rather than the film inventing a psychological antecedent for Scrooge's meanness, Finney explains it through his interpretation of the younger Scrooge, playing a remote and brooding man, not innately evil, but on the verge of letting his aloofness overwhelm his love. Finney's Scrooge is less the dualistic character of most portrayals; he is alternately submissive, cranky, gleeful, self-pitying, rueful, and tender. I daresay he improves on the book by portraying Scrooge's transformation as gradual and grudging; Dickens had Scrooge converted to a state of contrition by the time Christmas Present intrudes.

After Finney, the best thing here is Alec Guinness as Marley, one of the cooler ghosts on celluloid. He float-walks into the room, then sways and bobs like he's moving against the tide. His chain, lockbox, and enormous keys fly in all directions as he rises to the ceiling in anger.

Believe it or not, this is a moving film, especially for a musical. There's a real pathos in Scrooge futilely trying to stop his former self, a shadow of the past, from letting his fiance walk out on him forever.

Scroogiana: Actor David Collins as Bob Cratchit avoids the toadying woefulness that afflicts most of the other portrayals of the character. He plays the clerk with a jaunty, song-and-dance man air. The Ghost of Christmas Present, standing twice Scrooge's height, commands him to "Come over here you weird little man."

alistair sim as scrooge

Day 8: Scrooge, 1951, Renown Pictures; Director: Brian Desmond Hurst, Alastair Sim as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: I would kill to be able to watch Goodfellas.

Considered by many to be the gold standard in Carol adaptations, the film starts out austerely sinister as Scrooge and a customer are shown standing dwarfed by a financial exchange. Heavy on shadows and mood, the picture hits hard on the theme of industrial capitalism, giving us a glimpse of Scrooge and Marley as partners in rapaciousness.

Sim does an admirable job embodying the spirit of petty hardheartedness. But the film loses points for playing the Tiny Tim card early, and a snivelling Cratchit and shrill, singularly unfrightening Marley don't help either.

Given that this is coming near the end of my run, when only a Tiny Tim in purple spandex could surprise, congratulations 1951 British version, you're the runner-up.

Scroogiana: Adds the the death of Scrooge's mother at childbirth as the psychological reason for his inhumanity. Includes a scene from the book in which the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals beneath his robe a forlorn little boy and girl named Ignorance and Want.

tori spelling as scrooge

Day 8: A Carol Christmas, 2003, Hallmark; Director: Matthew Irmas, Tori Spelling as the Scrooge character
Personal emotional barometer: Kill me.

You know what? I've taken this too far. What's next, Scrooge in Space? Here we have another Hallmark Movie Channel spectacular, starring Tori Spelling, William Shatner, and Gary Coleman. The OctoMom wasn't available. Spelling plays Carol Cartman, a nasty talk show host visited by the usual spirits. Well, not usual -- one is Gary Coleman. Unlike Marley's warning to Scrooge, it's probably unnecessary to issue a caution about avoiding this thing at all costs. Remember, the average life expectancy in the U.S is just 692,000 hours, and these 92 minutes shouldn't be spared.

Scroogiana: I really don't think that's Tori Spelling's original nose.

disneys a christmas carol

Day 9: Disney's A Christmas Carol, 2009, Disney; Director: Robert Zemeckis, Jim Carrey as Scrooge
Personal emotional barometer: Please kill me.

That's Disney's A Christmas Carol, chump. Given the company's ever- expanding purchase on the nation's collective fantasy life, one wonders why it took so long to affix its possessive to Dickens' classic.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this is a 3D affair with a $200 million budget, created with computer animated motion capture technology, all so we can see the likes of Jim Carrey, Colin Firth, and Gary Oldman as cartoons. The box office is listed at $325 million worldwide; not bad, but lagging several 2009 animated offerings, including Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Make of that what you will. Ironically, with all this high-tech and even considering some effects-driven thrills, the film is still the most faithful adaptation of the book I saw. It's also the only version that gives us a Ghost of Christmas Past with light streaming from his head, as Dickens conceived. That character speaks with a disturbingly high-pitched, ghostly Irish accent, and one can imagine Disney execs wondering aloud, "Hey, Zemeckis, what about a wisecracking chipmunk here?"

One also might speculate as to what Disney thought of paying the frenetic Jim Carrey to give such a restrained, almost reverential performance, devoid of pop culture references or fart jokes. But don't get me wrong; the project is laudable if curiously staid. Perhaps some head of production got a visit by the ghosts of Mickey, Pluto, and Walt.

Scroogiana: "Hark the Herald Angels Sings" rears its Yuletide head about halfway through. Near the end, post-transformation, Scrooge says, "You can't take it with you." I like to think that's a reference to Frank Capra, who would have had a field day with the source material. The book's theme of family and community conviviality as bulwarks against poverty and despair are downright Capraesque. It's a Wonderful Life's Mr. Potter, after all, is Scrooge by another name.

Day 10: I'm Done
Personal emotional barometer: Can't stop thinking about Tori Spelling.

My deadline draws nigh, so no more Scrooges. That doesn't mean there isn't more work to do on this important project. If you want to continue, there's An American Christmas Carol, starring Henry Winkler, also known as TV's Fonzie. Plus the 1999 adaptation with Patrick Stewart. George C. Scott gave it a go in 1984, as well. Netflix those, why dontcha? And don't forget, ACT's A Christmas Carol is in full swing. You ever hear the 1939 radio version narrated by Orson Welles? It's on the Internet!

When you're done, let me know what you think, You can reach me atjbrooks@ThisIsNoAssignmentForAJew.com. Or just use the comment section below.

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God help us, everyone.

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