Page to Screen is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he soars alongside the Ghost of Christmas Past to revisit the very best adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Check your humbugs with the girl at the door.
“In everybody, there is a thing that loves children, fears death, and likes sunlight, and this thing enjoys Charles Dickens.” — Gilbert K. Chesterton
“Okay, kids. That’s enough Dickens for one day.” — Mr. Garrison, South Park
“I’m up to my chestnuts in Dickens.” — Me
Most people know the gist of Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole and are familiar with the basic itinerary of Wendy’s red-eye to Neverland. Thanks to Judy Garland, even more can probably recount Dorothy thumbing her way across Oz with three strangers. However, I’d be surprised if any tale in the Western literary canon has been embedded in our cultural DNA more thoroughly than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The phrases “Bah, humbug!” and “God bless us, every one” jokingly pass our lips as shared allusions, and the name Scrooge itself (whose etymology traces back to an obscure verb meaning “to squeeze” or “to press” but could just as well be an amalgam of the unpleasant verbs “screw” and “gouge”) has become synonymous with obstinate callousness and avarice. It’s a simple moral tale first given to us as children, one that we weave into our own holiday traditions as we grow older, and, as we’ll see, a story whose framework gets leaned on time and time again by those charged with entertaining us on screens of all sizes.
Looking back on Dickens’ novella for the first time in several years, I’m struck by a couple things. First, that A Christmas Carol almost never gets discussed as a time-travel story, even though it’s one of the earlier examples of such in Western literature. (A couple items on this list remedy that void.) Second, that while Dickens wrote his novella in direct response to the harsh conditions he saw women and children enduring as factory workers, we read the tale today as more of a redemption story than a moral imperative to correct the wrongs of our own time. Maybe that type of call to action would be asking too much of any tale, let alone one that’s pushing two centuries old. It’s enough that the X-mas spirits Past, Present, and Yet To Come — which we could very well rename Nostalgia-Regret, Pity, and Fear — can squeeze compassion out of a stone as hardened as Ebenezer Scrooge. Still, Stave Three, featuring the Ghost of Christmas Present, has always touched me most: to hear Scrooge’s own words driven into his back like daggers, to see “Ignorance” and “Want” trembling as they cling to the spirit’s robes, and, of course, to understand Tiny Tim Cratchit’s impending death if Scrooge doesn’t intervene at once. Yes, it’s reward enough to witness Scrooge’s own redemption, but I still can’t read these passages without considering if anyone out there breathes slightly easier due to my efforts.
Actors may aspire to play Hamlet, but it’s far more likely they’ll land the role of Dickens’ miserable miser. Everyone from the Fonze to Frasier and from Captain Picard to Beavis have portrayed Scrooge in name or type. And on this list you’ll find classic retellings, musical productions, Saturday morning cartoons, and even some veddy, veddy British silliness. In other words, something for everyone because, as we all know, it’s god bless us … EVERY ONE.
Now, touch my robe. Don’t ask questions. Time is short, and we have a lot to see.
10. The Real Ghostbusters – “Xmas Marks the Spot” (1986)
Thanks to Ray Parker Jr.’s unforgettable theme, every child of the ’80s knew exactly who to call should we find specters in our bedrooms. But what if Ebenezer Scrooge was the victim crying for help and the offending apparitions were actually the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future? Hypotheticals be damned, because that’s precisely what happens when Peter, Ray, Winston, and Egon accidentally stumble into the past and disrupt the most famous intervention in Christmas history. It’s not until they return to modern-day NYC and find the Christmas spirit absent (f-bombs swapped out for humbugs) and A Christmas Humbug rather than A Christmas Carol topping the best-sellers list that they realize they’ve altered the holiday season forever. Not many ’80s cartoons still hold up today, but the concept of having the Ghostbusters answer Scrooge’s call and accidentally obliterate Christmas remains one of the most creative instances of blending a modern property with the classic tale.
Standout Spirit: Dr. Peter Venkman acting as a surrogate Ghost of Christmas Past by wearing a blonde wig and tutu and pushing Scrooge around in a wheelchair while the old miser has a View-Master strapped to his head. It’s so memorable that we almost forget Peter shares a voice actor with Garfield.
09. Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010)
Leave it to Dickens to change the fortunes of men, even in worlds apart from our own. When a space liner with a passenger haul of 4,003 souls hurtles towards a deadly crash landing on an unfamiliar planet, the Doctor races ahead in the TARDIS and appeals to the only man who can control the skies and bring the ship down safely. That man is Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon), a cruel moneylender who holds the planet hostage and freezes people as collateral for loans. Inspired by Dickens’ classic tale, the Doctor travels back in time as the Ghost of Christmas Past and rewrites Sardick’s present. Unfortunately, the scheme doesn’t go quite as planned, and the Doctor learns that a brokenhearted man may be no more reasonable than a heartless one. Can the daft, quip-a-minute Doctor figure out a Plan B in time to save Christmas? Only time shall tell.
Standout Spirit: The Doctor for pulling double-duty as both the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future. And for apparently getting engaged to Marilyn Monroe.
08. Scrooge (1970)
“What the dickens have they done to Scrooge?” asked the theatrical posters when director Robert Neame and composer Leslie Bricusse’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol originally came out. The tagline presumably refers to the fact that audiences would now find Scrooge singing and dancing in addition to bah, humbugging. Unfortunately, it’s an utter failure as a musical, each song more forgettable and obvious than the last. For instance, a single scowl from Scrooge makes a song like “I Hate People” completely superfluous in addition to painfully awful. What they should’ve been advertising was Albert Finney’s interpretation of the titular tightwad. Finney plays Scrooge as a sneering, hunchbacked gargoyle, cartoonish in voice and utterly conspicuous in demeanor among his fellow man. It’s a portrayal all the more powerful when we witness the present Ebenezer alongside the younger, robust version, also played by Finney. We see how a lifetime of greed has contorted and ravaged him, most poignantly when the two Scrooges share a window and watch Belle walk out of their life. The film also contains redeeming curiosities like Scrooge’s collection rounds, courting of Belle, and descent into hell with a chain that makes Marley’s look like one belonging to a child’s pocket watch. It’s all fascinating — just please stop singing before I snap and start decreasing the surplus population.
Standout Spirit: The force must have been strong with Alec Guinness’ Jacob Marley as he sashayed, floated, and sang while bound in the chains and lock boxes of a lifetime of cold indifference toward mankind.
07. Scrooged (1988)
The very premise of Richard Donner’s Scrooged is a potshot at the entertainment industry. If Ebenezer Scrooge were around today, clearly he’d be a vain, sarcastic, hotshot network television exec (or POTUSA) obsessed with ratings rather than the well-being of his fellow man. Looking back, everything from the casting (hey, Bobcat Goldthwait!) to the special effects to Bill Murray’s hairline screams the ’80s, and the movie mostly comes across as a half-baked vehicle to let Murray play the asshole character he does so well. (Hell, the last 20 minutes of the film could’ve been the A Very Murray Christmas prototype). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of yuletide joy to be found here. Watching Murray be a jerk — stealing an old lady’s cab, timing security’s response after firing an employee, or suggesting that a props man staple antlers to a mouse’s head — still plays as delightfully dickish as ever, and sign us up for spoofs like Bob Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas; madcap slapstick performances from ghosts David Johansen and Carol Kane; and gags like a production of A Christmas Carol starring Buddy Hackett and Mary Lou Retton. It’s all so dated but still earns laughs, and perhaps the real genius of Scrooged comes from the meta element of having Murray’s Frank Cross experiencing Dickens’ tale while simultaneously trying to produce it as a live television special. In almost no other adaptation do we find the Scrooge type transforming — or suffering a nervous breakdown — in front of anyone but the visiting spirits.
Standout Spirit: Carol Kane, the Ghost of Christmas Present, squealing with delight while dressed as a demented Tinkerbell and physically assaulting Bill Murray all across town. It’s worth the price of admission. Honorable mention to Buster Pointdexter for his gritty, realistic portrayal of a typical cabdriver.
06. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)
If you’re from the American side of the pond, you’re likely unfamiliar with the Blackadder family dynasty, a long lineage of conniving, parasitic males (each played by Rowan Atkinson — hey, kids, it’s Mr. Bean!) looking to scheme their way to a higher station. As it turns out, Ebenezer Blackadder is the black sheep of his family in that he’s actually a decent chap. After Ebenezer gives away his mustache store’s entire annual profits, his Christmas dinner, and all his gifts to every pitiable figure and open hand that darkens his door, he’s visited by the Spirit of Christmas. While usually in the business of convincing Scrooges to be kinder, more generous souls, the spirit shows Blackadder his rotten descendants and accidentally convinces a good man to turn cruel and selfish. British humor isn’t for everyone, but if you long for A Christmas Carol where the nativity Jesus is played by a dog in heat named Spot and 17 pounds and a penny minus 17 pounds comes out to, upon careful calculation, 38 pounds, eight schillings, and four pence, then this carol might be for you.
Standout Spirit: Well, since there’s only one contender, it’s got to be Robbie Coltrane’s Spirit of Christmas, but there’s a lot to appreciate about a spirit who appreciates spirits.
05. A Christmas Carol (1938)
In many respects, this is the first feature-length adaptation of A Christmas Carol that feels modern — that has the vision, technology, and production value to still be enjoyed today as more than a cinematic artifact. Reginald Owen (also known as the canon-firing Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins) plays Scrooge as a spindle-legged bag of bones, his protruding features sharpened and honed by a lifetime of cold pragmatism. MGM wished for a more family-friendly version of the story, so we are spared wailing spirits and Scrooge’s romantic past. Instead we get extra doses of nephew Fred sliding on every icy patch in London, Bob Cratchit delivering a snowball bull’s-eye that knocks Scrooge’s hat into the streets, Scrooge flying like Peter Pan into his own past, and comedic moments like Emily Cratchit hiding in a kitchen closet because she thinks Scrooge has finally gone soft in the head (we’re right behind you, sister). More than any other adaptation, the 1938 version focuses on the familial notion of Christmas, an interpretation that makes the “god bless us, every one” sentiment all the more touching by the film’s conclusion. It’s no wonder this film still makes its rounds on television each Christmas.
Standout Spirit: Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel as Marley’s ghost, but never has there been a more natural fit for the Ghost of Christmas Present than the broad and booming Lionel Braham.
04. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
If you were a child of the ’80s, it’s likely that Mickey’s Christmas Carol first introduced you to Dickens’ yuletide ghost story — and that’s one fine introduction. Everything about the 25-minute short is absolutely charming, from the lovely original theme played over the opening credits to the joyful closing gathering at the Cratchit house. This holiday special is perfectly cast with Mickey as the cheerful, humble Bob Cratchit; Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy Cricket, as the Ghost of Christmas Past; and brilliant against-type choices, such as Donald as the novella’s powerfully articulate Fred and Goofy as the no-nonsense ex-business partner Jacob Marley. And then there’s Scrooge McDuck — originally created in 1947 based on the Dickens character — whose distinctive Scottish burr, delivered by the late Alan Young, lives on as one of the great Disney character voices of all time. That Duck was quite literally born to play this part. Credit Dickens’ simple tale for being so agreeable to these types of adaptations, but applaud Disney for the breathtaking animation (those snowy streets and overhangs), thoughtful imagery (a window turning dark to signal the end of a vision), and stirring performances that make this version as celebratory and poignant as any other Christmas Carol adaptation. Gawrsh!
Standout Spirit: Goofy’s Jacob Marley can’t be topped, especially with that trademark holler (“Yaaaaaaa-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!”) as he trips and falls down the stairs.
03. A Christmas Carol (1984)
In a decade dominated at the box office by action heroes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Gibson, the time couldn’t have been riper for a Scrooge who could rip off your head and shit chestnuts down your throat. Enter George C. Scott, remembered by many as George S. Patton. And it doesn’t take long to recognize that Scott’s Scrooge is a different stripe of four-star bastard. In the opening counting house scene alone, we hear him erupt and bark like a drill sergeant at Bob Cratchit and cackle wickedly as he suggests to Fred that Christmas revelers be boiled in their own pudding. No, this Scrooge isn’t satisfied with simply ignoring Christmas; he takes far too great a delight in declaring war on anyone who keeps the holiday in his heart, including the spirits charged with saving him. But that makes it all the more powerful then when we see the granite chin and steely resolve of this intimidating Scrooge begin to crack. Three decades later, Scott remains the Scrooge of choice for the Van Damme set and continues to make carolers crap their pants.
Standout Spirit: One hundred Jacob Marleys from now, they’ll still be chasing after this defining performance by Frank Finlay — it’s the jaw-drop after loosening the head bandage that does it. Straight out of Dickens and straight-up spooky.
02. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Following the deaths of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, there was reasonable concern about the Muppets’ ability to continue pulling off feature-length projects. However, any doubts were hushed in the opening moments of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the first Muppet film since those heavy losses. “I know the story of A Christmas Carol like the back of my hand,” The Great Gonzo, in the narrator role of Charles Dickens, tells sidekick Rizzo the Rat: “There’s a little mole on my thumb and a scar on my wrist from when I fell off my bicycle.” At that moment, it became clear that the Muppets would carry on with the same warmth and silliness as always, and what starts with a dumb bit gag winds up being one of the most beloved adaptations of the Dickens classic. With Henson’s son Brian at the helm and longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl penning the script, the tale comes to life with everyfrog Kermit as Bob Cratchit, the slightly taller Michael Caine as Scrooge, and various other Muppet characters filling out the ensemble cast. Credit also goes to songwriter Paul Williams for a number of undeniable gems that enhance the narrative and never feel forced, like the opening number, “Scrooge”, which reveals everything viewers need know about the character before his face has even appeared onscreen. Even with the odds stacked against them, leave it to a frog, pig, bear, and whatever to spark wonder and find yet another way to become an indelible part of our holidays.
Standout Spirit(s): If there’s anything worse than being haunted, it’s being heckled. Statler and Waldorf being cast as Jacob and Robert Marley gives the two crotchety crabs the chance to go from spectators to specters and snag some spooky spotlight.
01. Scrooge (1951)
It’s hard to imagine Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge, known as A Christmas Carol in the United States, will ever entirely fade from the hearts of those who truly love Dickens’ tale. For more than three decades, it reigned as the quintessential popular adaptation of the classic, and many argue that it’s never been surpassed. Much of that credit must go to Alastair Sim, who delivers perhaps the most realistic portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in cinematic history. On this list, we’ve seen various Scrooges described as grotesque, cartoonish, or intimidating. There’s none of that in Sim’s performance. While it’s true that he’s acerbic-tongued, coldhearted, and calculating as a businessman, his defining characteristic remains unflappable indifference. If the world would leave him and his money well enough alone, there’s no doubt this Scrooge would shrink away and never be heard from again. Indifference is the true sin of Dickens’ miserable miser — indifference towards not only the odd caroler in the street but to his very family and the people he rubs shoulders with on a daily basis. He never considers anything beyond his own business, and he surely never makes mankind his business, as the cursed Jacob Marley charges him to. This Scrooge, and therefore this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, endures because it’s so easy to see how we sometimes fall into the same traps of indifference. In this film, Scrooge’s intervention feels like our own, as does his giddy redemption.
Standout Spirit: Oddly, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come stands out most here. Again, it’s the simplicity. Here is a specter that doesn’t loom over Scrooge but one that stands beside him, equal in height, thinly veiled in black. There’s very little show — all dread.