Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been adapted many more times than any of his other work, and more times than most other novels too for that matter. Though a few are unbearably crap (yes Jim Carrey, I am looking at you there) and some needlessly grim dark (like the recent BBC adaptation with Guy Pearce and Andy Serkis) the source material is so strong that there’s normally something to like about all of the versions.
Now a proper reviewer would have watched them all to then come to a conclusion as to which is the very best, but a) I’ve never claimed to be such a thing and b) I’m not getting paid for this so fuck you, but I did a brief bit of research and found that Scrooge (1970, starring Albert Finney), The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1991, with Michael Caine), and Scrooged (1988 with Bill Murray) are considered the three best versions so those are the ones I watched, along with bits of the Alistair Sim’s 1951 adaptation which comes a close fourth but doesn’t quite make the list as bar his stunning performance it’s not quite as enjoyable as the other three are.
So which is best? Well, it’s not Albert Finney’s version of Scrooge (1970) which just takes third place, though there is a lot to like about it. Finney plays Scrooge as a crotchety, stroppy old miser with aplomb which is impressive indeed as he was in his thirties at the time and while the songs aren’t anything that astonishing they’re pretty fun most of the time (with the number where Scrooge’s clients celebrate his death being by far the best), the ghosts are pleasingly snarky to Ebnezer, with the Ghost Of Christmas Past especially nicely snooty, and rest of the supporting cast are all really strong as well.
The only real downside is the portrayal of a young Scrooge’s romance which goes terribly wrong, the scenes are fairly bland and bordering on melodramatic, and though Finney is okay as the young Scrooge he’s not even close to being a captivating figure in the way the older version is and so it drags the film down for about fifteen minutes until we skip forward to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Also, as much fun as the final scenes are Finney is a little too manic at the end, and comes across as a little weird at times, though it’s a minor issue as these final moments are mostly filled with joy with the toy shop scene being a particular highlight.
Scrooged (1988) is the second best version, with Bill Murray at his most bastardish as tv mogul Frank Cross, who is haunted by his old boss and then three ghosts. A satire on the tv industry out of all the three films it plays fastest and loosest with the story, with all of the characters renamed and the story stretched over three days rather than three hours, but that’s no bad thing given how many bland faithful versions have already been created, and just how funny this is. It’s also the darkest and most brutal of the three by far, as the Jacob Marley substitute throws him out of his apartment and it looks like he’s about to die, Murray plans to staple antlers to a mouse at one point and later screams abuse at a homeless guy who freezes to death. That last one is out of guilt, admittedly, but it doesn’t prevent it from being a bleak and twisted moment, yet these elements make it unique, and the final scenes when Frank becomes good are all the more effective because of them.
A couple of bits prevent it from taking the top spot however, as with the Albert Finney version the parts with the failed romance drag a bit (despite Karen Allen being superb elsewhere), and the scenes with Carol Kane’s Ghost Of Christmas Present are a bit too sentimental, when she beats the shit out of Frank it’s funny but it’s the only amusing moment which is something of a shame. The rest is great though, Alfre Woodward’s Grace (the film’s Bob Cratchett who comes complete with an ill son) is superb, the Ghosts are all suitable menacing, Bobcat Goldthwaite’s psychotic fired employee adds to the messed up twistedness of it all rather beautifully, and the film’s packed with a lot of great one liners too.
To The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1991) then, an acclaimed and greatly loved film, but does it deserve to be? In short, yes, fucking yes. With some absolutely amazing and almost painfully catchy songs by Paul Williams (Bugsy Malone, The Phantom Of The Paradise) that are deservedly Christmas classics and work on their own away from the film too, it’s a shockingly cute and extraordinarily sweet natured film, and by far the funniest of tje three. The various muppets have a selection of fantastic cameos, Kermit’s relationship with Tiny Tim is beyond affecting (and his death utterly heartbreaking), Miss Piggy is actually likeable instead of slightly annoying, and best of all is that it has the greatest Scrooge too.
Yup, in a film filled with muppets and very few other human actors Michael Caine is quite simply breathtakingly wonderful. It’s a layered, thoughtful performance where unlike the other two Scrooges discussed here he actually underplays his cruelty at times, and only occasionally shouts and screams, which makes it all the more effective when he does lose it. The way he takes pleasure from evictions and other’s misery makes him the most despicable of the three too, the bit with his failed romance is incredibly affecting (the cut with the song When Love Is Gone in it, at least, which for me is the definite version) and when he transforms in to a kindly old soul he’s beyond lovable, and could fill even the coldest of hearts with Christmas joy.
Not only the best version of A Christmas Carol but also the best Muppets movie, and amazingly one without a great deal of involvement from Jim Henson as he had sadly passed away a year prior to it’s release, it works not just because it’s incredibly funny, has amazing songs and is packed with glorious performances, but because it captures the real joy of Christmas, or at least what Christmas can be for some. And if you want to feel what that’s like, then out of all the films based on Charles Dickens tale this is the one that you absolutely have to see.
Scrooge – ★★★1/2
Scrooged – ★★★★
The Muppets Christmas Carol ★★★★★