Consider the following list a protest against (and relief from) the cinematic refuse that fills multiplexes and cable channels throughout the Christmas season. I mean both nauseating commercial comedies, like A Bad Mom’s Christmas, as well as squeaky-clean Hallmark-esque titles like A Christmas Prince and The Mistletoe Inn. Christmas, G. K. Chesterton reminds us, is “the holiday that is also a holy day.” It deserves better.
A Christmas Carol (1951). Why, when people mention “the Christmas Carol movie,” do they usually have in mind the classic film starring Alastair Sim, written by Noel Langley (who also wrote The Wizard of Oz) and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst? It can’t be the film’s technical qualities: it’s laughably dated, with drab black-and-white photography and scant production values. (At one point, when Scrooge looks into a mirror, you can see a cameraman lurking behind him, equipment and all.) But in spite of its flaws, this version remains the best adaptation of Dickens’s novel. Why?
First of all, there’s Langley’s script, a model adaptation. He pared away whatever wasn’t cinematically feasible, and filled in occasional lacunae in the plot. One example: Dickens never explained why, as a child, Scrooge received such cold treatment from his father, who instead favored Scrooge’s older sister, Fan. Langley not only supplies an explanation—young Scrooge’s birth ended his mother’s life—but extends the device when the birth of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, ends Fan’s life, thus embittering Ebenezer against his nephew.
There’s also Alastair Sim’s memorable performance. Most movie Scrooges are bewhiskered bundles of surliness, but Sim’s wittiness alerts us early on to the possible humanity beneath the gruffness. His hilariously fastidious reaction to the Bacchic figure of the Ghost of Christmas Present shows how the miser can be funny even in his meanness. After Scrooge’s conversion, his moving apology to Fred’s bride, a masterpiece of humility without self-abasement, always bring tears to my eyes.
Scrooged (1988). For me, this Bill Murray modernization is the only other version of A Christmas Carol worth watching today, since writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and director Richard Donner treat the story with a delightful blend of respect and irreverence. Scrooge is reimagined as a high-power TV executive in charge of a tacky live broadcast of A Christmas Carol, with Buddy Hackett(!) as the miser. As Murray snarls and snarks his way through pre-production, he’s visited by the requisite trio of spirits. It’s all very meta: what’s being turned into kitsch in the TV studio is enacted for real inside and outside network headquarters. And the moviemakers obey the adage, “If you’re going to sin, sin big.” Thus the Ghost of Christmas Past is a cigar-chomping cabdriver; Present is a fairy princess with dominatrix tendencies; and Future is a Darth Vader lookalike. How can you not love a movie containing a scene like this: leaving his office for lunch, Murray notices some scraggly jazzmen playing on the sidewalk, and wonders why the police haven’t chased away these “no-talent bums.” Upon closer inspection, the no-talent bums include Miles Davis and Paul Schaeffer.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). What else is there to say about this box-office flop that’s become a holiday staple? Critics have pointed out that it reverses A Christmas Carol: instead of a wicked man forced to see his past so that he may change for the better, here George Bailey is a good man who must see the future to prevent him from changing. Still, the film is shot through with Dickensian moments of pain and fear, which rein in the sentimentality. There’s the boy George, pleading with the drunken druggist not to box his already half-deafened ear, the child Mary wincing every time the boy is struck. The tacit disappointment on the elder Mr. Bailey’s face as George admits he doesn’t want to continue in the family business. After George takes out his anger at his impending (and unfair) disgrace on his family, the model husband and father crumples when his wife asks, “Why must you torture the children?” Heartwarming, yes; but It’s a Wonderful Life is also rather harrowing.