On Dec. 19, 1843, the first edition of Charles Dickens’s classic tale, A Christmas Carol, appeared in store windows. It’s a beautifully written story about the miserly money-lender Ebenezer Scrooge, who showed no empathy or compassion toward his fellow man – and cared not a whit about Christmas. The phrase “Bah! Humbug!” was truly his credo in life.
Scrooge would be visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. He would re-live the painful memories he’d caused to his ex-fiancee, Belle. He witnessed the sad, undetermined fate of his faithful (and poorly mistreated) employee Bob Cratchit’s sickly son, Tiny Tim. He would fearfully gaze upon his own dark, neglected gravestone.
These traumatic episodes were more than Scrooge could bear. He promised to forever change his ways if given an opportunity – and did just that on Christmas morning.
Alas, the book’s success wasn’t immediately foretold. Due to the critical failure of his previous story, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens paid the entire publishing bill for A Christmas Carolin exchange for a small percentage of profits. The book was written in six weeks, and completed only two days before the publication date. Critics suggested a second straight disaster could spell the end of his literary career.
The twinkling eyes of young children quickly put this notion to rest. The original run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. A second printing was issued, and the book has never been out of print. Customers have since purchased an estimated 30-40 million licensed copies, including the Everyman Library Children’s Classics version, which I read to my son every Christmas.
A Christmas Carolhas also been a favourite subject on stage, television and film for more than a century. Two live action movie adaptations, both produced in the United Kingdom, are still regarded as the gold standard.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol(1938) stars Reginald Owen as Scrooge, and Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, respectively. Other fine performances include Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim), Ann Rutherford (Spirit of Christmas Past) and Leo G. Carroll (Marley’s Ghost).
According to the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, “Lionel Barrymore was originally cast as Scrooge, a role which he had performed on radio each Christmas morning for several years, but ill-health prevented him from being in the production.” Barrymore recommended Owen for the lead role, and opted against recording his radio version that year “so that it would not interfere with the success of the picture.” Instead, he appeared in a brief trailer to promote it.
The film utilizes some artistic license in its adaptation of Dickens’s story. Belle doesn’t appear on screen, and neither do the thieves who ransack Scrooge’s house after his possible “death.” Scrooge fires Cratchit, which never happened in the book. And the three spirits arrive at 1:00 am, 2:00 am and 3:00 am on the same day, whereas Dickens introduced them on separate nights.
Although this MGM production was wrongly perceived as a “B picture” in its day, the film’s reputation has significantly improved over eight decades. Owen’s portrayal of Scrooge is both complex and fascinating, as it should be, and it’s hard not to come away without a measure of pure satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Scrooge/A Christmas Carol(1951) stars Alastair Sim in the titular role, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit and Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit. There are also stellar performances by Roddy Hughes (Mr. Fezziwig), Michael Hordern (Marley’s Ghost) and Rona Anderson (Scrooge’s fiancee).
Interestingly, this film is listed under two different titles. Turner Classic Movies database noted it was “copyrighted and released in the United States under the title A Christmas Carol, but released in Great Britain as Scrooge.” Similar to the 1938 version, the 1951 film isn’t a carbon copy of Dickensian prose. Belle is called Alice in the movie, while the book’s unnamed charwoman (or housecleaner) is turned into a significant character with the laundress’s name, Mrs. Dilber. Scrooge’s rise as a powerful, greedy businessman has a non-canon backstory, too.
These twists don’t take away from this wonderful film. Many critics regard Sim’s superb, multi-faceted portrayal as the finest performance of Dickens’s miserly character.
In fairness, there are several other movie adaptations that deserve to be mentioned.
Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost(1901) is the earliest known adaptation. It only ran slightly over six minutes (half of which is preserved by the British Film Institute), but remains a fun little film. Scrooge(1935), which stars Sir Seymour Hicks, is an intriguing movie that takes the most liberties with the original literary text. There are no physical appearances by Marley’s Ghost or most of the spirits, and it contains a rare visual appearance of a deceased Tiny Tim. Scrooge(1970) is a musical film version starring Albert Finney which is less dark in its imagery, but a rather joyous and upbeat adventure.
I’ll also throw in The Man Who Invented Christmas(2017), a biographical drama examining Dickens’s six-week saga in writing A Christmas Carol. His imaginary relationship with the book’s characters is intriguing. In fact, the interaction between Dickens (Dan Stevens) and Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) is so deep and penetrating, you may never look at the book in the same way again.
My hope is Interimreaders will purchase or watch some of these great film versions ofA Christmas Carol with their families and friends. I wish you a Merry Christmas – and, as the final line of Dickens’s classic tale goes, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.