In Search of the Perfect “Christmas Carol.”

Posted on 21 December 2010 by Quaid

“A Christmas Carol.”  It’s Charles’ Dickens’ immortal classic about the true meaning of Christmas and one of a handful of Christmas books the public at large has heard of.

It’s also one of the most adapted stories in the history of film.  A quick search on IMDB will reveal twenty-four A Christmas Carols as well as numerous branded adaptations such as A Flintstones Christmas Carol and A Sesame Street Christmas Carol.

And everyone has their favorite adaptation, myself included.  While I won’t even pretend to have seen all (or even a tenth) of the Christmas Carol films out there, I thought this might be a nice time of year to step through the various adaptations that stick out in my mind in a vain search for the true meaning of A Christmas Carol.

Now, there are plenty of well-done stage-play type adaptations of this story.  They’re almost word-for-word right out of the book, and they’re usually played like Shakespeare.  I’ll tell you right now, I’m going to ignore these adaptations.  Not because they aren’t worthy, but because, other than a few key actors and set pieces, they’re kind of interchangeable.  Except the Patrick Stweart version…that one rocked.  But I digress…

No, lets think outside the box here.  We aren’t looking for that perfect literal translation, but the right tone.  The right feel.  We’re looking for a movie that effectively shows Scrooge’s transformation from curmudgeonly old man to a kindly, generous Christmas-infused messenger of the little baby Jesus.  We want a movie that warms our cockles and makes us stare with childlike wonder.

So let’s start with that childhood classic The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Now first off, this one gets points for its choice of Ebenezer Scrooge: the incomparable Michael Caine.  By casting an established, serious, versatile actor in the lead role (instead of one of the muppets), the movie takes on a “seriousness” (kinda) that it couldn’t have gotten if Kermit was in the main role.

Then you get to the supporting cast, and you have to wonder whether the muppets were designed with this classic tale in mine.  Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie as Fozziewig (see what they did there?!?! SEE?!?), Statler and Waldorf as Marley and Marley (HA!) and The Great Gonzo as…get this…Charles Dickens!

This one hits almost every note right, perfectly balancing its tongue-in-cheek humor with a seriousness that only Jim Henson and company could pull off with giant stuffed animals.  Of course I’m biased…the film was released in 1992 and was a childhood favorite of mine.  In fact, it was my favorite adaptation for the longest time, and even now the movie is by far the most joyful Christmas Carol experience I’ve ever had.  And in the end, isn’t joy and good cheer at the center of what Dickens’ original story was all about?

Now let’s take a solid left turn and examine a movie that all but proclaimed itself to be the “difinitive” version of this immortal classic. Which means, of course, that it was made on a huge budget, rendered in CG and starred Jim Carrey as Scrooge.  Yes, boys and girls, I’m talking about the 2009, Robert Zemeckis directed version of this tale.

And talk about overdoing it.  I’m not going to say I hated the movie…it was a fun action-adventure romp…but this is one movie I can point to as a perfect example of what’s wrong with the Hollywood system today.

This story is about a man’s coming to terms with his own life decisions…how they’ve affected him, those around him, and how he will be remembered when he’s gone. It’s an intimate character story where understanding the motivations of each character, especially Scrooge, is paramount. But Robert Zemeckis, having discovered his new motion-capture toy, has decided that it’s more important to give us action set pieces and computer generated gags.  We have Scrooge riding a house with a see-through floor through his past, and there is even a chase scene with a shrunken Scrooge trying to avoid a runaway carriage.  The poster for the movie is Carrey’s Scrooge flying through the air, propelled by the ghost of Christmas future and holding on for dear life, to goodness sake.

All the action would be fine if the story and characters held up.  They don’t. Every performance feels like a shadow of what it could have been, and the CG distracts more than it adds to the emotional resonance of the movie.  There are useless gags regarding Marley’s teeth and ridiculous camera moves swooping through wreathes and over the city–beautiful shots, but had the screen time been devoted to character development, Zemeckis might have been able to make me care about the story.

Instead, this movie, beautiful as it is to look at, serves as a cautionary tale about how too much flash can distract from the themes of hope, love, and forgiveness at the center of the tale.  In many ways, it’s the anti-Christmas Carol.

But have no fear, Carol fans.  There is one movie that towers above them all for embodying the full-on true meaning of this 1843 classic.  Ironically enough, however, it’s set in 1988 New York and stars Bill Murray as the most evil (but somehow still lovable) television executive you’re likely to meet.

To say that Scrooged takes liberties with Dickens’ novella would be a gross understatement.  The ghost of Christmas past is a cigar-smoking taxi driver.  Christmas present is a “ball-busting” fairy of the cheesiest kind. And the fact that there is a “Carol within the Carol” in the form of a Dickens-based holiday special that Murray’s network is presenting live on Christmas Eve adds to the “adaptation vs. spoof” confusion.

But make no mistake about it…this movie is all about getting it right, and it does so with a stronger punch than any other Christmas Carol adaptation I’ve ever seen. Instead of the characters being period archetypes we can’t relate to, they’re real (ish) people we know and love/hate.  Bob Cratchit is the television executive who gets fired for standing up for his beliefs…and later returns, shotgun in tow.  For the first time in history, Scrooge’s love interest is endearing, and, with her job at a local homeless shelter, she’s integral to Scrooge’s  (in this adaptation named Frank Cross) transformation.  And finally Tiny Tim is changed to an impoverished child whose trauma has made him mute.  For the first time, this character’s predicament is truly heart-wrenching…which makes the movie all the more touching at the end.

What really sets this one apart, though, is the attention to story.  It follows the same “three ghosts” formula, but the movie isn’t afraid to take liberties (and screen time) to develop its character relationships and show a real, believable change in its main character. When we reach the Capra-esque ending, unbelievable as it is, we buy it because of the hard, cynical edge present at the beginning of the movie and the comedically hellish journey this character has gone on.  The scary parts are just scarier than other adaptations.  The sad parts are more heart-wrenching.  And, with Bill Murray hamming it up in classic style, this one manages to be by far the funniest adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever put to film.

Plus there’s a Bill Murray-led singalong at the end of the film.  And if that doesn’t embody the true meaning of Christmas, I don’t know what does.

One thing is for sure: Hollywood will keep adapting A Christmas Carol until it’s not popular anymore, and that doesn’t look likely in the foreseeable future.  With all the adaptations–good, bad and mediocre–there’s still a magic that seems to transcend time, culture and even, to some extent, religion.  A Christmas Carol comes alive due to its simplicity and its poignancy, and the message is a universal truth that will always be worth telling.

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