“Best” is a very subjective term, I don’t even know how to describe what it means. Maybe you know it when you see it, or hear it, or even feel it. Best is also very personal.
Dickens’ story has been told many times through the years, as television and feature films, live-action, animation, and even with Muppets.
Here is a sampling of the best known of the film and television versions. Every version is somewhat unique, no version I’ve seen is exactly the same. Each one includes something a little different in the story, leaving out elements, expanding others, tweaking the tone. Whether it is musical or animated, the main difference is in the portrayal of Scrooge. The character of Scrooge is like the captain of a sailboat, adjusting to the wind, the sea, the crew, the sails. So, the best Scrooge is really your favorite version of A Christmas Carol. We will go in reverse chronological order.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)
Animation provides such incredible visual flexibility. Certainly, flying over the city is a bit like Star Wars in style. Instead of creating specials effects for spirits, the animation blends them seamlessly into the art.
The animation does seem to be a exaggerated at times for silliness and effect. It can provide some interesting camera views.
This is a relatively faithful adaptation on the story, in fact, it goes back to the ghosts on three consecutive nights. Disney uses animation and Jim Carrey to bring it to a new generation of fans, something families will watch together.
The transition between the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Future adds a several new visual scenes, exciting but not critical to the story. Scrooge is miniaturized and is chased by horses, a rat and various other threats. Eye candy to hold kids’ interest.
This version follows the spine of the story, with minor changes. What you get are visual touches and a very effective emphasis on emotional cues. The camera can dwell on a facial expression that is highlighted in the computer animation.
Jim Carrey’s facial expressions are incorporated into the animation, so it’s more than just a vocal performance.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
– Patrick Stewart plays a livelier version of old Scrooge, in a television film.
It begins with the burial of Marley. And the a visit by nephew Fred.
The scenery and sets are quite authentic. It seems to lack the atmosphere of earlier versions. This is a Hallmark production for TNT, so it is first-rate. Patrick Stewart is the only bald Scrooge, although Mr.Magoo was nearly hairless.
I picture Scrooge as old and stooped over, not a man who could step into the stage for Dancing With the Stars and do a tango. Stewart is a fine actor, but a bit too urbane for a crotchety Scrooge. So he must dial up the mean.
In his meeting with Marley, Scrooge tried to brush away Marley’s pain by saying, “it was just business.”
The special effects hardly better better than the 1951 version, but the story is faithful. Stewart does his best to bring more emotional texture to Scrooge.
The time at the Cratchit house is unadorned, very straightforward and unsentimental. This is one of the strongest sections of the film.
There are a few story elements not in most other versions or with a bit deeper emphasis.
If you haven’t seen one of the more recent versions, just the old ones, this one will suffice. Stewart does an admirable job, he had been portraying Scrooge onstage for about a decade. Even though he knew the character inside and out, I believe he was playing against type.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Michael Caine is the meanest Scrooge, especially next to the Muppets. As an alternative to the deadly serious live-action adaptations, this is a nice change of pace. The songs, by Paul Williams, are lively, as are the irascible Muppets.
Muppets Charles Dickens and Rizzo the rat, are the story’s guides, who often add off-subject observations. Kermit is Bob Cratchit. Caine plays it straight, although he can be over the top at times with his meanness.
There’s nothing really scary in this story, perhaps for young kids, but it’s really lighthearted. The Marley brothers show up as the old Muppets from the theater balcony.
Fozzie Bear is Fezziwig. At his party Scrooge meets Belle. Later, we meet Miss Piggy, Mrs. Cratchit.
Caine’s Scrooge at times seems inconvenienced rather than terrified. The special effects are fairly rudimentary, like a Disney movie from the 1970s.
His transition from nasty to simply misunderstanding intent of Christmas is not very convincing. He seems won over by a warm song.
It’s not easy being Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
Directed by Clive Donner, who also edited the 1951 version, this television film stars George C. Scott. The gruff Scott has bellicose in his veins. He rages and radiates more sadness than mean. Made late in his career, Scott was less mobile than over Scrooges, probably closer to what Scrooge would have been at that age. Scott was a few years removed from his finest work, in fact, his career was in a downturn. Perhaps Scott embraced this role as an opportunity to reflect on his own misfires and missed chances. Wherever he found the connection with Scrooge, he plugged in tightly.
The film looks extraordinarily real, almost surreal. If was filmed in England, to no minor expense recreating the time of Dickens. The other notable achievement is the fine supporting cast. David Warner, Roger Rees, Frank Finlay, Edward Woodward, Susannah York, Joanne Whalley, Nigel Davenport, Caroline Langrishe and Lucy Guttridge headline the excellent cast.
You believe Scott when says humbug to his nephew Fred, who tries so hard to chisel away at his uncle’s hardness. Scott delivers some of most biting lines in a quiet but cutting breathy growl. Scott uses his accomplishes skills in subtle but effective touches.Scrooge delights at besting business partners.
This version give you a good view of Scrooge’s transformation from lonely boy to hardened miser, with all love drained from his life.
Of the cast, Warner is quite loving as Bob Cratchit, father and husband, and Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit. There is much happiness in their house, and much sadness later, after Tim’s death. Findlay as Marley’s Ghost is scarier than Alec Guinness. When you act with Scott, you must hold your own. Woodward is the best Ghost of Christmas Present. There is great passion in his performance. Rees provides maybe the most rounded characterization of Fred, conveying a variety of emotions when talking about his uncle, who he wants to love, but doesn’t understand. The scene on Christmas Day is awkward but realistic as he heals the emotional gap between them.
The added scene under the bridge of the destitute family which leads into the ignorance and want children, where Scrooge begins to understand what going to the work houses really means. As his items are sold, after his death, Scrooge is both outraged and frightened. This takes Scrooge toward his final journey to rediscovery his humanity and heart. Scott is quite effective in these scenes. His sense of terror, as well as his re-wakening seem real.
Donner is skilled at creating a dark, foreboding and melancholy atmosphere.
The Albert Finney musical, and some say, the best Christmas Carol film.
There had not been a major film production of this story since 1951. This might have the most distinguished cast and crew. Wonderfully directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, The Odessa File, Hopscotch), and written by Leslie Bricusse (Doctor Dolittle, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Goldfinger), who also provided the music. The songs keep the story from getting too dark or downbeat.
Photographed by Oswald Morris (Sleuth, The Man Who Would Be King, Fiddler on the Roof), so it has first-rate composition, color and lighting. The London scenes are dark and grimy, but the countryside is lush and green.
The film spends a bit more time on Scrooge at the beginning of the film to emphasize his meanness, as he makes his collections, with songs to bring out his deficiencies of character against the brightness of the season.
Dame Edith Evans (Ghost of Christmas Past), Kenneth More (Ghost of Christmas Present), Laurence Nesmith and Sir Alec Guinness are some of the distinguished actors in the cast. Guinness as Marley’s Ghost might be the best to undertake the role, he certainly gets more screen time than any other Marley. Even Marley gets a song in this production. The flight of the spirits was done quite well for the period. This was before Superman and Star Wars.
Albert Finney, who passed away this year, won a Golden Globe for his performance. He was only 34 when he played Scrooge, perhaps the youngest to play the role. He brings crotchety to the role, although he constantly looks as if he’s sucking on a prune. Finney also plays Scrooge as a young man during the flashback. There is a scene of the two of them together, which adds to the uniqueness of this presentation.
As mean as Scrooge is to Bob Cratchit, it is his wife that angry at Scrooge. The scenes at the Cratchit home well-done. It’s a nice touch that Tiny Tim gets his own song. At nephew Fred’s house for the party, Scrooge says to Fred, “It you were in my will, I would disinherit you.” After Scrooge dies, the crowd outside his office is cheering as his coffin is carried out and their debts are torn-up. Scrooge is unaware of what he did, until he discovers it is his death they are cheering.
The final half hour departs mightily from previous versions. Scrooge dresses as Santa Claus and hands out gifts as he leads a parade through his part of the city, where he runs into Fred and his wife. This segment allows Scrooge to make amends with those he needs to.
Produced by Cinema Center Films (CBS Network) and distributed by National General Pictures (previously Fox Theaters), for many independent films, including several by John Wayne.
Mister Magoo’s A Christmas Carol (1962)
Jim Backus provides the voice of the near-sighted cartoon character, who stars in a live television version of Dicken’s story, with Magoo playing Scrooge. While animated films may be written off, this is a very good version, in large part because of the fine soundtrack of original songs. This was the first version of story I ever saw, I remember the very first broadcast.
The animation is typical of early 1960s television, hardly Fantasia or Tom & Jerry quality, but effective.
Magoo is starring in a stage production of A Christmas Carol. The near-sighted Magoo almost doesn’t get to the theater, and then misses his dressing room, and is wheeled onstage. Not to be concerned, on stage, Magoo is perfect.
He is a sniveling miser who cowers at Marley’s Ghost, which would probably scare kids.
In just over 50 minutes, the story follows Dickens fairly well, though certain scenes are truncated and moved around, the Fred character is eliminated. The fine songs relate to and forwarad the story. “Razzleberry Dressing” which shows the closeness of the Cratchit family is one of them. They do something cool, they reprise several of the songs, an example is “All Alone” which was used with a young Scrooge, and then again when Scrooge is left on his grave; and “Ringle, Ringle,” first used at the beginning when miser Scrooge was counting his money, and after Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, a changed man.
For an introduction to the Dickens story, this is pretty darn good. Other than this, mostly what families would watch every year is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol.
Character voice included by Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy and Jane Kean. The Magoo cartoons were produced by United Productions of America and shown throughout the 1960s at Christmastime.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
Starring Alister Sim, probably the most well-known version until it was remade in 1970. Not quite as scrubbed as the 1938 version, a bit darker, with more screen time spent in Scrooge’s early adult years, which emphasizes his transition to a cold, unfeeling man. Included is the death of his sister, Fan. More time is spent with his second employer and colleague, young Marley. There is a scene where Scrooge and Marley move into Fezziwig’s business, having taken over. They also bailout their embezzler former employer, Jorkin, to take over the business he embezzled. The transition of Scrooge to a heartless and opportunistic businessman is becoming complete. Scrooge also almost declines to visit a dying Marley, who warns Scrooge to save himself.
Unlike the earlier version, Fred is married, and his uncle has disowned him. Scrooge sends the turkey to the Cratchits, not delivering it himself, so they have no idea of his generosity, until the day after Christmas.
Sim is a crusty and cold-blooded Scrooge, not quite the doddering old man of the earlier version.
Although the film played on television for decades, it was a financial disappointment when released.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
Reginald Owens was the second filmed Scrooge and does a fine job. The film generally follows the story but condensed the three ghostly visits to one night, which later adaptations followed. There are scenes involving the Cratchit and Fred that I do not recall in other versions. Each version picks and chooses what to include. This one focuses on Cratchit and his children and Fred’s love for his fiancé, two things Scrooge never allowed himself to have. In this version, Fred is engaged, but not married. Cratchit is fired on Christmas Eve, after accidentally hitting Scrooge with a snowball.
An MGM production, the story is scrubbed clean of anything objectionable and clocks in at a scant 73 minutes.
The special effects for the period are not elaborate but possible. Filmed in the studio, it has a dark look and you can tell the use of filters and other optical tools to provide the vintage and fantasy feel to it.
So here is my verdict. My all-time is the George C. Scott version. The production is first-rate, the best of even the theatrical versions. George C. Scott is superb. He’s the best actor to ever play the role and he brings all his tools. He fits the physical presence of Scrooge, an old man of probably poor health and diet. He’s world-worn, as much from his bitterness and disappointment as from physical ailments. Scott doesn’t need to shout to emote great feeling and textures of character. The supporting cast is exquisite.
Of the older versions, the Reginald Owens version is slightly better than the Alister Sim film, but they are both fine. The Owens version is slightly darker, which I like.
Of the animated versions, it is Mister Magoo, for all the reasons in my review. As a boy, it was my first exposure to the Dickens story and it meant a lot to me. Yes, the animation is crude by modern standards but it’s the story and songs that make this such a heartwarming viewing.
I would invite everyone to see as many as you can, you’ll find good in all of them.