For better than 150 years Charles Dickens's story of miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts has been a staple of Western observance of Christmas. With the advent of cinema, A Christmas Carol has proven to be a favorite plot for filmmakers, who have turned out more than 15 feature productions.
Even though Dickens employs numerous references to the Bible, the tale's theology is more humanitarian than scriptural. Instead of grace through faith alone, the shade of Marley teaches Scrooge that salvation arises from good works and that the penance of phantoms like himself is to wander the earth seeking "to interfere, for good, in human matters." While moderns delete Christ from Christmas, Dickens at least alludes to him, with indirect citations such as "the sacred origin" of Christmas and "the blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode."
The earliest version still available in many video stores is the 1935 film starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Despite a lack of special effects (Marley is represented by voice-over) and dark film stock, audiences can still appreciate the artistry of fine acting. Not only is Sir Hicks the most genuinely repentant of Scrooges, but Oscar Asche, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, is marvelous.
For actors of some stature, there are certain stock roles that appear on everyone's resumé, including Hamlet and Ebenezer Scrooge. Some of the greats who have tackled the role of old Ebenezer include George C. Scott in a faithful but rather bleak 1984 version directed by Clive Donner; Michael Caine, who manages to hold his own against rampaging puppets in 1993's The Muppet Christmas Carol; Frederic March in a notable production preserved from television's 1956 Shower of Stars; and Albert Finney in one of the best musical versions, 1970's Scrooge. Most recently, Cicely Tyson turns the old man into a black woman as "Ebenita S" in USA Television's current production Ms. Scrooge. But Alastair Sim's performance in 1951's A Christmas Carol still stands as the benchmark characterization against which all others are judged.
Two odd productions taking prominent places at your local video store include a politically correct animated version, featuring the voices of Tim Curry, Ed Asner, and Whoopi Goldberg in dialogue modified to appease the multicultural front and employing such knee-slapping sing-alongs as "Random Acts of Kindness" and "Santa's Sooty Suit." The other to avoid absolutely is 1988's satire, Scrooged, starring an inane Bill Murray as a heartless television executive whose Christmas Pasts include substance abuse, fornication, and plenty of foul language. What is particularly unfunny about this plot line is that his "reformed" Christmas antics still embrace the same stuff-but he's nicer.
A Christmas Carol, from the title on through the rest of the book, invites producers to employ music for their films, and every version has done so. The majority of the films have mediocre melodies and lyrics that serve merely to extend the running time. But three productions effectively employ music to increase the dramatic impact. The contemplative production by Shower of Stars, from TV's golden age, is wreathed in a score by Bernard Herrmann, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson (both of Broadway fame), and ethereal high notes from the Roger Wagner Chorale. The exuberant songs of the all-star Scrooge, from the 1970s, are also translated from the theatrical tradition and, under the discerning hand of director Ronald Neame, add humor and depth to the story. Even Albert Finney, who can barely hold a note, brings a tear to the eye when he croakingly laments his sins.
But without Christ in Christmas, isn't all this so much humbug? Wonderful to report, the one production with the finest Scrooge also had a director who recognized the essence of the holiday. While Brian Desmond-Hurst, helming 1951's A Christmas Carol, couldn't stray far from the original text, he chose to incorporate carols that specifically name Jesus Christ and to have his cast quote generous passages of Scripture. To top it off, he gave the Ghost of Christmas Present this intriguing bit of dialogue: "We spirits ... do not live only one day of our year, but the whole 365. So is it true of the child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in the hearts of men only one day of the year but in all the days of the year." And God bless us, every one!