Further Meditations on A Christmas Carol – Now Including 1938!

A Christmas Carol (1938)A Christmas Carol (1938)

The 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, was the first non-silent film version of the Charles Dickens novella. It is also the most joyful and I would argue the most happy version of the story. You cannot help but spend half of the film giggling and laughing, even as it maintains the seriousness of the story. In fact, that is why there is so much laughter – it breaks the tension and one cannot help feeling joy at the redemption in Scrooge, not to mention the giddiness of the other characters.

In this version, Scrooge’s nephew Fred meets Tiny Tim and his elder brother  Peter on Christmas Eve. They are all merry and Fred acts as appropriately as one would expect for a mischievous young man with a kind heart. He features more prominently in this version because the character of Belle has been adapted out, giving more weight to Scrooge’s sister Fan, and because he is not yet married to his fiancee (traditionally already his wife). We are instead treated to them being a giddy young couple in love during the Ghost of Christmas Present segment. Whether or not they should get married is a major concern of Scrooge.

Meanwhile, the Cratchits are every bit the merry family of the original story and then some! Even the prospect of being out of work following Christmas does not stop Bob Cratchit from spending all he can on Christmas for his family. While the family is comical, I would argue that some of the poignancy and tenderness of their scenes is lost in the comedy and merriment. Only Tim and Martha have significant depth to their characters. Even Bob and his wife are seem caricatures – his wife especially. One can tell how much influence the stage still had on the films in the 1930s!

For a tight, 70-minute film that still covers all of the important elements of the story, the 1938 A Christmas Carol is perfect. It adapts certain details so that one does not feel that anything is missing – even the lack of any description of Belle (or Scrooge’s love life in general) is handled well. Adding extra conflict and uncertainty do indeed make for an interesting story, even if they are not necessary. Do we need to be unsure if Fred will be able to get married? Do we need to think that Bob Cratchit might lose his job and his family be out on the street? I don’t think so. If anything, having Fred be already married in the original story serves to illustrate just how out of touch his uncle is! Fred is supposed to be the model Christian character who has everything together, even while not being rich, and a large heart like his mother’s. He wants for nothing from his uncle but that they be friends, like Fan would have wanted. It is indeed heavenly imagery when the repentant Scrooge enters his nephew’s house for Christmas dinner: he begs forgiveness of his nephew and when he receives it, he in turn embraces his niece and asks for her blessing, and only then is he accepted into the party.

Having his situation be precarious lessens the impact of this reconciliation. Likewise, having the Cratchits be one day from the poorhouse turns their Christmas Present scene from “look how joyful this poor family is, because they have each other and Christmas blessings” to “look how important Christmas is to this poor family that they do not want to ruin it, even if they could save some money”. This is a minor distinction, but the feeling from the scene is turned from hopeful to pathetic. We are supposed to think that the Cratchits will pull through, even facing the loss of Tim, not that they are facing destitution. Indeed, the scene of the future makes little sense – did Bob find new employment? Did Scrooge hire him back? In fairness, in the original story, it is never mentioned what would become of Cratchit upon the death of Scrooge. Obviously, he was much more devastated at the loss of his son! But facing the loss of his job in the present, this left a bit of a plot hole – one that did not have to be there.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful version of A Christmas Carol. I highly recommend it for those who love the original story and those who are looking for a fun family movie for Christmas. This version is not very scary compared to some others. It is twenty minutes shorter than most other versions, it skips over the melodramatic love story in the past, and it is filled with joy and laughter.

God bless us, everyone!

Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.

And here is my ranking of the other A Christmas Carol films from last year:

A Christmas Carol

This is my favourite Christmas story, barring that of the Bible. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a good book to read aloud and its message is enduring: Love your fellow men (and women).

There have been many film versions of this story and I cannot choose only one as my favourite, so I have made a Top Five:

  1. 1984 – George C. Scott version

A Christmas Carol (1984)This is a decent portrayal, albeit my least favourite. I cannot determine why I find it off-putting, but I just don’t have a sentimental connection to it. However, I know a lot of people who love this version the best. For anyone growing up in the 1980s or 1990s, this was the version that was in colour and perhaps it was more relatable than earlier versions. However, it has not aged well and we have newer, better A Christmas Carol adaptations.

  1. 1951 – Alastair Sims version

A Christmas Carol (1951)Until 2009, this was my favourite traditional version of A Christmas Carol. Despite its age and the liberties taken with Dickens’s story and characters, this version remains true to the spirit of the novel and Alastair Sims’s portrayal of Scrooge is hilarious as much as it is melancholy and terrifying. This version also includes a death scene for Scrooge’s sister – notably missing in the book and in other versions. However, it still lacks what I think is a crucial scene – that of Scrooge’s ex-fiancée grown up and happily married. No film that I have seen has included this scene as of yet.

  1. 2009 – Jim Carrey version

A-Christmas-Carol-2009This film actually included the ex-fiancée scene as an incomplete deleted scene. It is too bad that this sequence had to be cut. I think it really contributes to Scrooge’s character and his angry dismissal of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

This is definitely the most colourful and whimsical version that I have scene. The music is excellent and the religious imagery is as present as it can be in a Disney film. The animation is beautiful and Jim Carrey not only plays a wonderful Scrooge, but also all of the Spirits. Like Sims, Carrey uses comedy to convey the misery that is Scrooge’s character. We feel so sorry for him that we have to laugh – just like his nephew.

  1. The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)My favourite adaptation that plays around with the basic novel, The Muppet Christmas Carol simplifies the plot while at the same time including elements of the narration lost in other adaptations. Thanks to Gonzo as the narrator, we are treated to some of Dickens’s best jokes and puns – which are further expanded upon by Rizzo’s commentary. The antics of these two contrasts nicely with the seriousness of the other Muppets in their roles. Meanwhile, Michael Caine as Scrooge (along with the other human actors) play their parts extremely seriously and earnestly. Even as Gonzo and Rizzo regularly break the fourth wall, we are transported into Dickensian London and feel a part of the story. Furthermore, the songs are catchy and meaningful. This is a fun family film that fails to lose its magic as the years pass.

  1. 1999 – Patrick Stewart version

A Christmas Carol 1999Shortly after seeing the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol, I stumbled upon this version at the public library. I was intrigued to watch Patrick Stewart take on the role of Scrooge – and I was not disappointed. He plays the role in such a way as to be at once repulsive and also relatable. He is not a caricature – he seems very much like a middle-aged businessman. A miserly, crotchety middle-aged businessman, yes, but a normal one. He is very rational. He is sensible. He suffers. He has a sense of humour even before his change of heart. It is scary how normal he is, because we can all easily become Scrooge. We do not have to be Victorian businessmen to do so.

This version feels to me to be the most genuine. It captures the spirit of the original story and adds new decorative elements such as contemporary Victorian songs sung by characters. Religion also plays a significant role and this is the only version to date that a reformed Scrooge attends church on Christmas Day – even though, given his experience, this would be a very likely course of action for him. The montage of Christmas scenes that the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on in the book is also included.

The other characters are also portrayed in a realistic manner. We can see how Bob Cratchit and his wife have become the way that they are. The Cratchit children are appropriately childlike and Martha – often portrayed as an older teenager or young adult – is barely fourteen or fifteen years old, as would be expected in the era. Scrooge’s nephew and his wife and friends are also relatable and portrayed as a fun group of people that Scrooge would indeed have missed out on visiting with.

This version of A Christmas Carol is not the funniest or the most flashy, but it is the most relatable and truest to the heart of the story.

1999-xmas-happy-scroogeGod bless us, everyone.

Happy Christmas and New Year!

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