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A Christmas Carol: Why The Book Is (Still) Better

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There have been many great film adaptations of Dickens’ classic, but the original is still the best of them all.

ImageSince reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a wee lad, I’ve watched countless movie adaptations.  Some have been better than others, but all have left me with the same resounding impression: the book is better.   Let’s take, for example the following three movies, the lack luster George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol (1984), The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992), and the Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol (1951).  They are a perfect example of different perspectives on Dickens’ classic tale, and they show how no movie has captured the essence of Dickens.  (The fact that I already had these three movies in my DVD collection had nothing to do with my selection, naturally.)

In the George C. Scott version of Dickens’ tale we see many of the details and themes present in the book, from the religious motifs surrounding Ebenezer’s fire place to the dramatic weather patterns that seem to run parallel to Scrooge’s inner conflict.  The overbearing fog at the beginning of the film seems parallels Scrooge’s oppressive nature.  But by the end of the movie, after he has undergone an almost miraculous transformation, the skies clear up and the fog is a thing of the past.  Even the dialogue seems to be in tune with the original text written by Dickens.  Although both the aesthetics and the words add up, the performance of the characters fail to depict the true nature that permeates the book.  The three ghosts seem almost dimwitted as they utter their lines, but Scrooge himself seems even more obtuse.  The problem is that Scott does not seem to react to Scrooge’s visions, even though in the book it’s clear that Scrooge is profoundly moved by them.  In one of the very first scenes Scrooge witnesses with the first spirit, Scrooge sheds tears.  Later, when he re-lives Fezziwig’s party, Dickens says Scrooge’s “heart and soul were in the scene.”   Yet George C. Scott’s Scrooge lacks that connection.   This profoundly affects what we ultimately come to see as Scrooge’s transformation.  His transformation seems to come more from the fear of his own future than from the remorse he feels for treating his fellow man in such a shabby manner.   The presence of which is much more complete in the Alastair Sim version.

There is little wrong with the Alastair Sim adaptation.  When those crazy Dickensians say that Alastair Sim owned the role of Scrooge, they are correct.  The cold, uncaring performance given by Alastair in the first scenes correctly set the mood for the entire movie, showing the range of emotions Scrooge has denied himself and others.  He transforms slowly, gaining bits and pieces of himself until he finally reclaims himself as a whole.   However there are a few flaws, none of which are simply cosmetic and lead to a less accurate break from his old self.  At the end of the first apparition’s visit, Scrooge should have grasped the hat worn on the entity’s head and shoved it down to drown out the light—which represents both truth and, one could argue, knowledge—showing Scrooge’s inner turmoil.  It’s a minor detail, but one that should have been left in.  There is also a problem with the way the story unfolds.  Some of the details that should have been spread out over the course of Scrooge’s transformation are unfortunately missing, as well as half of the second specter’s plot.  Gone is that pesky scene in Fred’s house where all that goodwill Fred garnered in the book is lost.  There are a few other minor details lost in translation.  The fog and the religious themes are almost hidden in the movie.  Furthermore, even though Dickens thought Belle would be a befitting name for the woman who was once Scrooge’s betrothed, someone decided, “Hey, let’s call her Alice instead!”  All we need is Ralph and we’d have the Honey Mooners.  Fortunately that’s not a problem in our next movie.

Ahh, The Muppet Christmas Carol, a classic ahead of its time.  Who wouldn’t love a bunch of rats running around with Brooklyn accents?  Who wouldn’t love the comical picture of the second ghost almost completely doubled over in the hovel that is Scrooge’s home?  Or the witty interjection of The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Rizzo as he steals food, adding some comic levity to what is—until the final scenes—a serious and sorrowful tale.  Instead of playing it straight they add music and make the tale nice and light, like cake.   Whereas The Alastair Sim version is content to just rename characters, the Muppet Christmas Carol adds characters that weren’t in the book to begin with.  Although they do have some gumption in so doing I just wish they went one step further.  Rather than having Jacob and Robert Marley, why not have Bob Marley make an appearance, too?  And finally, when Bob Cratchit is down and out, he has a wife who seems to uplift and support him.  As the Muppet version of Bob Cratchit, Kermit has…Ms. Piggy, who seems to be hogging all of the food while robbing Bob and Tiny Tim blind.  I almost feel sorry for their internal situation.  It’s very sad indeed.   Most assuredly, Emily Cratchit would not have done that in the book.  Yes, the main goal of this movie is humor, and in that it succeeds.  But in doing so, it fails to convey the full emotional depth of Scrooge’s transformation.

As Rizzo, In the Muppet Christmas Carol says, “Charles Dickens was a 19th century novelist, a genius!” Why limit your knowledge of such a seminal work by watching a movie that leaves parts out, fails to realize the full potential of Dickens’ characters, or, as is the case with the Muppet version, turns Dickens’ classic into a musical, complete with Mary Poppins-esque umbrella’d flights.  But as The Great Gonzo says at the end of The Muppet Christmas Carol, “If you like this movie…READ THE BOOK!!!”  Only the book can allow the audience to break past the surface bring about a true understanding of the tale’s complexities. 

Author: Jack Dawkins, Special to CC2K

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