Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, and while it wouldn’t be his last Christmas story, it’s far and away the most enduring of them, and today even surpasses his non-holiday works in popularity and recognition. It seemed like a logical choice for a “Version vs. Version” article, with the main question being which of its dozens of adaptations to compare it to. While I’ll be touching on some general trends, I decided to focus on the 1949 TV adaptation, for a few reasons. First, at 25 minutes, it was easy to fit into my schedule (I don’t like to “phone it in”, but today was kind of busy.) Secondly, parts of it are narrated from the text of the book, and much of the dialogue is lifted from it, making it easy to see where corners are cut and elements are glossed over. And third, that narration is done by Vincent Price, and I think we’ve all figured out by now I enjoy watching Vincent Price. (It’s a shame, really, that he couldn’t have had a major role in the work, but at that time he was too young for Scrooge, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is traditionally silent.)
I will assume most of you are familiar with the basic story, and so I’ll jump right into the review of the special and the comparison.
As proof of the cyclical nature of fashion, the 1843 trend of “bling” would reoccur some 150 years later.
Scrooge in this adaptation is played by Taylor Holmes, a Broadway actor who had several film roles, the last of which would be as King Stefan in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. He fills Scrooge with a lot of visible and audible cues to his miserly, mean-spirited nature, which is a good thing, because the movie script isn’t helping him out much. Though Holmes and Price both are reading from Dickens’ original writing, and both put their considerable acting talents into it, they are running afoul of the fact that although A Christmas Story is a novella, it requires some adept editing to squeeze it into 25 minutes. Disney did it with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, but the producers on this one weren’t exactly successful. Scenes shift so abruptly that it almost seems like Holmes is running a footrace, and other characters barely get a moment of screen time. Of the ghosts, only Marley (Earl Lee) has any sense of delivery. Past and Present (Nelson Leigh and George James, respectively) are so perfunctory that they almost seem colder than Yet to Come. It’s a sad, disappointing production, especially since we could easily see some of the principal actors doing a much better job. But the script was utterly butchered, and whole scenes were reduced to a few lines, such as the Ghost of Christmas Past telling Scrooge about his former fiancee instead of showing her.
We can save money on film if we cut out most of the story.
Because of this hack job on the text, the 1949 TV movie, which could have been closer to the story than most adaptations due to the use of its writing, wound up actually being just a little bit farther thanks to cutting even more scenes. Most adaptations of A Christmas Carol cut a few scenes, in fact, and nearly all of them manage to miss the mark just a bit on the moral lesson of the story. It was never entirely about the money.
Scrooge is miserly, somewhat greedy, and uncharitable. But in the story it’s made clear that this is only a symptom of his problem, not the root of it. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer to his school days — a scene often omitted from adaptations — we see that the core of the problem is isolation. Scrooge has been cut off from human contact from early on. His mother died young, his father was abusive towards him, and he spent most of his time at a boarding school where his fellow children went home for Christmas without him. His sole connection to humanity was his sister, and in adulthood, she too died after giving birth to his nephew Fred. Though his fiancee leaves him, citing his desire for material gain as having come between them, by the time that often-filmed scene arrives in the narrative, it’s clear that Ebenezer has come to that position not out of avarice, but out of fear. Fear of a world beyond his control, where people abandon him continuously, and only that which he owns can be relied on. It’s impossible not to wonder what might have happened if his fiancee had provoked him into a real argument — with the possibility of a real resolution — instead of walking out on him. Though it was his actions driving her away, and it’s fully understandable and justified, it was also the end of the last real human connection Scrooge had.
The Ghost of Christmas Present starts the work of restoring those connections, showing Scrooge what is happening in the lives of those around him. But the opening of Scrooge’s heart begins almost immediately with the first Ghost. Often, especially in the shorter adaptations, Scrooge remains miserly until the revelation of the final Ghost, giving the impression that he merely fears death. But in the original story, he undergoes small changes all along the way. He regrets not giving alms to a caroling boy, he defends Fezziwig’s party-throwing as “no small thing” due to the joy it gave people. He marvels at the closeness of Cratchit’s family and worries about Tiny Tim (this scene is the only scene of Scrooge’s growth common to all adaptations). He witnesses Fred’s party, and delights in the parlor games they play. And his words scorning the needs of the poor are thrown back at him when he witnesses the apparitions of Ignorance and Want and is repelled by them. While many adaptations have the revelation of his lonesome death be the trigger for his change, in the story he scarcely needs it, for at that point he is already a greatly changed man.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic story for the season. And, being a fairly short one, and in the public domain (i.e., easy to find and download for free), there is little reason not to read it if you celebrate Christmas. If you can read a blog, you can read a novella, and it’s worth it to experience the original form of one of the most adapted stories. And several of the adaptations are worth checking out. Personally, I like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged, both of which are a lot closer to the original than you might expect from a Muppet production and a modernized take starring Bill Murray.
1949 TV Special: