Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Carol

In film, radio, television, and stage, A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted, interpreted and parodied original stories, with new versions every year. There are at least three different live plays of A Christmas Carol being performed this year in Portland alone (Second City's Twist of Dickens at Portland Center Stage; Portland Playhouse Presents A Christmas Carol; and Sherlock Holmes and The Case Of The Christmas Carol at Artists Repertory Theatre).
While I have certainly done my homework and viewed many forms of A Christmas Carol, there are still many more adaptations, animations, and musicals. Any cartoon you can name from Dora the Explorer to the Flintstones has A Christmas Carol episode or special edition. The versions that exist vary from children's films, modern made-for-tv and traditional vs nontraditional.

The story was originally published in 1843. I read the Puffin Classics 2008 edition of the Dickens' novella. The introduction and additional material on Dickens' preceding and following the original text are simple yet informative. The 2009 performance capture Robert Zemeckis completed for Disney, starring Jim Carrey, is very true to the source material. The Muppets are very true to the novella as well with dialogue and imagery of the three ghosts straight from the book. Mickey's Christmas Carol has held a special place in my heart since my mom recorded it on a VHS tape of Christmas specials for me and my sisters in the 80s. One piece of trivia, the old man in Home Alone is named Marley as a nod to A Christmas Carol. It was Chris Columbus' intention for Home Alone to feel timeless. The greatest bit about the Smurfs is that when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up for Grouchy, the animation goes from the sacrilegious digital animation to the classic cartoon style. George Lopez does great Grouchy voice over work. Hank Azaria makes an excellent Gargamel.
Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009), Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol (2011)
The Hallmark and made for television versions truly need to be considered as their own genre. It would be unfair to compare Tori Spelling and William Shatner in A Carol Christmas to Patrick Stewart's 1999 portrayal of Scrooge. I know there is a devoted audience to the holiday and Hallmark tv movie and I will not speak ill of the demo. These movies often involve a twist to the story, Ebenezer as a woman, or take place in modern times. Carrie Fisher in It's Christmas, Carol! as the Marley character is fairly humorous and she looks great. It's Christmas, Carol! is fairly well done for this genre. Suprisingly, A Carol Christmas is pretty decent too. Karroll's Christmas has the twist that the ghosts show up to the neighbor of the Scrooge character by mistake and then both neighbor and Scrooge characters see their past, present and future Christmases in order to improve their lives. Even the charm of Tom Everett Scott and the quirk of Wallace Shawn do not make this particular version shine. Ebbie is for the diehard Susan Lucci fan, of which I am not. In a similar vein, Vanessa Williams stars in A Diva's Christmas Carol (2000).
Diva's Christmas Carol (2000), Scrooge (1970), A Carol Christmas (2003)
The first film with sound, the 1938 version, opens not with Ebenezer Scrooge's walk to work but with his nephew interacting with Tiny Tim and his brother Peter. This version adds several scenes of the Cratchit family and additional scenes with Scrooge's nephew Fred. It is a very entertaining and pleasing edition. The themes of the original story and much of the dialogue are from the novella. The 1951 British version is considered by many critics, and by Turner Classic Movies, to be the best. It spends more time on Ebenezer's past, with particular attention to the death of Scrooge's sister Fan. The depiction of the poor in the present is also given more time and is true to Dickens' original message. The visual effects are quite impressive in both the 1938 and 1951 versions. The 1999 movie starring Patrick Stewart also includes the more grim images of the poor that are in keeping with the book's themes.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009), A Christmas Carol (1951), A Christmas Carol (1938) A Christmas Carol (1999), Scrooged (1988)
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a typical, silly, romantic comedy, taking place not on Christmas Eve but the night before a wedding. It is included because it is an example of how the story and plot are entrenched in our culture and just how vast the adaptations can be. Scrooged is a known Christmas favorite of many and I think it's telling that it predates Groundhog Day. It establishes Bill Murray as a grump who will find redemption and it a very edition. A Carol for Another Christmas (1964) is a made for television movie in which Daniel Grudge (the Scrooge character) is visited by the familiar ghosts of the classic story. There is an element of science fiction during its apocalyptic portrayal of the future. Until December 2012 when TCM began airing it, the movie was only telecast one time, without commercial interruption, and was presented by the United Nations and sponsored by Xerox. The movie is dark, dated, and heavy handed with its messages about war and the disenfranchised. It exemplifies some of the unique interpretations of the source material and is a very solitary picture in film history.
The element in all of the traditional adaptations that shares a universality is the imagery of the ghosts. Brief but memorable, the bandaged face of Jacob Marley on the door knocker (whether it be Goofy as Marley in Mickey's or the face on the knocker using who-knows-what prehistoric special effects in 1938 and 1951) is consistent. The most variations in interpretations are in the look of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Dickens describes the Ghost of Christmas Past as child like and at the same time like an old man. Perhaps it is this juxtaposition that creates the most room for interpretation. Joel Grey's embodiment of the Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1999 version is the one that most captures the description in the book. The ethereal qualities displayed in Disney's and the Muppets are also very captivating. The Ghost of Christmas Present always appears as a feasting giant of a man, resembling Father Christmas and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is equally persistent as a dark, hooded, faceless spirit. 
The story gave us the phrases 'Scrooge' and 'Bah Humbug' and even popularized the use of 'Merry Christmas.' Originally criticizing 19th Century industrial capitalism and offering a return to traditional English celebrations of Christmas, A Christmas Carol remains a popular story of goodwill just as it was upon its first publication. The theme of generosity of spirit is a lasting message of the true Christmas Spirit.

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