From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Christmas Carol Redux

There are many, many adaptations of the original story. A Christmas Carol (1938) and Scrooge (1951) are probably the most popular. It may not be a coincidence that both watered down the original story, leaving out the creepier supernatural aspects. Marley’s visit, for example, is less scary in the 1938 version, leaving out the ghosts moaning outside the window. This version was the most popular until television reshowings of Scrooge from 1970 onward made it more popular.

Considerably darker is a television version with George C. Scott from 1978. Scott, most famous for playing Patton, is appropriately gruff and hostile as Scrooge while Edward Woodward plays a creepy Ghost of Christmas Present. This one is quite dark compared to the 1938 and 1951 versions, but has attracted a following due to its faithfulness to the story, particularly the supernatural darkness of it. The spirits who visit Scrooge are ghosts, after all, and not very friendly ones. It’s also my favorite of the traditional adaptations.

One of the most intriguing adaptations was the stage version of the story with Patrick Stewart in 1991. In this one-man show, Stewart played every character–male, female, young to old, large and small. This gave him ample opportunity to stretch his acting skills. Eventually, Stewart also played A Christmas Carol on television in 1999, though this time, he played only Scrooge.

The parodies and modernizations usually work better for me that the traditional versions. This may be because the parodies reflect Dickens’ sometimes whimsical humor and the modernizations highlight the social commentary. They are also more likely to be supernatural in approach.

My main problem with faithful adaptations is that the humor in the novella doesn’t always translate well without coming across as twee or forced. Some characters, like Tiny Tim, never seem to work on screen. Too often, Tiny Tim comes across like Timmie in the “Lassie” movies in his wide-eyed cheer. One is tempted to tell Lassie to leave him in the mine shaft next time.

Also, not that many readers or viewers of the story know or care how things were back in Victorian England, so updating the situations often brings the social criticism into higher relief. Humorous adaptations include films like The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Scrooged (1988), the latter being my favorite of all of the adaptations. The Muppet Christmas Carol is Muppet mayhem business as usual. Set in Victorian England and including child-friendly songs, it cracks jokes and breaks the fourth barrier on occasion. Kermit the Frog (the John Denver of the Muppet world) is naturally Bob Cratchit. It’s no Muppet Treasure Island, but if the Muppets tickle your funny bone, you’ll enjoy this entry, too. If they irritate you, stay away.

Scrooged is a lot darker and more cynical; it’s also very funny. Actor-comedian Bill Murray was still trapped in his stand-up image when he played nasty ’80s-style TV network president Frank Cross, a man obsessed with producing the biggest and sappiest TV production of A Christmas Carol (called “Scrooge” in the film) ever. Murray makes Cross a parody of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko from Wall Street (1987). But he livens up the story with his own version of Scroogian nastiness as he slowly unravels in the face of the utter chaos of the story. Alfre Woodard plays his straight-woman Cratchit as Frank’s long-suffering personal assistant. But she still gets in some snark of her own.

Probably the best part of the film is Carol Kane as a bubbly, psychotic Ghost of Christmas Present desperately in need of some mood-stabilizers. She beats Frank up, declaring, “The truth hurts, Frank!” And when he threatens to rip her wings off, she warbles, “You know I like the rough stuff, Frank!” Their sadomasochistic relationship, though brief, sums up the blatantly cynical attitude in the television industry twenty years ago. This version remains funny and fresh because really, how much has changed?

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