Full disclosure; I used to be a bit of a Scrooge myself. It wasn’t that I hated Christmas, but it just seemed to bring on a lot of artificial pressure and stresses. Huge crowds at shopping malls, increased traffic (California traffic is already a force to be reckoned with), frayed tempers, bad gifts you can’t return, trying to divide what little time you had between so many relatives/friends, etc.
It seemed more of a frenzied production of pushing, shoving and hurrying than a joyous season of peace and family. But lately I’ve come to appreciate the holidays as something a bit more meaningful than people beating each other senseless over Day-After-Thanksgiving doorbuster specials. Taking early retirement after decades of working retail no doubt colored my more favorable current opinion of Christmas.
But one thing about the season I’ve enjoyed both then and now is the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.” I’ll skip any description of story/plot, as I assume it’d be fairly redundant to anyone bothering to read this post.
I remember reading an illustrated copy of the story as a kid, and as a young horror freak I always thought the ghosts were pretty freaking cool…especially the chained/pained Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come. It was Christmas medicine delivered in a vaguely Halloween-ish wrapper (I have been and always will be more of a Halloween fan, to be honest).
When I was in high school, sometime around my 18th birthday (33 years ago!), I saw a CBS television version of the story that has since become my favorite film based on the story.
1984’s “A Christmas Carol” was a handsome production shot in Shrewsbury, Northern England (standing in nicely for Victorian London). Released as a TV movie in the US and theatrically in Europe, the film was directed by Clive Donner; who served as editor of the 1951 Alastair Sim version (my second-favorite film version of the story), and director of such otherwise lowbrow comedic fare as the Get Smart movie “The Nude Bomb” (1980) and “Old Dracula” (1974; a horribly dated and racist take on Dracula, starring David Niven). Whatever his previous record, I think Donner redeemed the hell out of himself with 1984’s “Christmas Carol.” It’s traditionally told, beautifully photographed (there are shots in this movie you could honestly frame as holiday artwork), and the whole thing is topped off with a magnificent score by composer Nick Bicat. Through sheer tenacity and determination, I managed to track down a burned-per-order CD copy of the soundtrack from the composer’s own website, and managed to get it right before Christmas a few years ago. The score, like Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” music, has become an unofficial holiday soundtrack in my life. I play it at least once a year.
Story-wise, the film is faithful to the overall Dickens’ original with few liberties taken. The ghost of Christmas Past is female in this version, for example (and played by Angela Pleasance; whom I later learned is the daughter of the late character actor Donald Pleasance, of “Halloween” fame). There are also many whole chunks of Dickens’ dialogue within the script as well.
The casting of this film is a dream mix of British (and American) talent, then and now.
The sole American of the lot, late “Patton” star George C. Scott, is absolutely wonderful as the redeemed miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Yes, his English accent is somewhat dodgy, but it doesn’t matter; Scott is otherwise so perfectly cast (physically and psychologically) as the grumpy, miserly old bastard Scrooge that the accent is utterly insignificant. Scott is Scrooge. From the gravelly voice to his craggy, weathered, lined face. Scott (a former US marine!) truly lives and breathes this character, English or not. This is one of those rare times where such infidelity gets a pass from me.
As for the post-redemption version of the character? Scott nails it. He plays the emotional chords juuuust right. Seeing his joyous Scrooge jumping on his bed, begging Fred’s forgiveness, or carrying Tiny Tim upon his shoulder, you see just why he was cast. For the crusty layers to be peeled off of this man? Well, that’s a true Yuletide miracle. Scott is one of my favorite actors of all time, and this role is as memorable and well-played as any other. He gives it the same zeal he gave General Patton, grieving widower John Russell in the superior haunted house film “The Changeling” (1980), worldly Lt. Kinderman in “Exorcist III” (1990) or any of the roles that this actor has graced by his talent and considerable presence.
Future “Cheers” castmate Roger Rees plays Fred, Scrooge’s eternally optimistic and cheerful nephew. He plays the role with a bit of nervous energy and sincerity that gives him a more humble demeanor than the more obnoxious versions of the character I’ve seen in past productions. Instead of simply bellowing “Merry Christmas!” as he barges into his uncle’s office, this Fred quietly whispers in his uncle’s ear, “I want nothing of you, I ask nothing of you. Why can’t we be friends?”
David Warner is cast very much against type as put-upon Scrooge employee Bob Cratchit; the kindly, humble father of the crippled Tiny Tim. Warner previously played Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, aka ‘Jack the Ripper’, in 1979’s “Time After Time.” He also played “Evil” itself in 1981’s “Time Bandits” and multiple roles in 1982’s “Tron.” Post-“Christmas Carol,” he played a few more good guys, most notably Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (think: Klingon Gorbachev) in 1991’s “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” His against-type casting as Cratchit was inspired; he moves you to tears in the scene where he tells his family that he stopped by his late son’s grave in the Christmas-yet-to-come sequence.
The late Susannah York plays Mrs. Cratchit, and is equally terrific. I dare you to keep from blubbering as she suppresses tears for her dead son (in the same sequence described above), and tells her young daughter that, “This color hurts my eyes, that’s all…” Her strength for her family’s sake underlines the fact that Mrs. Cratchit is the glue of this close-knit family.
There is also Mark Strickson, as the younger version of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmases Past sequence. Fellow Doctor Who fans may recognize him as Fifth Doctor companion Vislor Turlough, the closeted alien who nearly betrayed the Doctor while under control of the Black Guardian, and… okay, never mind; that’s more than enough nerdiness for this Christmas post.
Scrooge’s dear departed sister “Fan” is played by Joanne Whalley (former wife of Val Kilmer) and has a honeyed voice.
Scrooge’s lost love Alice is played by “Top Secret” costar Lucy Gutteridge and she is terrific. She also sports some subtly convincing age makeup as we later see her with her family (the family Scrooge regrets not having).
Minor roles are filled by such British notables as Michael Gough (“Alfred” in the ‘90s Batman movies, as well as “Belasco” in 1973’s “The Legend of Hell House”), as well as many other familiar faces that I know I’ve seen all over television and film, but can’t quite place (for me, that’s another sign of a great actor; when they so inhabit a current role that you forget where else you’ve seen them).
If there’s one less-than-ideal bit of casting, it’s with this production’s “Tiny Tim” (played by a very young Anthony Walters). I try not to harp or nitpick child actors so much, because it almost reeks of child abuse; but there are many moments where Walters sounds like he is just reading his lines, and nothing more. Then again, the role of Tim Cratchit is more important what is inferred through his loss than his actual presence, so this hardly matters. And he certainly looks the part with his frail form. He also does the crutch-work fairly convincingly (as someone who’s once used them, I can say that they’re a major pain in the ass).
As Pleasance’s ghost of Christmas Past says, “Well, it’s time to move on…”
Onto the Ghosts:
Starting off strong, the late Frank Finlay’s Jacob Marley is alternately terrifying and deeply sympathetic. Looking right out of a Dickens’-era illustration, he has the locks, chains, spectacles, the greenish/gray pallor and the freakishly unhinged jaw. But his strangled screams and choked sobs take the performance to a level of pathos I’d never seen in previous versions of the character. His milky whitened pupils indicate a traumatized gaze into a world of torment that Scrooge (and we) cannot even fathom.
The aforementioned Angela Pleasance is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and she plays the role with more than a touch of sadistic glee as she gets under Scrooge’s skin from time to time. Her smile is a mite creepy as well.
The late “Equalizer” Edward Woodward, who also played the insufferably uptight “Sgt. Howie” in the classic cult film “The Wicker Man” (1973), plays the Ghost of Christmas Present with pomp and an overbearing quality that occasionally lets slip a bit of seething disdain. His ghost doesn’t just kill Scrooge with an overdose of jolliness; he hostilely berates the miserly bastard for his shortsightedness. He chuckles in delight when he abandons Scrooge to an unfamiliar, darkened slum. This is the only time I remember this particular ghost being more openly sinister in his onscreen portrayal, and I liked it.
Woodward also does a hell of a job walking on stilts through the Victorian London streets…you gotta respect that.
The ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is not so much played but rather achieved by a large, thin-fingered animatronic form (I’m guessing?) that glides across the screen with few identifiable human features or movements.
The otherwise wordless ghost occasionally emits an equally inhuman screeching noise that sounds like some kind of rusty, antiquated railway braking. The illusion of this particular specter is further enhanced with heavy fog FX and surreal, stagey lighting. It’s all genuinely eerie, and it works.
The moment where Scrooge finds his own grave in a darkened, snowy cemetery (with the ghost pointing accusingly) is an iconic one in literature and in film, and this version stages that moment to perfection.
Other notable versions:
The 1938 Reginald Owen version (beloved by so many) is my least favorite; it’s very Hollywood (and I mean that in the worst sense). It’s so overwrought, and the dialogue delivery sounds rushed and almost perfunctory. Lines aren’t savored so much as shouted. Owen’s wild overacting lacks any kind of subtlety or even dignity. I never really understood the love so many have for this particular version.
The 1970 Albert Finney-starring musical “Scrooge” is well cast (Alec Guinness’ Marley in particular), and beautifully staged. But as a matter of personal bias, I simply prefer “A Christmas Carol” presented as a drama, and not a musical. But this is a handsome production, very similar in look and feel to 1968’s “Oliver!” Recommended overall, but lacking some of the depth of other incarnations.
The 1951 version (also known as “Scrooge”) with Alastair Sim is a high mark of adaptations for this story, though it suffers a bit with some pacing issues in its middle act. If the 1984 version didn’t exist, this would be my easy favorite. Sim’s incessant giggling upon his redemption is wonderfully unhinged; especially when scaring the living shit out of his terrified maid. He lets go with full abandon. It’s a wonderful performance.
There was also the 2009 Robert Zemeckis (1997’s “Contact”) directed animated version with Jim Carrey as Scrooge. This animated feature has some admittedly beautiful digital scenery, but is loud, obnoxious and as subtly resonant as a leaf blower. I got a headache just listening to it. One thing you should never need in a “Christmas Carol” adaptation is an extended CGI chase sequence…
Bah humbug, indeed.
1984’s version of “A Christmas Carol” is handsomely photographed (wonderful uses of cool/warm contrast), fantastically cast and topped off with a beautiful score. This is as perfect a filmed version of the story as my own mind’s eye ever imagined. If you haven’t yet seen it? It definitely belongs on your Christmas wish list.
And as a bit of a ‘reformed Scrooge’ myself, I’d like to wish any and all readers of my blog a very happy holiday season.