Since 2012, I have made an effort to read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece novella, A Christmas Carol, every December. This book means a great deal to me, and has served as a yearly reminder of the kind of family member, employer, and citizen I want to be.
But my love of the story predates my love of the book. Long before I even knew it was based on a book, I looked forward to watching Mickey’s Christmas Carol as a TV special every December—and to this day, the Disney VHS preview for The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of the most nineties things etched in my memory.
For a few pre-Covid Decembers, I often found myself in the green room of a local improv theatre revisiting the age-old dabate: “Which is the best film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?” We would go ’round and ’round, discussing which movie was most fun and entertaining, which was truest to the book, which had the most nostalgic value, and why the Muppets’ version was the greatest of all time (we were theatre kids).
The more of this conversation I had, the more I realized :
- Most people learn about the story through film or television, not through the novella. This includes me—my first exposure to the four-ghost drama was Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). I think my second experience was a 1993 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
- Most people know the story structure, but not the novella. Just about anyone can summarize the tale as a redemption story in which a mean old man is visited by ghosts and sees the past, present, and future. Particulars of Dickens’s narrative prose, the procession of scenes, and the poetry of story elements are generally unknown.
But there must be a way to be quantitatively specific when evaluating film adaptations of a book, right? I want to give people a decent idea of how, over the past century, popular film adaptations of Dickens’ novella compare to the source material. And we’re doing this by the book.
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
- My methodology for selecting and grading films
- The 7 classic A Christmas Carol film adaptations, from least faithful to most
- The one thing every film gets wrong
My methodology: a text-first approach
NOTE: I have endeavored in this ghostly little project to raise the ghost of a database. I will be reviewing more films over the course of the next year to provide an even more comprehensive, yet text-specific, review of the films out there. Come Christmastime 2024, I’ll have an even more sophisticated system and a much bigger dataset to draw from.
Measuring text-to-film faithfulness is a rather tedious practice, but I wanted to give it a fair shake. Most reviews that I’ve read regarding film adaptations seem squishy at best (for example, I’ve seen Apple TV’s Spirited rank abnormally high in rankings—and it doesn’t even qualify as a true adaptation). I wanted to provide a scale that allows us to analyze the films based on their faithfulness to the text itself.
Turning the text into a database
So to do this, I took the original novella text (public domain) and put it in a spreadsheet. This preserved the two groupings that Dickens included: staves and paragraphs.
- Staves are the “chapters” of the novella. They are called such to reinforce the “carol” motif. Just as a the music for a Christmas carol in any hymnal will be arranged in staves, the story itself is arranged in five smaller pieces. (Hence the “in prose” part of the book’s full title: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.)
- Paragraphs are the groupings of sentences as preserved in the original text.
In this project, I will refer to the source text using stave:paragraph reference numbers. So if I refer to Peter Cratchit’s oversized shirt collar, I’ll add the reference, (3:42)—it’s the 42nd paragraph of Stave 3. And if you want to keep me honest, I’ve made a version of the text with references available for pubic consumption.
This is still rather unhelpful when giving people a high-level idea of a movie’s faithfulness. After all, we human readers don’t really care about the inclusion of every paragraph—we just want to know how much of the story is honored. Because of this, I grouped paragraphs together into beats, and beats into scenes.
- Beats are the collection of paragraphs that make up a single movement within a scene.
- Scenes take place in one setting, and scenes change when the narrative focus shifts from one environment to the next, or when the main characters lapse in consciousness.
For example, the opening scene of Scrooge in his counting-house on Christmas Eve encompasses everything the book describes transpiring on that day in that place, and therefore includes many beats—seven, to be exact. These beats include:
- Scrooge’s nephew Fred invites him to Christmas dinner
- Two gentlemen ask Scrooge for a donation
- Scrooge and Bob discuss whether or not the clerk should have Christmas off
I could have been more generous with scenes. For example, the scene I mentioned above spans about four hours, and the book includes two time lapses (1:66, 70). But in the interest of keeping scenes intuitive and distinct across the book and movies, I chose to count longer periods of time like this as single scenes. (Of course, when Scrooge falls asleep in his room and awakens again, this constitutes a new scene.)
All in all, this led to a total of 35 scenes (including prologue and epilogue) and 88 story beats. So here’s how the whole novella breaks down:
Text inclusion scale
Next came the problem of measuring each movie’s handling of the text. To do this, I put together a scale for grading each film against every paragraph of the original text. I meticulously graded each film’s representation of every single paragraph on the following scale:
- 1 = Direct reference to source material. If the film made a direct quote from the main point of the paragraph, the film was graded “1” for it.
- 0.5 = Alludes to source material. If the film makes a decent allusion to the paragraph’s content, but not a direct reference, the film gets a “0.5.”
- 0 = Omits source material. If there’s no trace of the given paragraph to be found in the film, it gets a big ol’ goose egg.
- -1 = Directly contradicts source material. In some cases, the films deliberately and drastically depart from the novella. For the paragraphs in which these take place, each film receives a negative rating.
For example, let’s see how four different films deal with the paragraph immediately after the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the London Stock Exchange:
"The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of business men. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk." (4:15)
|Degree of inclusion
|Directly references text
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points Scrooge to a group of four businessmen—or rather, businesspigs (Muppet Christmas Carol)
|Loosely acknowledges text
|There is no “knot” of four businessmen—instead the two men of high esteem have this conversation. (Scrooge 1951)
|This scene does not take place. (Mickey’s Christmas Carol)
|Directly deviates from text
|Scrooge chaotically tumbles into a group of three businessmen, undirected by the spirit. (Disney’s A Christmas Carol)
CAVEAT: There are some paragraphs that are treated entirely unevenly in films. If a paragraph is mostly contradicted, but the film still makes a direct reference to the paragraph it contradicts, I gave a grade of -0.5. This grade is used very sparingly.
Choosing the first round of films to analyze
Making this list wasn’t easy—Dicken’s novella is public domain, so there are dozens of popular films based on this work—and I’m still plugging away at them. However, I chose three main criteria for this first round. The three main factors I took into consideration were:
- Popularity. Each of these films should be considered “a classic” by some folks—even if most of those folks are dead. Every one of these films is included in most of the “Best Christmas Carol Movies” lists on the Internet today.
- Date. I want to see if there’s any correlation I between year of release and source material inclusion. So I started with a range of seven films spanning 71 years—roughly one film per decade.
- Overt intent to represent the book. There are hundreds of motion picture adaptations of this text, but for this year, I’m only considering versions that claim to be telling the story of the book. (This rules out Scrooged, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and Spirited—my apologies, dear reader.)
This last piece is pretty important for me to elaborate on in terms of my analysis here. I wanted to stick to films which would be expected to have some significant degree of direct references and allusions to the source text, as opposed to media that simply follows a past–present–future ghost format. Some signs of “intent to represent the book” include:
- The film’s main characters have the same names as their corresponding book characters (e.g., the main character is named Scrooge, his employee is named Bob Cratchit, and Cratchit’s sickly son is named Tim)
- The film is set in Victorian-era London
- The film uses dialogue from the book (beyond clichés like “Bah, humbug,” and “God bless us, every one”)
This isn’t to say that the less faithful films are inferior as films—but it seems unfair to grade them against the others until I had a more multidimensional (and objective) grading system in place.
So with this in mind, I chose the following seven films:
- MGM’s A Christmas Carol (1938), starring Reginald Owen
- Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim
- Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), featuring the cast of the Mickey Mouse universe
- CBS’s A Christmas Carol (1984), starring George C. Scott
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), starring Michael Caine accompanied by the Muppets
- Hallmark’s A Christmas Carol (1999), starring Sir Patrick Stewart
- Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009), starring Jim Carrey
And before we get into the rankings, it’s probably worth nothing that even the least faithful film in this list still references most of the scenes in the book. If we look at the average maximum paragraph score per scene, we see that apart from a few major dips (more on that later), every scene is represented pretty well across these films.
The 7 classic A Christmas Carol film adaptations, from least faithful to most
As I said earlier, I graded each of these films on every paragraph of the source material. This means that every film has a score per scene in the novella: the average of the paragraph scores within that scene. If the film directly references every paragraph in the scene, it gets a scene score of “1.”
No film should be held to the standard of “1”—that would probably be a terrible film. So instead, I think it’s good for us to start with an idea of how the “average” film in this batch includes each paragraph by scene. This is the line we’ll be comparing every other film to:
Furthermore, it’s important to draw attention to the fact that there is very little difference in textual faithfulness across most of these positions. Positions 2 and 3 are less than 3% apart, and positions 4–6 are within 4% of each other. I’m ranking the best of the best this year. When I publish next year’s version, you’ll see every film on this list near the top of the charts.
However, one film (very, very) clearly came out on top.
With this in mind, let’s start with the film that lives far below the curve.
#7: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Runtime: 25 minutes
Average score per scene: 4.2%
Average score per beat: 8.0%
For many, this short film was their introduction to Dickens’ tale. Scrooge McDuck plays Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse plays Bob Cratchit, and various other animated Disney characters play the other roles in the story. This cartoon follows the basic plot, it elevates themes from the book, and does it all in a way that makes it easy for a child to understand. It’s not a bad short, but it is quite short.
And for what it is, it’s not a terrible rendition of the book. No stave goes neglected. However, the same cannot be said when it comes to scene representation.
While Mickey’s Christmas Carol contradicts the text in plenty of places, its tendency toward omission is the main reason for its position on this list. Look at how the red line above hugs that zero level—those are scenes that the feature simply doesn’t address.
This rendition falls prey to a common problem in film adaptations of the book: an overemphasis on Tiny Tim. While Tiny Tim’s story is set up as one of the more moving elements of the novella (both for Scrooge and for the reader), it’s not the only, or even the primary driver of Scrooge’s change. But this is Mickey’s rendition of A Christmas Carol. And since Mickey Mouse plays Bob Cratchit, the short almost necessarily has to center on the Cratchit family’s plight during the present and future rather than, say, Fred’s Christmas gathering or the callousness surrounding Scrooge’s death.
Perhaps the biggest area in which this adaptation conflicts with the novella is the disposition of Scrooge himself. In the book, Scrooge’s preoccupation with Gain makes him hard, sharp, sullen, and cold—”warning all human sympathy to keep its distance” (1:9). Mickey’s version of Scrooge, on the other hand, gleefully revels in his miserly ways. This Scrooge pays Bob even less than his novella counterpart, and writes loans at 80% interest compounded daily. He is at once both warmer and crueler than Dickens’ Scrooge—which is not an easy feat to pull off.
Even so, this is an incredibly digestible introduction to the tale, and upholds the general principles of the original novella. I’d go so far as to say that Mickey’s Christmas Carol represents, story-wise, what most people recall about the novella.
#6 The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Runtime: 85 minutes
Average score per scene: 33.4%
Average score per beat: 35.7%
Although this is my very favorite film rendition of the novella, The Muppet Christmas Carol ends up being the sixth most text-inclusive of the seven films analyzed in this round. This is probably to be expected—Dickens wasn’t writing a script for a Muppet movie, after all.
However, this movie does an almost-average job at representing scenes from the novella:
People who love The Muppet Christmas Carol will often cite two advantages this movie has over every other film adaptation. The first is Michael Caine’s stellar, straight-faced performance as Ebenezer Scrooge as a human in a sea of zany felt creatures.
The second is the film’s casting of Gonzo as Charles Dickens, giving us an in-film narrator to voice elements of Dickens’ prose most films leave out. For example, no other film adaptation includes as much material from the narrator’s introduction as the Muppets do. This is the only place where you get those satisfactory lines about Scrooge being “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone,” or “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”
However, there are two elements that I haven’t seen anyone mention yet that I think makes this film a hit with kids and adults alike.
The first is that it includes one novella figure that every other film on this list ignores: the reader. Throughout the novella, but especially in the introduction, Dickens engages with the reader as a real and singular person. Dickens repeats over and over that “Marley was dead” so that we, the people hearing the story, can appreciate the story he is about to relate (1:4). But Dickens isn’t telling this story to a crowd—this is a one-to-one storytelling experience. Dickens tells the reader that he is standing, in spirit, at their elbow (2:19)—a proximity you can occupy for, like, eight people max. In the film, Rizzo the Rat accompanies Dickens throughout the film and acts as a stand-in for the reader, making the story even more accessible for people unfamiliar with the story. And (as if you needed further reason to love this film) Rizzo spends most of his time in the film about elbow length from Charles Dickens. I have no idea if this is intentional, but I gotta give kudos.
The second is in the depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The song “It Feels Like Christmas” features the spirit whisking Scrooge through a host of Christmas vignettes across London-town, and it notably references the ghost’s ability to occupy various spaces. Dickens writes:
… Notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease; and that he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall(3:40)
And the Muppets do this, showing the ghost occupy Scrooge’s room as a giant, but also having the spirit dancing in a tiny, tiny mouse hole. The film even includes the spirit’s tour of “every misery’s refuge,” with a brief vignette of an imprisoned produce vendor singing along with his jailhouse guard.
However, The Muppet Christmas Carol deviates from the book in two areas that I still struggle with when I watch the movie today.
The first is the treatment of Scrooge’s childhood. In the book, Scrooge finds his childhood self at boarding school as “a solitary child, neglected by his friends” at Christmas (2:51–52)—until one day when his little sister Fan convinces their father to let Scrooge come home (2:68–2:70). The Ghost of Christmas Past declares that Fan has “a large heart” (2:74) before mentioning her child: Scrooge’s nephew Fred. But in the film, Boy Scrooge simply plugs away at his studies until he graduates into an apprenticeship—we don’t have a sense that Scrooge ever tasted the love of a family member, and therefore his hostility toward Fred earlier in the film goes unchallenged and unchecked.
The second is how it handles Scrooge’s nephew Fred. The book portrays Fred as the anti-Scrooge: while Scrooge is cold, morose, and misery, Fred is warm, merry, and generous. Even when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to Fred’s Christmas dinner gathering, Fred toasts his health and gives him credit for some of the night’s merriment. When a changed Scrooge concludes his journey with the spirits, his Christmas Day culminates with him humbly coming to Fred’s dinner party, and the two reconcile. However, the movie presents Fred as someone cracking jokes at Scrooge’s expense during the Ghost of Christmas Present visit. In the finale, Scrooge shows more generosity to his old schoolmaster and employer than he does to Fred—who is briefly seen attending Christmas dinner at Bob Cratchit’s house. The movie reduces Fred in terms of both significance and character, rendering him inconsequential to the plot and far less likable.
Still. For me, this movie is right up there with egg nog, gingersnaps, and the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke when it comes to things that make Christmastime feel like Christmastime. Is it the most faithful rendition of the book? No.
#5 MGM’s “A Christmas Carol” (1938)
Runtime: 69 minutes
Average score per scene: 34.8%
Average score per beat: 42.1%
This is the granddaddy of classic film adaptations. Hollywood churned out many films based on this book during the first half of the twentieth century, but this one stuck with audiences. In terms of novella content represented per scene, it’s the closest to average on this list.
And yet …
This movie is all over the place, folks. Rather than beginning with Marley’s death or Scrooge in his counting-house, it begins with Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Tiny Tim encountering each other on the street and sliding on the ice. Rather than simply showing the Cratchits’ meager feast, the film ups the stakes by having Bob carry the secret of having been fired all through Christmas so as not to upset his wife. Rather than simply likening Marley’s Ghost to the effects of swallowing a toothpick, Scrooge calls the night watchmen into his home to arrest the spectre. (What the heck, Ebenezer—how are you going to cuff a ghost?!)
Yet despite such deviances from the book, this film preserves some elements that most movies don’t. For example, this film highlights the custom of poor people without kitchens bringing their Christmas poultry to be cooked in local bakers’ ovens. And of all these films, it is the only one that captures the two distinct conversations about Scrooge’s death at the London Stock Exchange, rather than ignoring the latter or collapsing them into one.
This is a very feel-good, old-school, cut-and-dry film. The “good” characters (Fred and Tiny Tim) are angelically sweet in nature. Scrooge is a gruff, all-business sort one moment, but at the slightest provocation can become protectively sentimental. It smacks more of old Hollywood than of Dickens—which is probably why it hasn’t proven as timeless as some of the other dated films in this lineup.
However, this film balances the Fred and Tiny Tim storylines more evenly than most of the others, as opposed to Tiny Tim shouldering most of the burden of conviction. As someone who really enjoys Fred’s role in the book, I can appreciate this film on this alone.
Still. It’s a bit weird. Watch at your own risk.
#4 Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim
Runtime: 86 minutes
Average score per scene: 36.7%
Average score per beat: 41.1%
Today, if you look up any list of the best film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, this one is usually referenced in the top 3. For decades, the public has considered it the definitive film adaptation of the book. It’s a classic through-and-through, preserving much of Dickens’ dialogue and including elements that most other movies neglect, including:
- Scrooge solemnizing Marley’s death with an “undoubted bargain” (1:3)
- A blind beggar’s dog pulling its owner out of Scrooge’s path (1:8)
- The Ghost of Christmas Present’s visit to a mining family (3:90)
- Fred’s friend Topper flirting with Fred’s sister-in-law at Christmas dinner (3:111)
- The Ghost of Christmas Present’s visit to sick bedsides at an almshouse (3:130)
- The children of man, Ignorance and Want, clinging to the Ghost of Christmas Present (3:139–146)
But, when we compare this film to the book paragraph-by-paragraph, it’s not much more inclusive of source material than MGM’s or the Muppets’ versions.
The best explanation I can offer for this barely-above-average net inclusion is that the film takes some creative liberties with original material in two major areas.
The first is by injecting a great deal of additional backstory in Scrooge’s tour of Christmas past. This includes showing Scrooge at not one, but two deathbeds: those of his sister Fan and business partner Marley. (Both scenes are rather tediously drawn-out.) Additional scenes show Scrooge and Marley’s corruption as business partners. While this may be a decent way to explain Scrooge’s contempt for Fred (Fan dies soon after childbirth) and closeness to Marley (1:3), it eats up runtime and foregoes the book’s more poignant conclusion to Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Past: him winding up just as he was when the journey began: alone in the world with his books (2:143).
The second (and more annoying) is this film’s preoccupation with Tiny Tim. In the book, Tiny Tim isn’t mentioned until about halfway through, when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to observe the Cratchit’s meager-but-joyous feast. But in this film, Fred asks Bob about Tiny Tim as he’s leaving Scrooge’s counting-house in the film’s opening act, and then we cut to poor Tiny Tim staring longingly into a toy shop window—for a full fifty-five seconds. Furthermore, while the book leaves the Cratchits’ surprise turkey feast on Christmas Day to our imagination, the film takes us to the little house in Camden Town for the sole purpose of showing the entire family befuddled by the appearance of a prize turkey while Tiny Tim cloyingly declares that he believes Mr. Scrooge is the mysterious benefactor, miraculously changed by Christmas.
Neither of these deviations are particularly wrong, but it’s interesting that the film indulges in this original material instead of, say, contrasting Belle’s family to Scrooge’s loneliness, or showing Caroline’s relief at the news of her creditor’s demise.
There’s one more key area in which this film deviates from the books: the progress of Scrooge’s character arc. In the book, Scrooge follows the Ghost of Christmas Past “on compulsion” (3:17), but by the time the Ghost of Christmas Present appears, he is ready to profit from the spirit’s lessons right away. In the film, Scrooge argues with the Ghost of Christmas Present, insisting that he is too old to change and urging the spirit to “redeem some younger, more promising creature.” This resistance to change feels like Scrooge is both forgetting his previous interactions with Marley and jumping the gun on his interaction with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—and it pumps the brakes on the plot. However, Alastair Sim’s Scrooge is compellingly cold at the beginning and delightfully, chaotically warm in the finale—so although the character arc is oddly paced, the character is charmingly portrayed.
I can’t deny that this movie set the standard for film adaptations for the next fifty years. But I think it’s time for us to stop referring to this one as the “definitive” adaptation of the book. We can do (and have done) better.
#3 Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey
Runtime: 96 minutes
Average score per scene: 44.4%
Average score per beat: 51.3%
This film is also very special to me: it’s the film that first made me want to read the book.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol overtly implies that it’s a book made film: the opening shot shows the book and seamlessly transitions from the text to a dramatization of Marley’s burial, where Scrooge remarks that his partner is indeed “dead as a doornail” (1:1) and solemnizing the burial with a bargain (1:3). Furthermore, the film honors the prologue section of the book’s first stave, first establishing Marley’s death and Scrooge’s character (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment of a blind man’s dog pulling its owner out of Scrooge’s path!) before kicking off the story “once upon a time—off all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve” (1:10).
While this film ignores several of the oft-neglected scenes in the book (no miners, lighthouse staff, or ship crew here), it does preserve much of Dicken’s dialogue, and retains several moments that are often overlooked.
The film maintains a through-line of theatrical energy while clearly adhering to the book—and it goes out of its way to recognize the source material. A blind man’s dog yanks its master out of Scrooge’s path. Fezziwig’s fiddler plunges his face in a bowl of porter. Scrooge questions the Ghost of Christmas Present about the oppressive norms of state religion. Scrooge beholds his own abandoned corpse. We even see Caroline’s glad relief when her husband informs her of their creditor’s death. The details included in this movie are truly impressive.
However, there is one major area in which this film deviates from the book: it exaggerates the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’s spookiness to the point of malevolence. In the book, the final spirit is silent and ominous, but ultimately compassionate toward Scrooge. Upon meeting Scrooge, the ghost gives him a moment to recover from the fright of its appearance (4:8), and even as Scrooge is pleading for a second chance at his grave Dickens describes the spirit’s hand as “kind” (4:164).
But in the film, no such kindness nor tenderness is to be found with the spirit. It actively terrorizes Scrooge, forsaking the solemn procession of scenes in Stave 4 for a chase scene through London. The spectre rides a hearse drawn by demonic shadow-horses, pursuing the old man from the stock exchange to Old Joe’s. Is it exciting? Sure. But it overall cheapens the emotional gravity of this leg of Scrooge’s journey.
Even so, it’s a fun and faithful adaptation of the book—and one that belongs in more family’s set of Christmas traditions, if you ask me.
#2 CBS’s A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott
Runtime: 100 minutes
Average score per scene: 46.7%
Average score per beat: 52.7%
This made-for-TV movie is a family classic in many a home, and the status is earned. The film preserves a great deal of dialogue from the book, but it also captures the feel of Victorian England like no other film on this list—owing to the fact that it was filmed on location in Shrewsbury, England.
This film doesn’t necessarily cover more scenes than some of the others in this lineup, but of the scenes it does cover, it tends to reference a great deal of the source material. In fact, when compared the average film’s inclusion of novella content, this film’s curve looks almost like the same line, but raised up a little higher.
One thing this film does very well is the portrayal of Scrooge as a particularly contemptuous character. He condescends to his clerk, he bulldozes past caroling youths, he even tries to bicker with the people he encounters in his ghostly journeys. Whereas other film adaptations simply show Scrooge as an old meanie or avarice incarnate, George C. Scott makes a believably hatable-yet-pitiable character. This Scrooge simply believes that he “gets it,” and his wisdom gives him license to treat those around him like the addle-brained fools they are. This has the side affect of Scrooge being a bit of a stinker throughout his time with the spirits, but hey—you can’t have everything.
This film also includes some scenes that often go overlooked: in particular, it covers the final scene between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge sees his former love interest, Belle, happy with a family of her own. Her husband remarks that he saw Ebenezer alone in the world while Marley was on the brink of death, and Scrooge, no longer able to bear the weight of his past decisions, extinguishes the Ghost by pressing its cap over its head. Although this interaction is the climax of Scrooge’s trip to the past in the book, most films skip this beat.
Furthermore, this film truly does feel like a ghost story. The movie begins with a hearse carrying Marley’s deceased body through the streets of London, while Fred narrates that “Marley was dead.” The hearse reappears in ghost form to haunt Scrooge on his walk home (which is about as close as we’re going to get to a hearse going up Scrooge’s indoor staircase in a live-action format). Marley’s face consumes the biblical tile art in Scrooge’s fireplace (1:91). And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is the same kind of terrifying as it is in the book: dark, silent, and ominous.
It needs to be said though: while this film includes a great deal of material from the book, it throws a lot of extra material in—and I’m not sure why. This happens on both the dialogue and the scene fronts. The film sprinkles in extra dialogue around Dickens’ work in a way that gives conversations a strange chopped-up-and-put-back-together feel about them. Some lines feel like they’re from 1843, some feel like they’re from 1984.
The second area in which this film takes strange liberties is in its extra scenes. There’s is a lot in this movie that isn’t in the book, such as:
- Tiny Tim awaits the end of Bob Cratchit’s Christmas Eve shift outside Scrooge’s counting-house for at least half an hour. (Seriously.)
- Scrooge makes a trip to the stock exchange in the afternoon, leaving Bob to close up shop. We are then graced with a thrilling cycle of negotiations regarding the price of corn. (Look, I have an MBA and even I found this scene tedious.)
- Instead of Fan happily retrieving Scrooge from boarding school, she is accompanied by their father—who immediately sullies the happy scene with uncalled-for coldness. (This is one of the versions of the story that has Scrooge’s mother die in childbirth with him, which is a blatant contradiction of the book’s portrayal of Ebenezer’s and Fan’s birth order.)
- Fred’s Christmas dinner doesn’t involve a game of Yes and No—instead, they play a belabored round of Similes, which honestly seems a lot less fun.
- The Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to a grotto to witness a homeless family grapple with the hardships of being unhoused and without work. To be fair, this technically qualifies as an example of Scrooge’s tour through “misery’s every refuge” (3:130).
These scenes aren’t necessarily unpleasant, but they do come at the price of not seeing some scenes from the book. For example, I’m bummed that this movie ignores beats such as Scrooge’s aggression toward a street urchin caroler, Scrooge’s melancholy dinner at his melancholy tavern, Scrooge’s puzzlement over the time of day before the Ghost of Christmas Past appears, and especially Caroline’s relief at her creditor’s demise.
Is it a good rendition of the book? You betcha. But I daresay our #1 adaptation renders this one all but obsolete.
#1. TNT’s A Christmas Carol starring Sir Patrick Stewart
Runtime: 95 minutes
Average score per scene: 57.9%
Average score per beat: 65.0%
Look me in the eye and tell me Sir Patrick Stewart wasn’t born to play Scrooge.
I believe that this story lends itself best to animation (or some other disbelief-suspending format), but for a live-action, low-budget this film absolutely nails it when it comes to representing the book. Granted, this film was adapted from the one-man play that Stewart performed based on the book. But still. Look at these numbers.
This film includes so many scenes that most movies ignore. The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a mining community, to a lighthouse, to a ship at sea—all three of which are scenes (un?)famously left out of film adaptations. The Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to a jailhouse just like he does in the book (3:130). When visiting Fred’s Christmas dinner in spirit form, Fred’s wife plays music that reminds Scrooge of his sister Fan—a direct reference to the book (3:116). The film also includes a brief and compelling rendition of Caroline’s relief at learning of Scrooge’s death—it captures the feelings of joy, sorrow, and moral tension that the book puts forth.
My only note for this film is that Sir Patrick Stewart seems to hold onto the Scrooge character’s miserly coldness for longer than Scrooge does in the book. Whereas the book version of Scrooge relents incrementally in his interaction with Marley, this film version seems to fight Marley tooth and (door-, or coffin-) nail for this experience. This Scrooge just isn’t here to clown around with ghosts.
Does the film suffer from special effects limitations? Of course it does—it was made in 1999. The film feels like what it is: a play–turned–made-for-TV–movie.
But it’s by far the most faithful-to-the-book version of the film of these classics, and although I’d rather watch the Muppet Christmas Carol, this one should be recognized as the most Christmas Carolly Christmas Carol classic movie.
HONORABLE MENTION: Richard William’s animated A Christmas Carol (1971)
I told you about my criteria for this round of reviews, and one very, very strong adaptation of the novella didn’t make the cut—because not many people know it exists.
However, if you want a brief yet impeccable film adaptation of Dicken’s book, you have to check out the animated television special from 1971. The animation style emulates the original book illustrations by John Leech, and although it’s only 25 minutes long, it includes a great deal of Dickens’ novella. Just look at this scene inclusion:
We see Boy Scrooge entertaining himself with fiction as he sits alone at school. We see the most book-accurate depictions of Want and Ignorance I’ve seen yet. We see the miners, the lighthouse staff, and the ship at sea. It’s not comprehensive, but the amount of book it crams into its short runtime is beyond impressive. If you’ve read this far, you should check it out.
Every film, side-by-side
The cool thing is that for most of these films, the lack of faithfulness comes more from omission than contradiction. Every single one of these films is a rather faithful retelling of the story. (For crying out loud, The Muppet Christmas Carol ranks toward the bottom of this list—and it’s the Internet’s favorite film adaptation of the book.)
But I know you want to see the data, so here’s every one of the films I reviewed stacked up based on how much of the book they directly reference, allude to, omit, or contradict. (This is at the paragraph level—the nittiest of the grittiest.)
But they ALL get one thing wrong …
Pedantry prevails, folks: there is one element of the book that not a single film gets entirely right, and it has to do with the time travel.
If we follow the book, then the following timeline takes place:
- Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve, and Scrooge goes to bed after 2 A.M., December 25 (2:2)
- The Ghost of Christmas Past visits Scrooge at 1 A.M. the next night, December 26.
- The Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge at 1 A.M. the following night, December 27—and his one-night visit spans all twelve nights of English Christmas celebration, from the day prior to the night of Epiphany (3:131). This means that, from Scrooge’s perspective, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge some of the past and the future!
- The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visits at midnight whenever the Ghost of Christmas Present is done. We’re to understand that this happens at midnight, December 28, based on Marley’s warning (1:166; 3:135)
- Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day with a new chance.
However, every single one of these films sidesteps the time-travel goofsterness of this story. I’ll document this in detail in a future post—but suffice it to say that Dickens’s approach to time travel is a brain-breaker, and I think the film industry has done well to simply ignore the book’s approach to time travel. A surface reading doesn’t tend to hold up against modern approaches to critiquing time travel content—but hey, time travel wasn’t the established genre back then that it is today.
Someday, perhaps we’ll get a universally popular film that both pays respects to the novella and deals with the very, very weird time travel elements of the book. But we’re not there yet.
Still. We have the Muppets, and we have Jim Carrey, and we have Sir Patrick Stewart. For this and for now we can surely be content.