Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Many Faces of Scrooge

A CHRISTMAS CAROL is my favorite holiday story, and I "collect" (sort of) movie adaptations of it. Not that I systematically collect them, but I own lots of versions. This classic tale surely rates right up there with one of my other favorite books, DRACULA, in the number of different film versions that exist. It's fascinating to notice the differences among adaptations—what elements of the original text the movie-makers decide to include or omit, what newly created bits they insert.

Many film buffs seem to have a special fondness for the vintage Alistair Sim version. This movie adds a lot of material that isn't in the novella, especially in the past, exploring Scrooge's rise to wealth. My own favorite used to be the one starring George C. Scott, until the Patrick Stewart adaptation rose to the top of my list. George Scott's Scrooge, in my opinion, remains grumpy and cynical a bit too long into his supernatural ordeal. Both he and Patrick Stewart, however, embody the dry wit that characterizes Scrooge in the book. The Scott movie adds a bit of dialogue that isn't in the original, where Scrooge lectures Bob Cratchit about the advantages of coats (can be used for years) over coal (expensive and perishable) for warmth. The Stewart version is the only one I've seen that shows the reformed Scrooge attending a church service, as the book mentions in passing. It also features a voice-over epilogue, spoken by Scrooge's nephew Fred, that quotes a line from the book about how Scrooge's "own heart laughed" with joy, not included in any other film. This movie differs from most others by dramatizing Marley's funeral in a brief prologue, a scene only alluded to as back story by Dickens.

Two scenes often omitted from film adaptations come from the Christmas Present segment—the panoramic tour in which the Spirit shows Scrooge people from all walks of life celebrating Christmas and the nightmarish glimpse of the boy "Ignorance" and the girl "Want" under the Spirit's robe. In Christmas Past, I recall only one movie that includes the view of Belle as a happily married woman on the night of Marley's death. Several films, such as the musical SCROOGE, show Scrooge delivering the Christmas turkey to Bob's house personally instead of having it sent. This change saves time but either inserts a form of Scrooge's mock threat to Bob (for coming to work late on December 26) into the turkey delivery scene or omits it altogether.

One thing I always look for in a CHRISTMAS CAROL adaptation is plenty of dialogue from the book. MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, surprisingly good for a cartoon rendition, includes a lot of Dickens's wit. It also contains some lovely songs. Because of its short length, though, it leaves out all but the most pivotal scenes, deleting Scrooge's little sister, Fan, and her son, Fred, completely. Disney made an animated version starring Uncle Scrooge McDuck—of course!—with Donald as his nephew, Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit, and Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past. It's fun to see Scrooge McDuck play his namesake, but this cartoon includes almost none of Dickens's prose beyond "Bah, humbug." The lively MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Gonzo playing Dickens to supply metafictional commentary, has some nice songs and hits most of the familiar notes of the story. Kermit the Frog plays Bob with Miss Piggy (of course) as Mrs. Cratchit, who has the chance to tell off Scrooge at the finale. Viewers get an engaging blend of humor, terror, and pathos. However, it includes Fred but omits Fan, leaving the uninitiated to wonder how Scrooge ended up with a nephew. I don't like Disney's feature-length version with Jim Carrey as much as I want to. It's full of dazzling special effects but, in my opinion, carries the over-the-top visual spectacle too far at some points, at the expense of the story (probably to indulge lovers of 3-D).

Then there are the re-visionings of the story in different times and places. While SCROOGED isn't one of my top favorites, there are things about it I enjoy, such as the genre-savvy protagonist, who's actually filming a live-action CHRISTMAS CAROL TV show, and the fact that this version is one of the few, if not the only one, in which the protagonist receives a happy ending with his "Belle" analog. A DIVA'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, which I re-watch almost every year, may not be deep, but it ingeniously modernizes the original story with a female protagonist—Ebony Scrooge, a black superstar singer who came up from a broken home in poverty and trampled on all her human relationships along the way. Given her name and the fact that her assistant is called Bob Cratchit, with a sick little boy named Tim, the viewer has to suspend disbelief and accept that in the world of the movie Charles Dickens never wrote the book. There's at least one more female Scrooge version, starring Cicely Tyson as Ebenita, but I haven't seen it. I highly recommend AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, set in the Depression with Henry Winkler as a wealthy man made bitter by a hard life. Being a orphan when we first see him in the Christmas Past visions, he doesn't have even the tenuous family ties the original Scrooge tries to reject. In the flashbacks, he ends up turning his back on his father figure, the story's Fezziwig analog, who rescued him from the orphanage and taught him a craft. AN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL doesn't adapt the original so much as transform it through a fresh incarnation of the story in an American, early 20th-century setting.

Some films try to answer questions left unresolved by Dickens. Why does young Ebenezer's father banish him to boarding school? At least one movie proposes that Scrooge Senior hates the sight of his son because Ebenezer's mother died giving birth to him. That can't be true, because his sister Fan is clearly younger than he. (The original text explicitly says so.) It seems unlikely that Scrooge Senior remarried and had a daughter if he was so bitter about his wife's death that he rejected his son for it. How did Scrooge meet his fiancee, Belle? The movies that address this question always have them meet at Fezziwig's Christmas party. Why did young Scrooge have to struggle to make his fortune (as he and Belle discuss in a flashback) if his father had enough money to pay for boarding school, send a carriage to bring him home, and purchase his apprenticeship with old Fezziwig? Did Scrooge Senior lose his money somewhere along the way? Or did he disinherit Ebenezer and leave the estate to Fan? Then why does Fan's son, Fred, have less material wealth than Scrooge (even though Scrooge makes no use of it to buy himself a comfortable life)? Scrooge, by the way, labels Fred "poor," which he clearly isn't; that's just a reflection of Scrooge's deeply distorted world-view. Fred obviously has a pleasantly middle-class lifestyle (he throws a Christmas party and employs at least one servant). When Scrooge dies alone in the Christmas Yet to Come vision, where's Fred? Given his character as shown in the present, it's hard to imagine his abandoning the old man. Maybe Scrooge finally pushed him away once too often. Or maybe when Fred dropped by to invite him to dinner that year, Scrooge managed to conceal how sick he was. Above all, what's wrong with Tiny Tim? To fit the observed conditions, his disease has to be (1) chronic but not immediately fatal, (2) crippling, (3) ultimately though not inevitably fatal, but (4) able to be successfully treated by 19th-century medical science, otherwise Scrooge's money wouldn't save him. Here's an article exploring two theories:

What Was Ailing Tiny Tim?

And here's a discussion of another possibility:

Tiny Tim Diagnosis

Regardless, to recall his familiar line, "God bless us every one!" Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. What a lovely analysis of one of my favorite stories. Merry Christmas, Margaret.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! I've just discovered another contemporary version with a female Scrooge, MIRACLE AT CHRISTMAS: EBBIE'S STORY, which I'd never heard of before. It was available very cheap on Amazon and got excellent reviews, so I ordered it. I've never seen the Cicely Tyson MS. SCROOGE; I guess I never will, because it was only ever released for home viewing on VHS, and the cheapest copy available costs something like $48!

    I forgot to mention that MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL makes one very odd change, switching the order of Past and Present. Also, I read somewhere that in the Disney feature, Scrooge demonstrates his stinginess by taking the pennies off the dead Marley's eyes (which I had forgotten about). That action strikes me as out of character. Scrooge is never portrayed as stealing or even cheating; Dickens says "his word was good." Indeed, I think part of the point of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is that all the mistreatment of the poor and working class that goes on is perfectly legal. The system itself needs changing, as well as individual hearts (a point not often foregrounded in the movies).