(On Cable TV, December 2018) Christmas day is a good day to watch as many versions of A Christmas Carol as you can tolerate, and my second go-around is the 1938 version of the story. One might think that the film may not compare to more recent adaptations of the same Dickens story, but as it turns out A Christmas Carol has one major advantage up its sleeves in terms of timelessness: it was already old and historical by the time it was filmed, and so doesn’t suffer as much from decades gone by. This 1938 version has dated but fascinating optical effects, Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, and a no-fuss no-muss approach to a straight-up adaptation with a few frills as possible. Compared to other versions of the story, this one clocks in at a very efficient 69 minutes. Hurriedly made by MGM in mere weeks as a family film, it’s considerably lighter on the potential darkness of the original tale. And that’s why we can enjoy multiple takes on the same material.
(On TV, December 2018) OK, Christmas Day: I’ve spent time with my family, unwrapped the gifts, ate too much, said my greetings—NOW HIT ME WITH THE MOVIES. Let’s get started with the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. This one goes through the usual motions of the usual story, although with a few additions, most notably in detailing Scrooge’s business years and so the process that transformed him from an ordinary young man to an elderly misanthrope. Alastair Sim here plays Scrooge, and the performance is as good as it needs to be in the role. What may be surprising to modern audiences is that this version pulls few punches in being dark and horrifying—the ending redeems it all, but the way there can be dispiriting and grim. Scrooge does amount to a decent take on the material, but there’s no time to say more because I’ve got other Christmas movies to go through today before December 26 rolls around and they all become as stale as last night’s milk-and-cookies.
(On TV, December 2018) I’m as surprised as you are to find out that, somehow, I missed out on a big-budget CGI movie for almost a decade. Of course, A Christmas Carol has two disadvantages—it falls squarely in the Christmas Movie Ghetto of films that are only shown 25 days of the year then fall out of mind for eleven months, and it also shares a title and plot with roughly ten other movies all adapting Dicken’s classic. This being said, there isn’t another A Christmas Carol like this one, and there probably will never be—this is the CGI version of the story, using circa-2009 CGI which was fine for inanimate objects and ghosts but not so much human characters. The camera makes showy moves through Dickensian London, but the attempt to recreate human actors falls squarely into the uncanny valley. There’s a difference between attempting stylized human characters (something that most animated movies do) and actually trying to recreate human actors and A Christmas Carol sadly goes for the latter. Script-wise, this take on the story is significantly darker than you’d expect from previous versions, with several sequences designed to scare audiences. The inclusion of action sequences (most notably a chase sequence featuring flying sleds throughout the city) also seems gratuitous and made to push the 3D craze of the time. Director Robert Zemeckis capped his trilogy of ill-conceived 3D-CGI features with this one (after The Polar Express and Beowulf) and it’s a good thing he then went on to do other kinds of movies. Nearly a decade later, there haven’t been any attempts to go beyond this highly detailed CGI-fest, but we can already suspect that it’s not going to age nearly as well as versions made decades before. (For the record, my best current take on Dickens’s story is the 1999 BBC version starring Patrick Stewart.)
(In French, On Cable TV, December 2018) I’ve been sampling and watching A Christmas Carol adaptations all December long, and I think that this 1999 BBC production is my favourite straightforward version of the Dickens story. (My favourite of them all is 1988’s Scrooged, but I’m counting it as a comic variant, not the foundational material.) It certainly helps to have Patrick Stewart as Scrooge—the production is meaningless if you don’t have a strong actor in the lead role, and Stewart can play cranky or beatific better than anyone else, with the gravitas required to pull it off. It also helps that 1999-era special effects were iffy but just good enough to pull the ghostly segments of the story, and that there had been enough productions prior to this one to identify the best elements to highlight. Production values are high (especially for a late-1990s TV movie) and the film does not overstay its welcome. In the end, 1999’s A Christmas Carol is a familiar story well told without the excesses of later version (that 2009 CGI one, ugh) or the shortcomings of the many earlier takes.