The ultimate secular festival of Christmas is oddly bereft of truly great popular art. There are only a tiny handful of really good Christmas songs, films and stories, metaphorically dragged out of the loft each December. In part this is because Christmas is a time of nostalgia and traditions, but there is still the question of why some works are folded into the Christmas canon while so many others are not.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the OG of this recyclable Christmas content, a fantastically malleable mould from which hundreds of adaptations are cast. Every year we see it unpicked and restitched into novel forms: this Christmas there is a West End production in which Sherlock Holmes tries to solve the mystery of Scrooge’s murder, which itself recalls the BBC’s Dickensian (2015) in which Inspector Bucket from Bleak House investigates Marley’s death.
To kick off a month of festive programming, we’ve traced the attributes of this most seasonal novella through five adaptations in an attempt to work out why it’s the only secular Christmas story that matters.
The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992): The text
A Christmas Carol is a fable about what happens when you ignore our common humanity (as Marley says despairingly, ‘Mankind was my business!’); The Muppets embrace humanity in all its forms. Scrooge is an emblem of self-interest and spite; the message of The Muppets is to look after each other and stop being dicks. Scrooge is in need of redemption; The Muppets know that everyone is fallible. Whoever first spotted the synergy between these two was a flipping genius.
The important thing about this version is how seriously it takes the original story. Although it's heavily abridged, and despite the irruptions from Gonzo and Rizzo, in many parts it sticks closely to Dickens’ text. A Christmas Carol (the book) has an air of sparseness, an emotional astringency that is sustained until the very end, particularly in how it hints at loss and isolation slowly pulling a character out of shape. (Michael Caine, playing with a very straight bat, pulls this off in a wonderfully understated way.) Until Scrooge’s final awakening on Christmas morning the book is almost unrelentingly bleak. This asperity, and the energetic moral muscularity that Dickens drew from the Victorian anti-poverty movement, means it stands apart from most Christmas content, delivering a punch that is fundamentally unachievable in mild-peril stories about flying reindeer.
In paying full respect to the sinewy sadness of the source material, the Henson Studio earns itself space to muck about at the margins. (The film itself acknowledges this when it has Rizzo and Gonzo scarpering before the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears, so that the solemn penultimate sequence is not hindered by Muppets.) The giddily comic moments - the carolling sprouts, Mr Fozziwig’s Rubber Chicken Factory and the multiple Cratchit pig-girls - would be far less effective if the story was a full-blooded caper. As it is, they complement rather than detract.
Scrooge (1951): The character
This 1951 version, shot on a fastidiously grimy Victorian street set, is scrupulously period and features the cream of 1950s character actors, most notably Alistair Sim. In the States this movie was retitled A Christmas Carol, which was mistaken: this adaptation - even more than most - is all about Scrooge.
It can be difficult to focus carefully on the unusual richness of Dickens’ Scrooge; with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula he forms a hallowed group of Victorian characters who have escaped their source material, and become so familiar that they are reduced to caricatures. But a full-blooded Scrooge is an actor’s dream, grotesque villain and moving hero all in one, with all the snarling, weeping and up-kicking of legs you could wish for. Sim uses his doleful face, sonorous voice and incongruous hilarity to great effect; he is ridiculous, over-the-top and perfectly Dickensian. If Caine is restrained playing Scrooge, Alistair Sim goes all in. With vim.
One of the great psychological twists in the original is that Scrooge is badly hurt when he realises how other people see him: how the Cratchit family complain about having to toast him at Christmas dinner, how nephew Fred and his friends laugh at and pity him, how the men he works with at the Exchange chortle about his lonely death. We realise that some part of him has longed for human connection all along. His redemption comes in his reattachment, his recovery of his awareness that mankind is, indeed, his business.
Scrooge adds new passages to illuminate how a cheerful and socially engaged young man became a bitter old loner. We get two Scrooges (with George Cole - who was something of a protege and ersatz son to Sim - playing the young Ebenezer) and a script that carefully builds out the back story. It imagines the circumstances of Scrooge’s estrangement from his father, shown here as a fundamental wound. It has his beloved sister dying while giving birth to his nephew, seeding Scrooge’s resentment of the latter.
It also shows how Scrooge’s sense that the world is full of threat and danger develops in tandem with his increasingly bitter commitment to commerce. Jack ‘evening all’ Warner plays an underhand businessman who corrupts both Scrooge and Marley, cementing their youthful cynicism into full-bore capitalist hard-heartedness. (As such it feels of a piece with films like the Boulting Brothers’ 1959 workplace comedy I’m Alright Jack, deeply ambivalent about this new post-Imperial, post-War Britain of technology and consumerism.) This theme - the distorting and cruel effects of capitalism - is inherent in the text; Karl Marx, who walked the same London streets as Dickens, thought him the best living advocate for communism.
Scrooged (1988): The Ghosts
Scrooged is so ‘80s that you suspect the snow used throughout is just pure cocaine. It would certainly explain Bill Murray’s shrieking, manic persona. It’s like he saw Sim’s performance and took it as a challenge.
Someone certainly saw 1951’s Scrooge because it’s playing in the background in Cratchit-analogue Alfre Woodard’s house, and its message has been absorbed too. Scrooged is a full throated attack on ‘80s commercialisation. This is obvious right from the start - we’re shown a trailer from a thick-headed action movie called The Day the Reindeer Died, featuring Lee Majors saving Santa from terrorists - and is built into every moment of the film. When Marley’s Ghost appears, he does so not by knocking on the door but by blowing it up.
Part of the novella’s success is that it’s a ghost story. When it was newly published the Ghosts of A Christmas Carol were read as genuinely eerie; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is described as a hooded phantom, and Marley’s Ghost is a little horror story all by itself (‘He died seven years ago, this very night’). We’re mostly deadened to this now: here comes the one with the chains, here comes the one with the shroud. The Ghosts in Scrooged have become unnerving again, an effect achieved by changing the nature of their horror. These are thoroughly twentieth-century freaks. Instead of a cheerily ominous Father Christmas, the Spirit of Christmas Present - a truly deranged and quite scary performance by Carol Kane - is now a psychotic fairy who beats Murray about the head with a toaster with all the ferocity and implacability of a TV ad.
The film also acknowledges that A Christmas Carol has become part of the problem. (The clue is in the title: the name of the main character is familiar enough to be a verb.) Bill Murray’s Scrooge-alike character, TV producer Frank Cross, is staging a breathtakingly tasteless and pointless adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The ubiquity of the story has become a fault: a sop to tradition, a performance of Christmas, ready for commercial exploitation. Which, paradoxically, proves that its message is as apposite as ever.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988): The structure
Released the same year as Scrooged, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is another example of how the story has become a cultural shorthand. It confidently plays with the structure of the story knowing that we will recognise it. In doing so it demonstrates the mechanical genius of the original; the Curtis/Elton crew run the story backwards, and it still works.
We meet Ebenezer Blackadder in his stunningly unsuccessful moustache shop. He is a soft-hearted easy mark who gives his every possession away to dreadful grasping wankers. The (singular) Ghost, who turns up in the hope of spending time with someone nice, inadvertently prompts him to unmend his ways. The final scenes see him restored to the miserly, scheming Blackadder we know and love.
One reason why this pleasing (and typically British) inversion works is because it acknowledges that the ‘brand personality’ of Christmas really can be exasperatingly smug. It drapes itself over you in a boozy fug of soggy sentimentality and pious goodwill, while kicking you in the shins with a vicious strain of consumerism. It is Frank Cross’s A Christmas Carol from Scrooged: shallow and meaningless advertising.
A weakness in A Christmas Carol - in all Dickens’ works, really - is the bloodless, simpering do-gooders, forever speechifying about how brilliant they are and being performatively sad about everyone else’s faults. Curtis and Elton turn this weakness into a feature. When Blackadder slams the door in the face of lisping carollers he is saying the quiet bit out loud, and it’s something of a relief.
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A Christmas Carol (2009): The setting
Jim Carrey’s animated version has many faults, and quite a few of them are Jim Carrey, who plays Scrooge and all the Ghosts and inflicts on us some of the worst regional accents known to Christendom. Like The Polar Express (another outing by director Robert Zemeckis) the motion-capture characters are given unearthly approximations of the voice actors’ faces, so you get to see queasy versions of Colin Firth and Gary Oldman gurning away with stiff jaws and lifeless eyes, like electrified corpses. The film also suffers from 3D madness, with random objects suddenly becoming very POINTY.
It’s on this list, despite all that, because it is a perfect picture-postcard rendering of Christmas in Victorian London. This is something that only animation could achieve; quite aside from movie cameras not existing in the 1840s, this vision of Victorian Christmas is, of course, an imaginary construction. But if you can get your cold, cynical brain to shush for a bit, you can revel in an immersive fantasy. Mullioned window panes glow, bundled hoop-skirted shoppers sing carols, indoor surfaces are covered with fir garlands and outdoor surfaces are covered with ice. In the glorious sequence under the opening credits we are carried over this imagined City on Christmas Eve, swooping in and out of snowbound landmark buildings as people make their preparations. It is the Christmas scene of all our imaginings, and this is as close as you can get to burrowing inside it.
Dickens could not have intended that his book’s setting would become the pattern for a million pieces of Christmas iconography. Victorian London was just where he lived and worked; he mentioned snow a lot because he was writing at the end of the Little Ice Age and there was a lot of it about. He could not have known that the decades following its publication would see the widespread adoption of Christmas trees, crackers, paper decorations, stockings and Father Christmas - and constant revivals of A Christmas Carol. The book is pretty light on what we now think of as Christmassy things.
But, as shown in the beautifully lightweight The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) - a film about the writing of A Christmas Carol - the power of Dickens’ narrative was such that he not only gave the world one of its great fictional characters, and one its few indelible Christmas stories: he accidentally made one of the templates we have used for seasonal iconography ever since. Nearly 200 years after he sat down to dash off a little book in an attempt to pay some of his debts, Charles Dickens is still writing our Christmas.
This was long, and you’ve read right to the end, so you’re probably some kind of Christmas nut. This being the case, we think you will enjoy Metropolitan editor Tobias Sturt’s Christmas Stories, short novellas that take Christmas as seriously as it deserves, which is both entirely too much, and not at all. Read by Metropolitan contributor Jon Millington (no, we don’t have a wide social circle) they are broken into 24 short podcast episodes, perfect for playing while you open your advent calendar.
If you like A Christmas Carol (and really, if you don’t, how on earth did you end up here?) you could start with The Ghosts of Christmas Presents, in which a grouchy fiftysomething Londoner is cursed by a witch, shrunk to the size of a Lego minifig and has a long Christmas Eve night of the soul. Other previously published stories include a steampunk polar expedition in The Adventure Calendar of Mr Timothy Hope, little girl Lydia’s attempt to create the perfect Christmas in The Apartment Store, the madcap Sherlockian murder mystery of The Deadvent Calendar and a harassed government wizard experiencing An All Too Magical Christmas as ancient magick runs amok in London.
To read or listen to this year’s story day-by-day subscribe to the Christmas Stories Substack (below) or head to Spotify, Apple or Acast and sign up for The Elf Service, in which a cynical journalist tries to uncover why a shady hustler has volunteered to answer children’s letters to Santa.
Ah, thank you so much Rebecca! We had to cut loads out of this one - glad the stuff that survived still makes sense. And it’s very gratifying to have such lovely feedback.
Such a great post! I'm going to hunt down some of these films, and the book is already at the top of my reading list after a prompt from another Substacker just last week!
I just also need to say that this last paragraph of the main piece is written so very beautifully that it's given me goosepimples:
"But, as shown in the beautifully lightweight The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) - a film about the writing of A Christmas Carol - the power of Dickens’ narrative was such that he not only gave the world one of its great fictional characters, and one its few indelible Christmas stories: he accidentally made one of the templates we have used for seasonal iconography ever since. Nearly 200 years after he sat down to dash off a little book in an attempt to pay some of his debts, Charles Dickens is still writing our Christmas."