Yuletide Movies: Rating the Best ‘Christmas Carol’

Is Your Favorite Adaptation Included?

Clockwise from left: Alastair Sim, George C. Scott and Michael Caine have all portrayed Scrooge on screen.
Clockwise from left: Alastair Sim, George C. Scott and Michael Caine have all portrayed Scrooge on screen. (photo: Renown and Disney Pictures; Entertainment Partners Ltd./CBS)

This year marks the 180th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. No telling how many millions of times it has been read since those first 6,000 copies sold out in five days, or how many times over the years people have watched the different films. 

Do you have a favorite version? A quintessential Scrooge? 

The Register offers its take on the cinematic adaptations. 


Sim as Scrooge

For me, the standard bearer, the golden benchmark, is the 1951 classic A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim, who flawlessly brings the old miser Scrooge to life, from the bottom of his bad-tempered, irascible character to the pinnacle of his repentant and ultimately joyful transformation. Sim never slips into a caricature. Quite believably, he keeps a humanity about Scrooge, from the cold-hearted beginning to the gradual change and repentance to the reborn man of warmth and generosity making up for his lost time.

Despite some changes, this version closely follows and evokes the events and atmosphere of Dickens’ story. Slight changes include added scenes explaining how Scrooge and Jacob Marley began as clerks and then grew into ruthless businessmen. Another poignant scene that helps explain Scrooge’s descent shows how he tragically missed a message from his sister, Fan. And for some unexplainable reason, although only something minor, young Scrooge’s fiancée is called Alice, not Belle, as Dickens named her.

Overall, seeing Sim as Scrooge should be at the top of A Christmas Carol list.


Scott’s Scrooge

A close second is the adaptation with George C. Scott, in the 1984 A Christmas Carol. Although made for TV, it is quite lavish in its settings and details.

Scott’s Scrooge is a cold-hearted businessman who delights in his questionable business tactics with other merchants. He is unfeeling and uncaring in dealing with his own clerk and continues that even when he sees Tiny Tim, shooing him off, thinking him a beggar and not realizing he is Bob Cratchit ’s son. But when he is told, it makes no difference to this Scrooge. He discarded his soul in his youth. This is a Scrooge to be feared.

Although there appear cracks in his callous veneer, he is not as rattled as other Scrooge interpretations when Marley and then the three Ghosts of Christmas confront him or when he sees how his grab for the gold has left him penniless in the love his Belle had offered him.

Scott slowly, almost reluctantly, lets more cracks appear while watching the Cratchits sing and celebrate Christmas as best they can. 

The same happens in a compelling scene of a destitute family (an addition here, not in the original Dickens). Scrooge again meets his match in one of the best portrayals of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Edward Woodward), who takes no nonsense from Scrooge, always confronting him about his callousness. In one scene, the Ghost is a conduit for Scrooge to finally realize the plight of the poor.

That big crack widens as Scott’s Scrooge becomes unnerved watching the heartless moneygrubbing over his few possessions at the junk dealers in the wake of his future death. When he finally comes to his senses, the audience joins the startled-yet-happy Bob Cratchit (David Warner) when he opens the door to a rehabilitated Scrooge.

Bonus: Don’t miss the image of the Last Supper in Scrooge’s room.


1930s’ Nod to Bethlehem

Reginald Owen’s irascible Scrooge dominates 1938’s Christmas Carol. It opens with credits while a familiar Christmas carol fills the background with “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” This is an adapted version with scenes that have been changed, added or shortened, yet fit seamlessly into the story. The essentials are all here.

For instance, instead of starting with Scrooge in his office, it begins with his nephew Fred bumping into Cratchit sons Peter and Tiny Tim in a joyful moment showing the kindheartedness of Fred — who is truly the opposite of his stingy uncle. Observe how this scene contrasts with a later one that underscores Scrooge’s meanness.

While Fred is appropriately cheerful and high-spirited, Leo G. Carroll’s Jacob Marley is not as emotive and lamenting as I would have liked; he is not as convincing a Marley to really frighten Scrooge. And there is no fiancée in this version, nor is there a Fezziwig Christmas party, as seen in the other versions. 

One beautifully done scene added only in this version has the Ghost of Christmas Present taking Scrooge to a Christmas service in a packed, cathedral-like church, with the congregation singing, “O, come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” The scene concentrates on Fred and his fiancée, Isabel, as well as on Bob Cratchit and son Tiny Tim. This lovely, heartwarming addition sees Scrooge’s heart softening, a transformation that continues as he watches the Cratchit family celebrations. The ending is most appropriate and joyful, something Dickens himself might have written.


Musical Movie

Then there is Scrooge, a 1970 musical reworking of Dickens’ novel. Without counting the animated Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol made for television eight years earlier, Scrooge is the first version made as a musical and filmed in color. Because it is a musical adaptation, much has changed in this version, but it was carefully done to fit unmistakably with Dickens’ story.

In this version, Albert Finney plays the nasty old skinflint who is more of a loan shark than a money lender. Somewhat disheveled, and with dirty fingernails, he counts his gold coins until he threatens child carolers with a coal shovel.

Finney is exceptional in bringing out Scrooge’s highs and lows. He sings about how he finds people “deplorable.” His Scrooge is totally lacking in goodness, kindness, love and mercy, prompting viewers to wonder if he is redeemable.

The characters and music help him learn his lesson, beginning with a memorable and riveting Jacob Marley played by none other than Sir Alec Guinness. Shortly after, the mood lightens when Scrooge finds himself an apprentice at Fezziwig’s Christmas party. Finney also plays the young Scrooge, something exceptionally rare for any version. 

One of the movie’s catchy songs, December the 25th, is a rollicking celebration of Christmas. As in Sim’s 1951 A Christmas Carol, Fezziwig’s role is lengthened. And, here, Scrooge falls in love with Fezziwig's daughter, Isabel, and in several locations they sing of their Happiness. There is great poignancy and sorrow as the couple’s initial joy is stifled by business. Scrooge puts his lament into song.

Then, back as the callous old miser, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kenneth More) gets him to actually sing along to the jolly I Like Life and begin to enjoy it.

Speaking of enjoyment, there is the tremendously appealing and highly ironic Thank You Very Much, a British music hall-like tune led by soup-seller Tom Jenkins who is joined by dozens upon dozens in chorus.

This ending is highly altered, like the 1938 version, but Scrooge’s I'll Begin Again shows he has changed, especially after the added harrowing scene where he falls into hell during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’s visit. For the record, Finney won the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy” for this performance.



Cast of Muppets 

The Muppet Christmas Carol, made in 1992, is fairly true to the essentials of the Dickens story and serves as a good introduction to Scrooge and all the other characters for the younger set, with sing-along songs. 

What stands out with this version is Scrooge, played with understatement by Michael Caine. As expected, he begins as the miserly master of moneylending but plays down the meanness somewhat so that the crotchety character Dickens wrote does not startle the youngest viewers — this is “children-friendly,” as opposed to Scrooge the musical.

Even with that understatement, Caine gradually brings Scrooge from his lack of caring for his fellow man and his employees — he has several Muppets in his employ — to virtue that should be easily understood by youngsters. This human Scrooge fits in with an extensive cast of Muppets that includes all the favorites in starring roles: Kermit as Cratchit and Statler and Waldorf as a humorous (Jacob) Marley and (Bob) Marley, while Gonzo, as Dickens, narrates the story. Enjoyable viewing for the whole family.


Mister Magoo

In Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, the loveable very, very nearsighted Magoo plays Scrooge in this delightful cartoon and musical retelling of the classic, the first animated Christmas TV special capturing Dickens. This time, the story has Magoo playing Scrooge in a Broadway musical version. Naturally, Jim Backus voices the main character in inimitable fashion. While very close to Dickens at the beginning, liberties are then inevitably taken, beginning with Christmas Present as the first Ghost-Scrooge encounters.

One possibility for the transposition is that Scrooge immediately observes the Cratchits’ Christmas celebration. Despite how poor they are and how much they are lacking, they sing the joyful song The Lord’s Bright Blessing. It puts viewers into a happy mood from the start. It also paves the way for the contrast with the sad, yet riveting, I’m All Alone in the World that young Scrooge sings as he spends Christmas at school alone.

Soon, at Fezziwigs, he meets Belle, who eventually tells him that she has been replaced by his golden idol. She reminds him of their early times, singing Winter Was Warm. Of course, Scrooge begins to see the error of his ways and what his constant thirst for money has cost him. Will he be able to join in singing with Tiny Tim a reprise of The Lord’s Bright Blessing?

No matter which film you choose, none of these deserves a “Bah, Humbug!” — only a “God bless us, everyone!”

EDITOR’S BONUS: Patrick Stewart’s take on Scrooge from 1999.

Leopold Graf von Kalckreuth (1855-1928), “Children by the Christmas Tree”

The Best Christmas — Past, Present and Future

Are you set to have the Best Christmas Ever? Even better, do you hope to give a gift that helps someone else have the Best Christmas Ever? Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith brings us a heartwarming story of how one parish in Minnesota generously helped a family and a community do just that. And we also look to Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ to learn the importance of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Register Columnist John Grondelski guides us through this lesson.