[16 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In a literary catalog that contains such brilliant masterworks as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations, Charles Dickens remains best known for his early novella A Christmas Carol. A standard morality tale about mending one’s ways and enjoying the true pleasures in life, the famed author used the brief book as a means of doing what he did best - commenting on class, championing the poor, and deconstructing the severe social stigmas of his viable Victorian age. Though he would come up with far more complicated expressions of his views, A Christmas Carol‘s seemingly simplistic message continues to resonate, even 160 years after it was originally written.
Of course, it helps that Dickens created a classic antagonist/protagonist with the character of miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the author forged a part so palpable that, immediately upon publication, actors were lining up to play the role. A Christmas Carol was such a huge hit that stage adaptations and other theatrical versions immediately sprang up - each with its own unique interpretation of the main role. In fact, Scrooge has become such a symbol of the holiday ‘spirit’ that we seemingly get new versions of the tale every year. From female-ccentric takes to radical rethinkings, A Christmas Carol always manages to maintain its timelessness.
Now, with Disney’s 3D update starring Jim Carrey hitting DVD and Blu-ray (16, November), we can look back over the years and reflect on some of the more memorable interpretations of the character. While the computer-generated aspects of this latest update definitely help its viability, there’s still something to be said of an actual human being bringing the role to life, beginning with one of the most unusual…and best:
Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)
Finney holds the honor of being one of the youngest actors ever to play the character (he was 34 at the time). Also, this relatively faithful adaptation also boasts a magnificent music hall type score from Oscar winner Leslie Bricusse. That’s right, this is a singing and dancing version of the Dickens tale, but don’t let the melodious approach fool you. Finney is perfect, and this represents one of the best, most assured adaptations of the material ever.
Jim Backus as Quincy Magoo in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (TV/1962)
As a miserly old fool whose too blind to see the joys that life holds around him, there is no better visual metaphor for Scrooge than the horrifically nearsighted cartoon character. With its weird mixture of music and macabre, there was something unsettling about the otherwise bumbling stooge playing one of literature’s noted villains, but thanks to the voice work of Backus, and a strong narrative drive, it all works.
Reginald Owen in A Christmas Carol (1938)
The one of the first of the traditional talkie Scrooges (there were many in both silent films and other medium), the classically trained thespian brings his amiable “A” game to this otherwise rote reading. In fact, Owen wasn’t even supposed to play the famed misery in this MGM update. Longtime radio Scrooge Lionel Barrymore was set to star, but after he sustained a broken hip in an accident, the role had to be recast.
Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951)
This is the Scrooge most remember, a mainstay of Saturday/Sunday UHF matinee movie reruns for decades. As with many classically trained English actors, Sim succeeds in bringing out both aspects of the character’s failings - his meanness and his clueless embrace of same. In fact, he was so good, and so connected to the part that, twenty years later, he would voice the character in an Oscar winning animated version of the beloved tale.
Bill Murray as Frank Cross in Scrooged (1988)
At the height of his fame as America’s favorite funny man, the former SNL luminary and recent Ghostbuster took on this incredibly dark and pragmatically post-modern interpretation of Dickens - and after a rocky initial reception, it’s become a glorified geek tradition. Murray is terrific as the “anything for ratings” TV executive whose Christmas Eve change of heart has more to do with reconnecting with former compassionate self then rehabing his sour skinflint ways.
Michael Caine in A Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1992)
While he’s surrounded by puppets and other special effects, the UK icon is terrific as the ghost-hampered geezer. In previous films like Mona Lisa, Caine exhibited a terrifying facet to his performance personality, and there are bits and pieces of said pyrotechnics in this terrific turn. Of course, being set within the world of Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the Henson crew means some of the true vitriol is tempered, but Caine is still excellent.
Rowan Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder in A Blackadder Christmas Carol (TV/1988)
It’s hard to reinterpret a classic, so leave it up to the witty wildmen behind this terrific British TV series to find a way to make Dickens even more delightful. Since the Blackadder character was always known as a bad stabbing swat, Atkinson and his creative partner Richard Curtis decided to turn their take on Scrooge into a venerable nice guy, stepped on by all around him. After a night of very funny vignettes, the real Blackadder is born!
Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (Stage/1991)
In a highly unusual turn for the noted starship captain, Stewart decided to create a one-man show version of the famed Dickens piece, playing each and every part himself. Showing a stunning range and clear grasp of the piece’s emotional power, Stewart has turned his theatrical experience into a tradition, returning to the piece whenever time and his schedule permits. It remains a highlight of the many interpretations of the celebrated story.
George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (TV/1984)
For most, Scrooge’s obsession over money is a sure sign of misspent power and passion - and no actor best embodies such a crazed overbearing belief as Scott. His take on Scrooge (fake English accent and all) is so blustery and boisterous that it’s almost impossible for the star to bring it back down. Still, he finds a nice subtlety toward the end, uncovering the heart that almost every adaptation of A Christmas Carol needs to survive.
Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol (2009)
Robert Zemeckis’ love affair with motion capture continues with his second animated adaptation of a well-worn holiday favorite (the first being The Polar Express). With the famed funnyman doing a delicious job of turning Scrooge into more than just a collection of Victorian cliches, the concept really works. Even better, the technology’s facial capture element has become far more detailed, revealing layers in Carrrey’s performance that regular animation can’t recreate. While a tad too action oriented, this is still a fine version of the seasonable fable.