Tuesday, December 24, 2013

MINI-LIST: The Best Adaptations of "A Christmas Carol"

The holidays are all up in your grill and so it's time to whip out another Christmas themed list. This year let's talk about A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens' story of redemption and enlightening holiday ghosts. It's a story you know like the back of your hand, it's been adapted hundreds of times, and it just wouldn't feel like a proper Christmas without enjoying this classic. So here are the most entertaining ones you should see.

5) A Christmas Carol (2009)

Who's the Scrooge this time? It's ol' rubberface himself, Jim Carrey. He even provides the performances for the three spirits who visit Ebenezer in the night. Talk about saving time on casting roles.
Doesn't this seem a lot like The Polar Express? Yes, it's another 3D motion capture Christmas themed movie directed by Robert Zemeckis where the main actor plays multiple roles.
And you enjoyed that? Yes, actually. Despite the generally unappealing 3D and CG motion capture filmmaking choices, this movie turned out to be quite good and was an entertaining theatre experience. It actually managed to feel new.
What's so special about this adaptation? It's one of the most thorough adaptations of the novel I can think of, and it didn't shy away from dark and grotesque elements in the story. It has scenes that would terrify young children. Corpses, creepy spirits, haunting visions of death and decay. Actually in 3D, it kind of freaked me out.
So does this mean you want Zemeckis to make more movies like this? Oh God, no. I really hope his mo-cap days are behind him because animation really needs to be left to the animators.

4) Scrooge (1951)

Who's the Scrooge this time? It's Alastair Sim, who I imagine didn't need a lot of work to look the part for this movie.
Who? Even though he was in dozens of films, you're not likely to know him from anything besides this movie. It was his biggest lead role, which he even revisited in 1971 to provide the voice of Ebenezer in an animated version.
What's so special about this adaptation? Being one of the earliest and best of the film adaptations, this version has been around long enough that everyone knows it. It's one of the versions that always seems to be on TV this time of year (In fact, as I write this on Christmas Eve, it has appeared on television twice already). It's a straightforward telling of the tale with no gimmicks, great performances all around, and continues to stand the test of time.
What if I can't handle watching movies in black and white? First of all, grow up. Second, there's a colourized version that looks pretty good.
Do you have a favourite scene? Yep, it's when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning filled with the spirit of love and generosity, accosts his housekeeper on the stairs, all the while giggling and barely able to contain his excitement. Nothing spikes the adrenaline like a visit from the dead, and Alastair truly plays the part like a raving lunatic of joy. Then when he shows up at his nephew's home asking for forgiveness, you can't help but smile to see him welcomed with open arms and begin dancing with them.

3) Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Who's the Scrooge this time? You're not going to believe it, but they used Scrooge to play Scrooge. I'm sure it was a tough decision with all the characters in the Disney pantheon to choose from, but after countless meetings and arguments they went with the most daring choice.
Wait ... wasn't the character "Scrooge McDuck" created for this adaptation? No, he was actually created way back in the 1940's for a comic book. So, like some snake devouring it's own tail, you have a fictional character being used to depict the fictional character that they were inspired by and named after. That would be like doing an animated version of Bram Stoker's Dracula for television and then using Count Chocula to be Dracula. It's fucking weird when you think about it.
What's so special about this adaptation? Well, it packs the entire story into a mere 26 minutes of animated excellence.
Only 26 minutes?! I know it felt longer as a kid, but that's the illusion of commercials for you. And yet it tells the story completely, with every important scene and character. Not a wasted frame.
Any favourite ghost? It's gotta be Goofy as Jacob Marley. I'm pretty sure Dickens intended for the tortured spirit that first confronts Ebenezer Scrooge to perform a little slapstick.

2) Scrooged (1988)

Who's the Scrooge this time? The always delightful Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a selfish asshole and TV executive who hates Christmas, and everything else. Guess what happens.
Wait, so there's no Ebenezer? Nope. But Frank's journey is essentially the same and happens parallel to a classic production of A Christmas Carol that Frank's station is airing live on Christmas Eve.
What's so special about this adaptation? This is easily the most fantastic modern take on the Dickens' story. Taking place in 80's New York, all the components of the original are there but as wildly different forms. Instead of Bob Cratchit, you have Bobcat Goldthwait with a shotgun. Instead of the apparition of Jacob Marley, you have a rotting corpse hanging Frank out a skyscraper window. Instead of a grim reaper, you have a cloaked monster with a television for a face.
Which ghost was your favourite? Definitely the ghost of Christmas Present played by Carol Kane. She is such a cheery, abusive psycho. First thing she does upon meeting Frank is hover across the room and kick him in the nuts. He threatens to rip her goddamn wings off. And the scene where she uppercuts him in the face with a toaster? Priceless.
So does Frank learn the error of his ways, and welcome the generous spirit of Christmas into his heart? Of course! While always an entertaining journey along the way, the real magic of A Christmas Carol is watching Ebenezer being reborn as a new man on Christmas morning. I'm particularly fond of the ending for Scrooged because watching Bill Murray burst out of an elevator screaming, taking the live Christmas Carol performance hostage, and ranting wildly into the camera until he's in tears, is just great. I love how it feels like the ending was improvised, so it's like the actual movie you're watching is breaking down just as the show within the show is being derailed. If you haven't seen this movie, definitely check it out.

1) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Disney again? That's right, Disney again. Talk about a company that has an obsession with old men in nightgowns. I'm pretty sure they will release some version of A Christmas Carol once a decade until the sun explodes.
Who's the Scrooge this time? Our personal lord and saviour, Michael Caine. If you don't enjoy him in this role, then there is something wrong with you. You will believe in his performance as the cold-hearted Scrooge, fear for him in his darkest moments, and share in his joy at the dawn of a new day. And when he weeps at love lost, you will cry along with him. It's like gravity; you don't have a choice, so don't fight it.
What's so special about this adaptation? Besides the obvious addition of Muppets, this Christmas Carol is a musical. A damn good one, too. The songs are memorable and serve the story well. This should come as no surprise since they were written by Paul Williams, who wrote songs like "Rainbow Connection"? Plus, having Gonzo and Rizzo narrating the story and getting caught up in the adventure is entertaining stuff.
Sounds good, but what about Tiny Tim? How tiny is he in this version?  The tiniest you're likely to ever see. By using Robin the Frog, the audience will feel extra sympathy because he's tiny, sick, poor, AND a frog. Talk about having the deck stacked against you. What's next? Having Tiny Tim fall into a fire when his crutch breaks, just as he's announcing he donated his last good sock to a crippled mouse?
It all sounds interesting, but why is this the best? It takes a lot of talent and creativity to use puppets alongside real actors and make the audience care about them, especially when you're building upon source material so famous. This movie blends music, humour, beautifully designed sets and sequences, charming characters, and never loses sight of the important messages in Dickens' wonderful story. All the highs and lows are there, and the muppets fit in perfectly along the way. If you can only choose one adaptation to watch this Christmas, you really can't go wrong with this one.