Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the modern Christmas story. The tale of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghost of his dead partner and the embodiment of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, to learn the value of kindness to his fellow-men is iconic. The story has had many adaptations over the years. For stage, radio, television (a new version comes this year courtesy of Steven Knight) and, of course, film. So, today we’re going to see which Christmas Carol film adaptation is the best.
With films of Carol dating back to 1901, I’ll only be looking at five of the most well-known theatrically released movies; comparing them to see which ones did certain things better. Those movies being Scrooge (1951), Scrooge (1970), Scrooged, Muppets Christmas Carol and A Christmas Carol (2009).
For this comparison I have chosen to look at, the portrayals of Scrooge, the portrayals of the ghosts, the supporting cast members, and how much they bring to their films, the production value of each film and which film best told the story overall. So, after all that set up let’s begin.
Who’s The Best Scrooge?
Ebeneezer Scrooge is one of fiction’s most iconic characters. His name has even become a part of the English language. With such a reputation you need equally brilliant performances to bring him to life. But who is the best, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Michael Caine or Jim Carrey? For my money, Alastair Sim’s iconic turn from Scrooge (1951) is the best.
Unfortunately, while Finney and Carrey are clearly trying their best, their vocal affectations make it hard to take them seriously. Also despite loving Caine’s Scrooge and Murray’s modern interpretation, Frank Cross, Caine’s cold-heartedness does thaw a little too quickly for his change of heart to carry a large amount of weight. And Murray fits the bitter sardonic side of Scrooge better than the renewed Christmas lover.
Sim, however, embodies every aspect of Scrooge perfectly. His miserable nature is believable and never feels over the top. But when he changes his ways it feels like a perfectly played evolution of the character. And Sim communicates the character in every aspect of his performance. From his tone of voice to his body language and the words he uses. For my half a crown he’s the best Scrooge out there.
Winner: Scrooge (1951)
Who Are The Best Ghosts?
Scrooge may be the narrative focus, but it’s the visiting spirits that ultimately change him. So, which ghosts gave us the best hauntings over the years?
Firstly, we must consider Jacob Marley’s ghost. Often shown as a sickly figure dragging a long chain behind him, he’s been portrayed by many fantastic actors. Including Michael Hordern, Alec Guinness, and Gary Oldman. Some of the more creative interpretations include Muppets Christmas Carol, who have critics Statler and Waldorf playing Jacob and Robert Marley. Who come to criticize Scrooge and provide advice for his improvement. While Scrooged presents Marley, as an old retired boss who, humorously, resembles a zombie more than a ghost.
Christmas Past varies the most in appearance between adaptations. Scrooge (1951) and A Christmas Carol (2009)’s ghosts resemble the description in Dicken’s original story. However, both are still different. Scrooge (1951) has an angelic, androgynous figure, while A Christmas Carol has a floating candle carrying a cap. Both functions well as translations of the text but don’t show too much imagination. Scrooge (1970’s) Christmas Past is a middle-aged woman who feels like a mother figure to Scrooge. Going over his past mistakes like a mum bringing out the family photo album for guests. Scrooged’s Christmas Past is a loudmouth Taxi driver who ferry’s Frank around the past. While the Muppet version gives Christmas Past the visage of a child. Whose innocent appearance makes the overall message more poignant.
Of all the ghosts of Christmas Present, the Muppets and Scrooged are the most interesting. The Muppets’ Present, like Scrooge (1970), is more humorous in nature. Very much someone who lives for the moment. Though Muppets’ Present has more depth, as his initially lively nature contrasts greatly with his melancholy later as he begins to waste away. And Scrooged’s Christmas Present is the most original. A cute fairy that slaps people to get them to pay attention to the world around them. A nice change from the usual bearded, robed giant.
Christmas Future is the most consistent in appearance. Every version portrays Future as a hooded figure wearing a dark robe that never speaks. But, of all the adaptations the Muppet version is by far the most unsettling. Nothing about it looks human. It towers over the rest of the cast, with long arms and seemingly no face inside its hood. Making it equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
So, which film has the best ghosts? It has to be a tie between Scrooged and Muppets Christmas Carol. As both display a great amount of imagination in realizing Dicken’s old ideas. Without sacrificing what made them great.
Winner: Muppets Christmas Carol & Scrooged
Who Has The Best Supporting Cast?
Of course, Carol’s supporting cast is also important. The Cratchit Family, Scrooge’s nephew and every other character that populate Scrooge’s life add a little extra to the story. All these adaptations have incredible actors in the supporting cast. But Scrooge (1951) and Muppets Christmas Carol use their supporting actors best.
Not that there aren’t incredible actors in the other versions, but unfortunately Scrooge (1970)’s cast never really does much to elevate themselves, remaining functional but largely forgettable. A Christmas Carol (2009)’s motion capture continually distracts from the performances in favour of showing what was possible with motion capture. And many of Scrooged’s prominent supporting players aren’t given enough time to make an impact.
But, Scrooge (1951) and Muppets Christmas Carol’s supporting cast are incredibly memorable. Scrooge’s supporting cast includes greats like Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit (the best version in my opinion). Brian Worth as Fred and Carol Marsh as Fan are great. And memorable faces are dotted throughout like Jack Warner, Ernest Thesiger, and Hattie Jacques. Each character has a memorable moment and every actor gives an incredible performance that will leave the viewer riveted. And Muppets Christmas Carol has great fun filling out the supporting cast with regular Muppet characters. Such as having Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit and Gonzo as Charles Dickens. Which adds a great amount of humour to the proceedings. And makes all the characters memorable because of the names behind them.
Meaning this segment again ends with a tie. One film showcases the power of incredible performances and great writing. The other demonstrates that sometimes all you need is the right name to make something memorable.
Winner: Scrooge (1951) & Muppets Christmas Carol
Which Version Has The Best Production?
It’s been interesting to see how each Carol adaptation reflects different attitudes to cinematic production. Scrooge (1951) focuses more on creating an authentic-looking Victorian world for the characters to inhabit. While the blocking and camerawork make for a very classical production. Scrooge (1970) aims for spectacle with varied settings, beautifully muted colours and having the cinematography play a more active role. Using long takes and camera movement to accentuate key moments. Scrooged places emphasis on practical effects and capturing modern metropolitan life. The Muppets use their titular characters to help tell the story, while also incorporating musical numbers. And A Christmas Carol (2009) aims to showcase the capabilities of motion capture and create a thrilling blockbuster. For me, Muppets Christmas Carol is the best of them all.
Everything about the Muppets Christmas Carol is a joy to watch from a visual standpoint. The puppetry is amazing. Within minutes you forget that you’re watching puppets and become completely absorbed into the experience. The special effects also hold up better than many other versions of the story. And is further complemented by the beautiful set design and well-done cinematography. Which comes alive during the musical segments.
Winner: Muppets Christmas Carol
Which version tells the story best?
This segment is hard to judge objectively as each interpretation attempts to do something different with the text. But how well does each adaptation achieves its goals?
While A Christmas Carol (2009)’s goal to be entirely faithful to the source material is admirable its attempts to show off the capabilities of motion capture and including over the top action sequences ultimately cheapens the overall experience. Scrooge (1970) also stumbles as it doesn’t have the pomp and energy needed to make a musical work. And the inclusion of these elements doesn’t add anything to the story other than compounding what we already know. Lastly, while Scrooged is a smart modern update of the story, with a great sense of pitch-black humour, unfortunately, it runs out of steam towards the end. Falling back into what we all expect from A Christmas Carol.
Meanwhile, The Muppets is a marvel of juggling tones. It’s consistently funny thanks to the absurd humour found in placing these weird creatures against the human actors who play their roles 100% seriously. But it also knows how to effectively pull on the heartstrings when needed. The inclusion of musical numbers also works better than Scrooge (1970). Because of the effective editing and how the songs tell us more about the characters and the story. The one disadvantage is that the film is overstuffed with ideas. And it does make a few missteps along the way regarding pacing.
And Scrooge (1951) tells the best straightforward version of the story it can. Focusing on the actor’s performances, the writing and the realization of Dickens’ world. While also expanding on certain aspects of the story. Sections that are glossed over in other adaptations are given real depth and weight here. For example, we get to follow Scrooge’s evolution into a miser in great detail. Which gives us great insight into his character. And we finally get a reason for why Scrooge resents his nephew so much. Which adds a tragic layer to both characters.
Ultimately, despite some lacklustre special effects and minor grievances, I cannot deny that Scrooge (1951) tells its story the best. By being to the point and focusing on/expanding what worked in the source material rather than delivering overblown spectacle.
Winner: Scrooge (1951)
Overall Winners: Scrooge (1951) & Muppets Christmas Carol
The story of A Christmas Carol has truly given us many quality adaptations over the years. There’s something interesting about the fact that the closest adaptation of the book (A Christmas Carol (2009)) is the least interesting. Each of the other adaptations brought something new to the table.
If you want a generally entertaining and good-looking version of the story then Scrooge (1970) is for you. For an effective modern update to the old story, then go with Scrooged. If you want the definitive version that has incredible performances, fantastic design and expands on the source material in a way that feels natural and, in many ways, improves the story then watch Scrooge (1951). And if you want the best modern adaptation, packed full of imagination, memorable characters and perfectly blends humour, music, and drama then check out Muppets Christmas Carol.