Old Movies: the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol (and the characters within them)

The Muppet Christmas Carol
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We take a look at the many cinematic adaptations of A Christmas Carol and ask: who played which role the best?


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“Marley was dead to begin with”.

With this immortal opening line, Charles Dickens changed the shape of Christmas for centuries.

Most years, we get a brand-new adaptation of this most famous story – A Christmas Carol. The novella, written by Charles Dickens in 1843, revolves around a miserable, stingy miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who deplores all things Christmas. Only on Christmas Eve, he is visited by several ghosts who show Ebenezer the error of his ways as well as the joys of the festive period. There are several billionaires at the moment who could use similar treatment.

The story has been turned into a film multiple times. From 1901 to 2022, there have seemingly been as many depictions of the story as there have been Ghosts of Christmas Present. To celebrate all things Christmassy, I’m diving into the world of Dickens and chatting about all things Scrooge. Here then are my cinematic Scrooge awards…

Special Mentions: Though it isn’t a retelling of A Christmas Carol, it is a telling about the man who created it. The delightful Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens, aka The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017). With Christopher Plummer playing the paltry Ebenezer Scrooge that plagues Dickens until he has written the tale, Bharat Nalluri’s absolutely charming and inoffensive piece truly captures the epic highs and lows of being a writer.

Plus, there’s the delightful Dickens mash-up BBC TV series Dickensian, and in 1954 anthology TV series Shower Of Stars covered A Christmas Carol with one Fredric March as our Ebenezer Scrooge! But that’s the last you’ll hear me talk about it as I’m choosing to focus on movie adaptations (and also, sigh, it’s not very good).

Best ShortScrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost (1901)

Dickens’ story itself is quite short and is really only a novella. So many filmmakers have tried to sluice it down into a compact story including one Mickey Mouse in 1983.

The first surviving cinematic adaptation might pale in comparison to more modern versions, but it’s no less breathtaking. Produced by R W Paul, the grandfather of cinema and a master of trick cinematography, this truly Victorian outing is a marvelous piece of historic technical wizardry, even if Marley is presented as a man merely wearing a sheet.

Best Music – Scrooge (1970)

There have been several musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, including a 2001 version which features a famed festive ditty sung by none other than Kate Winslet, Sean Anders’ modern retelling Spirited, and Netflix’s latest outing.

Well, truthfully, Netflix’s 2022 animation is actually itself an adaptation of another adaptation – 1970’s Scrooge. Directed by Ronald Neame, the film sees Albert Finney in the role of Ebenezer, alongside Alec Guinness and Edith Evans. The music is bloody brilliant – composed by the late, great talent Leslie Bricusse. From the grumpy song, I Hate People to the big crowd number Thank You Very Much, Scrooge is a wondrous and joyous affair.

That being said, Netflix’s Scrooge: A Christmas Carol does have two new numbers – the villainous Tell Me and a powerful ballad Later Never Comes which I have yet to stop listening to.

Best Fred – Barry MacKay, A Christmas Carol (1938)

Fred, or Harry in some adaptations, is Scrooge’s largely jolly nephew who badgers his uncle into curtailing to the cheers of Christmas, only to be shooed away by Scrooge quite aggressively – who knew Good Afternoon could be so insulting? Later, Fred rouses his cohorts into mocking Scrooge who, unbeknownst to Fred, is watching him in as a ghostly form.

Fred has been played by a lot of people including Colin Firth, Brian Worth and Steven Mackintosh. My favourite, however, is 1938’s version. Barry MacKay is delightful to watch as Fred, who opens the film in a charming ice-sliding scene and later has a merry moment with his betrothed, Bess. Serving as a somewhat heel to the parsimonious Scrooge, MacKay is great as the dashing Fred.

A Christmas Carol (2009)

A Christmas Carol (2009)

Best Fezziwig – Bob Hoskins, A Christmas Carol (2009)

Mr Nigel Fezziwig is the ultimate antitheses to Scrooge. Shown in flashbacks, Scrooge was an apprentice under Fezziwig but, alas, does not learn much from the latter’s kindly attitude. The businessman believes in charging his workers with generosity and affection, often throwing a huge party for his employees, and paying them extremely well.

There have been many portrayals of Fezziwig including Mr Toad and Fozzie Bear (the pun is right there, after all,) but I thought I’d leave this entry as an ode to one of our greatest actors – the late great Bob Hoskins. Though his scene in the Robert Zemeckis motion capture movie is small, it is still highly memorable, capturing the essence of Fezziwig greatly.

Best Belle Jessie Buckley, Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022)

When Belle is gone, so is the core of the story. Scrooge (1951), while one of the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol, fumbles by not including Belle in any of the flashbacks. The lost love of Scrooge is not the only driving force of his callous manner, but it is a turning point. The moment Belle recognises the cold heart that her fiancé possesses and decides to leave, is perhaps the moment Scrooge locks himself away from society for good. In fact, it’s such a traumatic experience that Scrooge can no longer bear to watch it.

Theatre legend Meredith Braun and Academy-award winner Kate Winslet have both played the character. There is no way, however, that Jessie Buckley doesn’t top the list of on-screen portrayals of Belle – though she is named as Isabel here. Her role here is substantially bigger than a lot of other films – giving her two songs to sing with Scrooge. One is the brilliant Happiness (also from the 1970s film) whilst the other is new song Later Never Comes – a heart-wrenching plea to Scrooge, played here by Luke Evans, to join her and be free from his greed. Sadly, to no avail. Any film that has Buckley singing in is an absolute triumph.

Best Ghost of Christmas Past Marie Ney, Scrooge (1935)

There has never been a version of this spirit which has not been somewhat horrifying and uncanny. The worst culprit of this is Jim Carrey as an Irish flame in Robert Zemeckis’ 2009 outing, followed closely by The Muppet’s childish horror show. The original story described the spirit being young and old all at once whilst simultaneously imitating a candle – incandescent with a flame cap as a hat.

Whilst I could’ve picked the most wonderful Olivia Colman or the great Sunita Mani from this year’s adaptations, I wanted to take this time to mention Marie Ney in the 1935 British version.

This is the first ever surviving sound picture and borrows a lot from German Expressionism. That is most true with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Though Ney provides the voice and figure, the ghost is presented as a shocking lightning outline, which is a remarkable presence in this humble yet great adaptation.

Bill Murray and Carol Kane in Scrooged

Scrooged (1988)

Best Ghost of Christmas Present – Carol Kane, Scrooged (1988)

The Ghost of Christmas Present is often shown as a Father Christmas-type character. A big jolly man – bearded or not – sits in the middle of the most Yuletide scene you’ve ever seen. Colourful, bright and chock-full of presents, he is a jovial man who encompasses the true Christmas spirit – the love of your fellow man and spreading kindness across the country.

Richard Donner’s Scrooged goes left-field, however. Think Glinda the Good Witch mashed-up with an MMA wrestler. Played by the iconic Carol Kane, the Ghost of Christmas Present is a ball-buster against Bill Murray’s sardonic TV executive Frank Cross. With a bubbly, squeaky voice, and a mean right-hook, Kane dominates in this effervescent depiction.

Best Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – Tracy Morgan, Spirited (2022)

It’s not that hard to portray the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, mostly because it’s a silent role. A horrifying part of the tale sees this apparition take on the guise of the grim reaper, taking Scrooge through his seemingly doomed future.

Few films have wavered from this – with non-credited actors hiding behind an incredible shroud, made by brilliant costume designers, or puppeteers. Few have actual faces, including Geraldine Chaplin in the 2004 TV film with Kelsey Grammar.

One such depiction talks, and if you were going to have the Grim Reaper talk, then why not 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan? See, that’s why it’s brilliant.

Best Jacob Marley – Nicolas Cage, Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)

Alongside the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the appearance of Jacob Marley’s ghost is another scary moment in Dickens’ tale. The dead business partner appears to shock Scrooge into change. Covered head to toe in chains, the once-equally embittered Marley tells his old friend to turn his back on his miserly ways, lest he suffer the same damned fate.

There have been just as many famous people in the role of Jacob Marley as there have been in the role of Scrooge. Alec Guinness spooked in the 1970s musical, Ed Asner voiced him in the 1997 animated version, Jason Alexander grappled him in the 2004 television musical, and velvet-voiced Patrick Page wore the chains in Spirited.

Nicolas Cage has my vote here. He has a haunting turn in this otherwise terrible animated version of the film. The ghostly apparition in this crude animation is genuinely terrifying. Add Cage’s unique vocal prowess and you’ve got a spooky winner.

Mickey's Christmas Carol

Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Best Cratchit and Tiny Tim – Mickey Mouse, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Yes, I am combining these two characters together in one entry. They have to belong together. Father and son in one entry – one drives the other and vice versa. Bob Cratchit is Scrooge’s long-suffering bank clerk who, despite his meagre means, makes the best of what he has. Choosing to treat his family with warmth means that whatever morsel they have becomes a great feast, and their humble home turns into the greatest manor house.

To encapsulate Bob’s spirit, there is the sickly Tiny Tim who is a year away from copping it. Despite his illness and impending death, Tiny Tim is still hopeful and takes the meaning of the holiday season to a whole new level.

Johnny Flynn, Michael York, Gary Oldman, and Alfre Woodard have all tackled the role of Bob. A favourite is most certainly Kermit the Frog and the little Robin, especially as the latter sings Bless Us All so adorably that your heart will swell three sizes. However, I have a great fondness for Mickey’s Christmas Carol – the iconic Mickey Mouse as Bob and his sons Morty/Ferdie play these parts extremely well.

Don’t worry folks, Tiny Tim does not die…

Best Scrooge – Alistair Sim, Scrooge (1951)

There goes Mr Humbug, there goes Mr Grim!

Let’s take a look at the main man himself – Ebenezer Scrooge. The debt collector with a grudge against the holiday. A frugal fellow who is the fiendish foe to the follies of the festivities. Scrooge makes everyone around him miserable, and more than that, make himself miserable. He runs his little hamlet of London with an iron fist, making sure everyone who owes him money feels his wrath. Truly irredeemable, right? Wrong, because three to four ghosts have something to say to turn this whole tale around.

Scrooge’s turgid temperament ages him and makes him a horrid hag of the city. An actor must not only encapsulate this but must also allow him to change gradually over the course of the movie to a more repentant and merrier man. Scrooge has to embody the reformed sinner – the rich dastardly man who wants to right his wrongs. The message that no one is beyond salvation rings loud and clear and that resides on the shoulders of the actor immortalising Scrooge.

The list of Ebenezer Scrooge portrayals is very, very long. John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Orson Welles, Claude Rains, Fredric March, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, Seymour Hicks, Kelsey Grammar and many, many more have all embodied Scrooge in one way or another.

For me, Alastair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the 1951 film. At the beginning, Scrooge is truly an ugly, mean man and Sim is calculated and cruel in every single way. Yet Sim delicately unravels Scrooge across the film, even showing the glints of a kind soul behind those menacing eyes at the beginning. Eventually, Sim delights in all the revelries of Christmas and embracing all the love that he has in his life. The gradual turn makes for a beloved rogue that you want to embrace – Sim is simply glorious.

In fact, Alastair Sim was so good in the role that he performed it twice playing the character again in the 1971 Academy Award-winning short film.

Best Film Overall – The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

You may have spent this whole time wondering why The Muppet Christmas Carol hasn’t appeared so much on this list. Instead of questioning my tactics, you have to somewhat admire the restraint I have. Truthfully, I could’ve picked The Muppets for any one of these categories and I could well have been right. The Muppets tackling Dickens’ story is pretty much flawless.

There are so many words one could say about this adaptation. Brian Henson’s directorial debut, and the first film to be released following Jim Henson’s death, is magnificent. It captures both the downtrodden smog of London streets and colourful antics of Christmas (and, thusly, the puppets) to leave an endearing and everlasting impression. Narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo, with Kermit as the long-suffering bank clerk Bob Cratchit, the Muppets bring so much heart to this retelling that it is impossible not to love.

The film’s crown jewel is lead actor Michael Caine. The fact that Caine plays the role of Scrooge as straight as he would a National Theatre performance – as though his supporting cast weren’t made of felt – gives the film its gravitas and the emotional core needed. Caine allows Scrooge to change, turning him from the misery he is into someone with utmost childlike wonder. Who doesn’t shed a tear when Beaker gifts him a small red scarf at the end of the film? It’s such a perfect portrayal of the role and one of Caine’s best performances!

The Muppet Christmas Carol is just an excellent adaptation and celebrates thirty years this year, with its lost song When Love Is Gone finally at home where it belongs.

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