A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean, cantankerous old miser who is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts. They present him with visions of Christmases past, present and future. These visions show him the error of his ways and Scrooge wakes up the next morning, Christmas Day, as a reformed character, full of generosity and the joys of life. Or alternatively, A Christmas Carol is the story of a staid Victorian businessman who has a bad dream one night and the next day goes totally crazy.
Many of the trappings of a modern Christmas originated, or were popularised, in the Victorian era, so it's appropriate that the most enduring Christmas story (other than the one about Jesus) comes from the same period. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a time of great extremes of wealth and poverty in Britain, a result of the Industrial Revolution and the wholesale movement of the population from towns and villages to the big cities. The story was intended to awaken the consciences of the wealthy towards the plight of the poor, as well as to embody a particular vision of Christmas as a time of feasts, family, generosity and reconciliation.
First published in 1843, the book has never been out of print and it's been adapted for film, stage and television repeatedly over the last century. There are dramatic versions, comic versions, cartoons, musicals and even a Muppet version. Here are the best film and TV adaptations of this classic story, hand-picked by experts (well, by me).
12. A Christmas Carol (2009)
Also known by the unfortunate title Disney's A Christmas Carol, this slick animated version was directed by Robert Zemeckis and made with motion capture technology. It stars Jim Carrey, over-stretching himself a little as Ebenezer Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. There's a decent supporting cast, including Colin Firth (as Scrooge's nephew Fred), Gary Oldman (Bob Cratchit) and Bob Hoskins (Fezziwig), but some of the material, including a breakneck chase across Victorian London, has clearly been included to showcase the technology instead of the story.
11. Scrooge (1935)
This 1935 film is the first feature-length sound version of A Christmas Carol. It's an acceptable if occasionally creaky effort, although most of the ghosts are unseen, suggesting a relatively limited budget. The main reason to see this is Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge. Hicks had just been knighted before he made the film, and he knew the Scrooge character well, having played him many times on stage as well as in a short film in 1913.
This musical version is not entirely successful, but it makes a case for itself partly because of its interesting cast. Top billed is Albert Finney, who does a creditable job of playing the old miser Scrooge, despite being a youthful 34 years old at the time. The supporting cast includes Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past and an off-form Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley. A scene where Scrooge descends into hell is too silly and campy to work and is often cut from TV versions. The so-so score includes one memorable song, the Oscar-nominated "Thank You Very Much".
Scrooged is an updated would-be ironic take on the Christmas Carol story, starring Bill Murray as a cynical TV executive presiding over a tasteless TV Christmas special. The Ghost of Christmas Past is represented as a chain-smoking cab driver (David Johansen) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) is a violent Tinkerbell-style fairy. This version provides a few laughs and occasionally hits its marks but is brash and superficial, and Murray's character transformation has to be one of the least convincing in Scrooge history.
8. Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
A simplified, child-friendly version of A Christmas Carol from Disney, this short version runs only 30 minutes and uses familiar Disney characters to tell the story. Scrooge becomes Scrooge McDuck, Mickey Mouse is Bob Cratchit, Goofy takes the Jacob Marley role and the Ghost of Christmas Past is Jiminy Cricket. This film makes for a fair introduction to the story for small children and it marked Mickey Mouse’s return to films after a 30 year absence.
The first American feature film of A Christmas Carol, this MGM version is a typically polished production from the studio's heyday. Lionel Barrymore was originally in line to play Scrooge, but was injured during re-shoots on Saratoga (1937) and replaced by British character actor Reginald Owen. It was one of Owen's best roles and he makes for a decent Scrooge. The supporting cast includes Leo G. Carroll as Jacob Marley and real-life husband and wife actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as Mr & Mrs Cratchit, with their daughter June making her film debut as one of the Cratchit children.
A Blackadder Christmas special, made between series 3 and 4 (Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth), this comedy neatly and wittily flips Dickens's story. In this version Ebenezer Blackadder is "the kindest and loveliest man in all England". But when he's mistakenly visited by the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane) he is accidentally shown the dastardly, but successful schemes of his ancestors … and the dreadful fate of his descendants, if he carries on letting the rest of the world take advantage of him. The supporting cast includes Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, as well as Blackadder regulars Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Miranda Richardson.
5. A Christmas Carol (1999)
This underrated TV film stars Patrick Stewart, who had played Scrooge for several years on stage in a one-man version of A Christmas Carol. There are some minor modernisms and arguable anachronisms, but generally this is a sober and serious version of the story with Stewart impressive and convincing in his interpretation of Scrooge as an austere Victorian businessman. Richard E. Grant and Saskia Reeves play the Cratchits and the supporting cast includes Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
This half hour animated version was originally made for television, but also received a theatrical release in some countries. It was highly regarded at the time, winning the Academy Award for best animated short film, but is now semi-forgotten. The film was made by the animator Richard Williams, who is probably best known now for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for which he won another Academy Award. Williams enlisted Alastair Sim to provide the voice of Scrooge and Michael Hordern the voice of Jacob Marley, both reprising their roles from the 1951 film Scrooge. Joining the impressive voice cast is Michael Redgrave as the narrator. Although it's necessarily truncated, this film includes moments from the book that are sometimes missing in other versions, and is well crafted and atmospheric.
Probably the most popular made-for-television version, this TV film stars George C. Scott as Scrooge, and was directed by Clive Donner, who had been the editor of the 1951 film Scrooge. Scott is assisted by a strong British supporting cast including Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Frank Finlay as Marley and David Warner and Susannah York as the Cratchits. Scott is on fine form and this is surely the best performance by an American actor as Scrooge. This version was also given a cinema release in some countries.
Michael Caine plays it totally straight as Ebenezer Scrooge – even though his co-stars are puppet frogs, pigs and bears. This Muppet version has Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, Miss Piggy as Mrs Cratchit and Fozzy Bear as “Fozziewig”, as well as Gonzo as Charles Dickens (sort of). The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of the most family-friendly versions and is an amusing and unexpected delight. It's arguably the best realised of all the Muppet films, and includes decent songs by Paul Williams.
For a story with so many film and TV adaptations it seems strange to say that any version can be definitive, and yet here it is, by general consent the definitive screen version of A Christmas Carol. Like several other British film versions, this one is titled Scrooge, but it was also released in the US under Dickens's title, A Christmas Carol. The incomparable Alastair Sim is superb as Ebenezer Scrooge, perfectly capturing the character's darkness as well as his joyful redemption. Scrooge remains one of his best known roles, and he's ably supported by Michael Hordern as Marley's ghost and George Cole as the young Scrooge. There's something about black and white that really helps to get the right feeling for this story and this version has bags of character and atmosphere.
Honourable mentions go to the Christmas specials Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol and Carry On Christmas. In the latter, Sid James's Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by a scantily-clad Barbara Windsor, which seems a lot more agreeable than Scrooge's usual fate.
What's your favourite version of A Christmas Carol? And have I missed one that you think deserves to be on this list?