A Christmas Carol Five Ways

EPSON MFP image

For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs

Great Expectations (1946) vs Great Expectations (2013)

EPSON MFP image

Having recently watched the 2013 adaptation of Great Expectations, I decided that I should watch the celebrated 1946 David Lean version. While the two movies start out pretty much the same — almost shot for shot, panning over the misty marshes, harshly blowing wind — each slowly drifts into its own tone. In the 2013, Dickens-era London feels dirtier, the society there seems crueler, and everything’s a little more gritty and edgy. David Lean’s version is more from Pip’s point of view, changing as he ages.

The movie itself is framed by narration in Pip’s voice. It’s very much inside of a young boy’s imagination. His guilty conscience talks through animals and creaky gates. It’s much more imaginative than the 2013 adaptation, which is darker and more frightful. Instead of being in stark terror like the new Pip, old Pip takes advantage of his adventures. He’s always choosing to listen to his instincts, to keep going back to Miss Havisham’s, and to keep courting the cold and distant Estella. Whereas, new Pip at times seems to have no agency. He’s just dragged around to Miss Havisham’s, to London, to parties. The story doesn’t give him much of a conscience or a choice. Even the squandering of his fortune comes across as a, “Well, what are you going to do?”

Miss Havisham has always been a very important character to me. In my opinion, she’s one of the most iconic characters in literature (even though I’ve only ever read the Great Illustrated Classics edition). I wasn’t happy with Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal. I thought she was too much of a two dimensional mall goth and not enough of a ghoulish eccentric. In the 1946 version Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) is more fleshed out. She’s still a ghastly shut-in, but she’s not totally unapproachable.  She’s pitiful and wretched, and not in an overdramatic way. It’s interesting how differently both movies handle her infamous death. Lean takes a different approach showing most of it behind closed doors. The 2013 shows the flames and her body afterwards, which I think is a big part of its modern edginess.

Shot in black and white, the 1946 version of Great Expectations is beautiful. There’s a lot of really well lit dramatic chiaroscuro shots and playing with shadows. It’s sort of expressionistic and sometimes experimental. Some of my favorite frames from the movie are when it’s just silhouettes moving against a light background. Most of the drama in this movie is just in the highly contrasted lighting. The 2013 movie doesn’t cover too much new ground as far as cinematography goes, but it still has some nice scenic shots of the marshes and dark hallways.

Personally, I prefer Lean’s version for its gorgeous cinematography and subdued drama. I think, and popular opinion agrees with me, that it’s a much better film. It’s interesting that even though the two movies have the same plot, there are enough differences for them to be completely different things. I guess the real question is whether or not it’s necessary for there to be not only a very good film adaptation, but also at least 6 other probably mediocre ones, along with numerous miniseries and stage plays. I don’t really have an answer for that.

-Alli Hobbs

Great Expectations (2013)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I have a real soft spot in my heart for modern movie adaptations of classic British literature. In fact, I think I’m one of those terrible people who likes watching these movies more than reading the books. Every time I see one on Netflix, I have to either put it on my list or if I have time, consume it right then and there.

Great Expectations is a book that I haven’t read in its full version. As a child, I had the abridged illustrated version (Great Illustrated Classics). I loved it. I think I must have read it four times. It’s interesting to have an illustrated edition of any book and then watch the movie. You have a very clear idea of the characters and the movie version either smashes that idea or surprises you with something better. I think in this case my childhood ideas were a little smashed but maybe I shouldn’t come into BBC productions with great expectations (whomp whomp).

Great Expectations is about Pip, an orphan boy raised by his cruel sister and her docile blacksmith husband, Joe. Pip meets a wild bunch of characters: Magwitch, an escaped convict; Miss Havisham, a crazed depressed shut-in who sits around in an old wedding dress; and Estella, Miss Havisham’s spoilt brat of an adopted daughter. He goes from being a poor boy apprenticed to a blacksmith, to a real gentleman living in London built on the funds from a kind, anonymous benefactor.

It’s with this cast of characters that I have a problem with. Ralph Fiennes feels awkward in his role of Magwitch. It may be because recently the only roles I’ve seen him in have been effeminate dandies, but I think his performance feels very forced. Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham is very hit or miss. She plays it up with her typical kookiness, but instead of being the haunting, old skeleton bride necessary for the role, she feels like something out of a My Chemical Romance music video. And Jeremy Irvine (of Stonewall infamy) I feel was too much of a pouty-lipped pretty boy for an adult Pip. Although I was glad to see Bebe Cave in it as young Biddy. I liked her so much in Tale of Tales it’s good to see other things she’s done.

Not everything’s wrong with this movie. Obviously if you’re watching movies like this for the right reasons, you’re in it for the sets and the costumes. I loved the way they played up the Gothic themes of the novel, Helena Bonham Carter aside. The inside of the Satis House, Miss Havisham’s spooky abode, is delightfully dilapidated. There are ghastly relatives sitting in chairs in the hallways, dust motes flying around, and a banquet table left to rot. The costumes are equally sombre, full of dark, subdued colors. Maybe a little too subtle for my tastes, but still good.

I may have gone into this movie with my preconceived notions of what the story should look like based off a children’s version of the novel I read 20 years ago, but I still think it was an average, yet faithful adaptation. It definitely satisfied the part of me that loves this sort of thing. Sometimes you just need to mindlessly watch the movie adaptations of great British classics you’ll never get around to reading.

-Alli Hobbs