Weekly DVD/Video Picks

A Christmas Carol (1999)

Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Scrooge from his one-man stage play in this faithful made-for-TV adaptation. It's been noted that Dickens' short story is an essentially non-religious Christmas fable, concerned not with the true meaning of Christmas, but with what is now called the “spirit of Christmas” — goodwill, merry-making with family and friends, perhaps charity for the less fortunate. Yet Dickens' story is not without religious references and residual Christian themes that are perhaps increasingly worthwhile in these ever more secular days.

Beyond Dickens' latent Christian themes, most film versions add their own layers of religious context to the story. For example, most versions use religious Christmas carols both in onscreen singing and on the soundtrack; this 1999 version includes “While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” It also adds a scene in which the rehabilitated Scrooge goes to church on Christmas and tries to join in the singing, though he doesn't know the words and needs to share a hymnbook. Stewart gives a carefully thought-out interpretation of the character, which will appeal to some more than others.

Content advisory: Some frightening imagery; possibly okay for older kids.

A Christmas Carol (1984)

George C. Scott (Patton) is Scrooge in this excellent made-for-TV retelling, probably the only version to give the classic 1951 version a run for its money. Besides Scott's own superb performance, strengths of this version include Clive Donner's richly atmospheric direction and an effective score that includes “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” and “I Saw Three Ships.” This version also has the strongest emphasis on social conscience and the plight of the poor, though it also throws in a shallow, clichéd line about the departed always being with us as long as we somehow honor their memory.

Like every version of the story, this Christmas Carol retains the influence of Christian ideas and themes on Dickens' story. The shackles worn by Jacob Marley, for example, reflect the idea of judgment and punishment after death. Likewise, Scrooge's rehabilitation after his fearful encounter with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come — the very image of death in a medieval Christian danse macabre — reflects the ancient admonition memento mori (“Remember that you must die”) with its implicit exhortation to amend your life and do good works in view of coming judgment.

Content advisory: Some frightening imagery; possibly okay for older kids.

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the classic Christmas Carol, perhaps the most overtly Christianized adaptation of Dickens's story. Not that Dickens left Christ entirely out of Christmas. Besides the implicit Christian themes mentioned in the previous review, there are also a few passing religious references. Scrooge's nephew (in a line not found in any screen version I know) says that he has always thought of Christmas as “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” — but only after first qualifying that this is “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” There's also a line (found in every screen version) about Tiny Tim in church on Christmas hoping that people will see his crippled legs and be reminded of the one who healed the lame and the blind.

But it's only the Sim version that gives the Spirit of Christmas Present a line about “the child born in Bethlehem” who “does not live in men's hearts only one day of the year, but in all the days of the year.”

Content advisory: Some frightening imagery; possibly okay for older kids.