'Scrooged' (1988), directed by Richard Donner
The Scrooge: Although Bill Murray's cynical TV executive Frank Cross doesn't go by the name Ebenezer Scrooge, he's very much the same character, updated to modern times (well, at least the 1980s). He's wealthy and business-minded, not caring a lick for the problems of his fellow man, although the character's grumbling miserliness has been replaced with a cruel sarcasm, which suits Murray's comic styling perfectly. Because this is a comedy (and because Murray is the lead), 'Scrooged' gives us what is easily the funniest interpretation of the Scrooge character, but surprisingly, it also gives us the most startling final transformation.
After he's faced his demons and had a change of heart, Cross crashes a live television broadcast (of 'A Christmas Carol,' actually) to tell the whole world that they should be spending Christmas with family instead of watching TV. It's a lengthy, breathless monologue that feels made up as it goes along, the touchy-feel-good version of Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" rant from 'Network.' It could have been a preachy mess, but Murray sells the speech and seems to believe every word that he's saying. Between this and 'Groundhog Day,' there has never been an actor more capable of portraying a selfish moron who finally sees the light.
The Ghosts: While the film's reinterpretation of Scrooge works wonders, it kinda' drops the ball with the ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past, re-imagined as a grimy cab driver, is a bizarre change of pace from the traditionally ethereal interpretation of the character, but it isn't particularly funny. Even less funny is the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose entire schtick is that she kicks Bill Murray in the balls. The Ghost of Christmas Future is effective enough (and at times he's pretty darn creepy), but like all other versions, he's barely a character and never says a word.
Faithful to the Dickens? Other than the basic set-up and structure? Not at all, but that's kind of the point. 'Scrooged' is not a literal adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol,' but rather a riff on the concept. The elements are all here, but they've been reconfigured: Bob Cratchit is Frank's long suffering secretary, Tiny Tim is her mute, traumatized son, the nephew Fred is now the brother James and so on and so forth. Half of the fun of 'Scrooged' is seeing various pieces of Dickens' story re-appropriated and rearranged.
Thoughts: First things first -- the trite, dull looking production of 'A Christmas Carol' that Cross is producing during the course of 'Scrooged' reeks of the 1984 version I just talked about. Remember when I said it felt like it belonged in the background of a wacky Christmas comedy? Well, here you go! This is a film that's aware that it's walking on well-trodden ground and instead of ignoring that fact and just delivering a contemporary update of the story, it chooses to slyly poke fun at the story's legacy and how it's become a part of our holiday traditions. 'Scrooged' is a smart, subversive film anchored by some of Murray's best work, but it's a shame that it's probably a little too gruesome for some kids but filled with out of place silliness that would only appeal to younger viewers. Ultimately, it's too uneven to be considered a total classic, but for people who who are tired of the same old thing (or parents looking for Christmas movies to show teenagers who think they're too cool for a more traditional take on the material), it's a welcome change of pace.
'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992), directed by Brian Henson
The Scrooge: In a film where most of the cast is portrayed by felt puppets, you'd expect the human lead to get lost in the shuffle. 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' admirably keeps Michael Caine's Scrooge front and center, even at the expense of many famous Muppets' screentime. In a film filled with talking frogs and over-the-top creatures, Caine takes the role completely seriously and delivers a Scrooge that wouldn't feel out of place in a "real" version of 'A Christmas Carol.' Walking a fine line between miserable and cruel, Caine's work brings out how emotionally broken Scrooge truly is and when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him when the love of his life left, he weeps -- and the tears feel real. There is something about working with the Muppets that seems to bring out the best in some actors and Caine is no exception, balancing out the silliness of the Muppets and bringing real gravitas to a story that demands it.
The Ghosts: In a word: awesome. The Ghost of Christmas Present manages, for the first time, to not be a young woman or old man in a white robe but rather a small, vaporous spirit with a child's face and voice, an image that manages to be simultaneously creepy and adorable. Meanwhile, the Ghost of Christmas Present is one of the best interpretations of the character, a jolly, lovable (and slightly forgetful) force of goodwill and joy who actively participates in the Christmas shenanigans he's responsible for instead of just observing. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future is admirably frightening, especially for what's ostensibly a children's film.
Faithful to the Dickens? Surprisingly, the answer to that question is a big "yes." 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' operates as both a parody and a faithful adaptation, blending humorous commentary on the story with real reverence for what it represents. By casting the Muppet Gonzo as Charles Dickens and letting him narrate the story, the author's original words play a big part in the movie's narrative (and allow characters to compliment his clever turns of phrase as well as criticize his occasional pun).
Also: how brilliant is it that they split Jacob Marley into two characters and put Statler and Waldorf in the roles? The only serious deviation comes in the shortchanging of Fred, who's reduced to a bit part and Scrooge's revelation that Fred is all that is left of his beloved sister is left on the cutting room floor, meaning that one of the most powerful relationships in the original story is nonexistent here.
Thoughts: Man, saying that 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' isn't a "real" version of this story was a low blow on my part and I'd go back and change that comment if it didn't allow me to so effortlessly segue into this section. Although it functions perfectly as a hilarious and silly Muppet movie (and only people without souls don't like the Muppets), this film actually measures up to many of the more famous, classic takes on the story and the film's depiction of Victorian London -- dirty, but full of color and life -- is easily one of the best in any version of 'A Christmas Carol.' If anything, this is easily the most effortlessly fun film in the marathon and the soundtrack of relentlessly happy songs is sure to be stuck in your head for days on end.
By the very nature of half the cast being anthropomorphic animals made of cloth, some of the darker, nastier and scarier elements are eschewed in favor of more jolly musical numbers, so those hoping to see the deliriously good natured Muppet Ghost of Christmas Past pull two metaphorical feral children representing ignorance and want out from under his robe may be disappointed -- but that disappointment will be short-lived because this song soon happens to you. In all seriousness, how could that song not make you happy? Oh, that's right. Because you don't have a soul.
'A Christmas Carol' (1999), directed by David Hugh Jones
The Scrooge: Patrick Stewart should be a slam dunk for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. His one-man show of the story is, by all accounts, remarkable and his audiobook reading of the original book is a treat for the ear buds. So, that begs the question ... what went so terribly wrong here?
Stewart is certainly a fine actor, but his performance here is a patchwork of bizarre choices, rotating between one-note (so much yelling!) and hackneyed (what's with his elongated choking and gasping after waking up on Christmas morning?). Stewart is too powerful of a presence and too physically imposing to work as a weak, miserable old man and rather than rework the story to fit his demeanor (which may have made for an interesting interpretation), the film insists on selling his as the same 'ol Scrooge. You get the impression that this low budget production was so thankful to have Stewart in the lead that no one bothered to direct him.
The Ghosts: So the Ghost of Christmas Present is a gaunt, strange being that looks like a combination of a newborn child and an old man and you just now cast Joel Grey? The Oscar-winning actor is a brief highlight in this film, but the Ghost of Christmas Present seems oddly disinterested and the Ghost of Christmas Future looks like a poor man's Ring Wraith with Christmas lights for eyes. The curse of a television budget.
Faithful to the Dickens? This version is one of the only films in the marathon to depict one of my favorite sequences in the original book: the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge all over the world, showing him how Christmas is being celebrated and bringing peace to places outside of London. Other than that, it's just another beat-for-beat, unremarkable TV adaptation that feels afraid to deviate from the text.
Thoughts: Where to begin? As proven above, the best adaptations of 'A Christmas Carol' are those that choose to deviate from the book and do their own thing. A 100% faithful adaptation of anything can only please one group: the hardcore fanboys. Are there any 'A Christmas Carol' fanboys? Is there anyone watching the 1938 and 1951 versions and shaking their fists in the air because they modify the story to make the events feel less episodic and more cinematic? Heck, how many people have even read the original story in the first place? My point is that filmmakers have been changing this story around since the first adaptations for a good reason: if you liberalize the events of the original story, you end up with something that feels bloated, stodgy and oh-so very dry (Hmm, sounds familiar). This version has its fair share of additional problems, but dull cinematography and painful CGI are expected with television productions. These are problems that could have been ignored if the whole thing didn't feel so by-the-numbers.
'A Christmas Carol' (2009), directed by Robert Zemeckis
The Scrooge: I have serious issues with this film, mainly with, oh, little things like design, writing, direction and animation, but little blame for the film's faults can be shifted to Jim Carrey who, through the power of motion capture animation, gets to play a role that most actors have to wait until their twilight years to take on. It's a strange take that harkens back to older presentations of the character -- Carrey's Scrooge is a hunched over, pitiful, sniveling little twerp of a man whose soul has been poisoned by years of pent-up hatred for himself and others.
Although hiding behind a silly character voice (that seems to be an homage to Alastair Sim's voice, come to think of it) and the animated equivalent of heavy make-up, Carrey's work is ultimately more reminiscent of his thoughtful, morose performance in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' than any of his silly, comedic work, particularly in the final scenes, where Scrooge accepts Fred's invitation to dine and his fear of rejection is palpable. The rest of the film doesn't seem to trust Carrey and insists on thrusting him into one wild 'n wacky predicament after another, but as far as cinematic Scrooges go, this is a fine one.
The Ghosts: Remember when I mentioned that some of the ghosts seem fully intent on on tormenting Scrooge rather than helping him? Welcome to the pinnacle of that. The ghosts in this version are just plain terrifying. Why gently fly Scrooge into the past when you can whip him through the sky like a rag doll? Why take him on a walking tour of London at Christmastime when you can rocket through the city streets, laughing as Scrooge almost loses his balance and falls to his death? What? Showing a man his miserable future fate isn't enough? You've got to miniaturize him and pursue him through the streets in a terrifying chase sequence? The depth Carrey brings his Scrooge is practically undone by a trio of ghostly visitors who seem fully intent on making his life a living Hell. There is a strange, fine line between a ghostly intervention and an act of near emotional terrorism.
Faithful to the Dickens? In terms of order of events, spoken dialogue, individual scenes and character relationships, this film is startlingly close to its source material, even capitalizing on some of the more ghoulish aspects of the story that other versions traditionally sanitize. However, a $200 million animated Disney film meant to be viewed in 3D has to do something to justify its budget, so there's flying. A lot of flying. And a lot of falling. And a lot of Scrooge falling down and tripping and screaming. Then they fly some more. And then they fall. And then Scrooge screams again. It's like the Disneyland ride of 'A Christmas Carol' -- loud, wild and completely nonsensical.
Thoughts: Robert Zemeckis' 2009 version of this classic story summons more mixed feelings from me than any other film in this marathon. On one hand, it's taking my advice and trying something new with the material which, as I've mentioned about thirty six times in this piece, is an absolute necessity when trying to tackle this story. On the other hand, that something new involves transforming a quiet tale of a emotional discovery and repentance into a loud blockbuster filled with action, chases, slapstick comedy and animation that looks like it crawled out of the deepest pit in the uncanny valley. Seriously, count how many times Scrooge falls from great heights or slips on ice of back flips into a pit or plummets into an open grave. I'd guess it's about eighteen times -- which is eighteen times too many.
Outside of the theatrics, much of the film feels like a hodgepodge of scenes and moments borrowed from earlier versions, almost like Zemeckis went back and did a little marathon of his own, picking and choosing his favorite bits and inserting them here (the 1951 version and the 1938 version are nearly picked clean). Still, it's a testament to the ongoing power of Charles Dickens' original story that the conclusion, where Scrooge changes his ways and becomes "as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old city ever knew," still brought a tar or two to my eyes. If there's on thing I learned during the course of this marathon, it's that you can tell a story a thousand times (okay, eight times), but if it's a good story, it'll remain as powerful as the day it was written. So, you know, God Bless us, Everyone and whatever.
Conclusions and Such
1. 'A Christmas Carol' (1951)
2. 'A Christmas Carol' (1938)
3. 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'
6. 'A Christmas Carol' (2009)
7. 'A Christmas Carol' (1984)
8. 'A Christmas Carol' (1999)
Best Scrooge: You and I both know it's Alastair Sim's 1951 interpretation. Search your soul. You know it to be true.
Worst Scrooge: As much as I love Patrick Stewart, he is just woefully miscast (or possibly under-directed) in this role.
Best Ghosts: The small, vaporous specter of 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' gets my vote for best Ghost of Christmas Past. The alcohol-dispensing Ghost of Christmas Present from 'Scrooge' reigns over his fellow jolly giants. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 2009 version, depicted entirely as a living shadow, is a clever departure from the "man in a black hood" formula.
Worst Ghosts: I'm just going to save myself the effort and say all of the ghosts in the 1984 version. Jeez, what a bunch of unhelpful douche bags.
Most Faithful to the Dickens: Although they're the weakest of the films, the 2009, 1984 and 1999 versions stick the closest to Dickens' original words.
Least Faithful to the Dickens: Easily the 1938 version, which feels like a series of studio notes were compiled, demanding a romantic subplot (although it completely works).
Marathon High Point: I so, so, so desperately want to say it's Albert Finney's Scrooge running around London singing angrily at people, but it truly has to be the final moments of the 1951 film, where Alastair Sim raises Bob Cratchit's salary and his stony face cracks into a goofy smile. It's a moment that's in every film, but no one has quite managed to top it there.
Marathon Low Point: I still can't over the scene in the 1984 version where the Ghost of Christmas Present feels the need to explain the callousness of Scrooge's "decrease the surplus population" line. We get it!
The 'Harry Potter' Series
The 'Saw' Series
The 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Series