Saturday, December 21, 2013

Scrooge Does Not Approve: A 'Carol' Sampler

Ever heard of moving day? Well, last month was moving month for me... yes, it really took about that long. Hence the lack of a monthly post. However, this month I'm compensating with a nice double-post, one for today's holiday, and one for the other big holiday next week. (Hint: it's probably not the one you're thinking of.)

What's today, you ask? Why, it's Humbug Day, the happiest day of the year! Apparently today is the one (and only?) day everyone is allowed to vent their holiday frustrations with up to twelve other grumps, in honor of the grumpiest grump of them all, A Christmas Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge. So, to celebrate, I've decided to share some of my favorite adaptations, each a vastly different representation of the same exact story. Now, there have been approximately a gazillion versions of A Christmas Carol produced since it was first published back in 1843; according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, it's been turned into plays, musicals, operas, movies and TV specials, and even graphic novels. Obviously I haven't seen or heard them all (I doubt anyone has, but feel free to prove me wrong), so forgive me if your personal favorite doesn't appear here.

A more appropriate post for the day might have been a list of the worst adaptations and why they were terrible -- but since there will be so much complaining today anyway, I figured I should leave the grouching up to the expert, Scrooge himself.

The Creepiest: Scrooge (retitled A Christmas Carol in the U.S.) (1951) 

Although most of us think of A Christmas Carol as a heartwarming holiday tale, the fact is, folks, it's a ghost story. Yes, the ghosts in this tale are the good kind, traveling all the way back from death to life to save a man from an eternity of hellish repentance, but that doesn't mean they can't be creepy. This black-and-white British adaptation, starring Alastair Sim as the Scroogiest Scrooge of all, is considered by many to be the best version to date. While it's not necessarily my number one, it is certainly one of the most memorable ones I've seen. Unlike most of the more family-friendly versions, Scrooge actually conveys several of the more terrifying moments from the original story, such as Scrooge's first encounter with his long-deceased friend, Jacob Marley. The sound of chains dragging over steps, the ominous chiming of the grandfather clock, the spectral moaning of a ghost trapped in eternal agony -- you can practically hear Vincent Price laughing maniacally somewhere in the distance. It's the stuff of horror movies, and it makes the warm-and-toasty, family-by-the-fireplace ending all the more comforting by contrast.

The Earwormiest: The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

This musical production first aired as a live episode of the Alcoa Hour back in 1956, starring Basil Rathbone and Vic Damone as old and young Scrooge, respectively. I have not had the privilege of seeing that version; however, I can say the animated remake by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass is pretty much wonderful. Rankin/Bass productions hold a very special place in my heart, and while this one may not be my absolute favorite, it's certainly one of the catchiest. It's also got the most music of all their movies, featuring almost no spoken dialogue; this is likely due to the company's efforts to retain as much of the original music as possible. It's also one of their few traditionally animated works, and there's something about they way they drew Scrooge to match his voice actor, Walter Matthau, that is just utterly amusing to me.

The Family-Friendliest: Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Mr. Mouse-Ears may have wormed his way into every single classic story ever by now -- but at least he does it well. As a kid, I saw Mickey's Christmas Carol so many times I probably could have reenacted it myself as a one-actress play. While as a very small child, the scene with the open grave freaked me the heck out, one must remember that (a) I was really little, and (b) I was the scarediest little scaredy cat you ever met. So in spite of a few childhood nightmares, I have to say that overall, this is still the most family-friendly version I've ever seen, and probably the sweetest. Mickey is the obvious choice for Bob Cratchit, and we have this movie to thank for Scrooge McDuck, who was so awesome he got to stick around long after his debut. Seriously, he's one of the best Scrooges and Disney characters out there. And that's with knighted actors like Sir Michael Caine and Sir Michael Gambon for competition, not to mention Bill Murray! Speaking of which, next on our list is...

The Craziest: Scrooged (1988)

Another film that I've watched so many times I sometimes forget I wasn't actually there in it. Featuring a greedy, misanthropic television producer named Frank Cross as the Scrooge stand-in, this modern-day retelling is by far one of the best things Bill Murray has ever done with his life. Adding more than a dash of the ridiculous to the plot, the ghosts in Scrooged include David Johansen as a mad cabbie moonlighting as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the ever-insane Carol Kane as the (literally) slaphappy Ghost of Christmas Present. Best of all, Bobcat Goldthwait appears as an emotionally disturbed employee of Frank's named Eliot Loudermilk, who is fired by Frank on Christmas Eve. This is not the Bob Cratchit you're used to -- that is, a sweet, unbelievably understanding man with few funds but a wealth of love. This is Bobcat Goldthwait we're talking about here -- could we expect anything less than pure, unadulterated insanity? Rather than take his unfair dismissal lying down, Eliot drinks himself into a rage, buys a shotgun, and attempts to murder his Grinchly boss in the producer's office. What ensues is the best, craziest, most hilarious scene in the whole movie, a physical manifestation of humor which could only be topped by a true master of laughs. Such as...

The Funniest: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

Or, the story of how Ebenezer Blackadder became a heartless bastard. In this finest of parodies, Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder is visited by only a single ghost, The Spirit of Christmas (played by Hagrid Robbie Coltrane). Since Blackadder is already a decent man to begin with, the Spirit comes not to cause a change of heart, but to congratulate him on his generosity, showing him visions of his vicious and greedy ancestors for comparison. The visitation backfires, and the result is a side-splitting reversal of the classic story as only the best of British comedy can deliver.

The Timey-Wimeyest: Doctor Who's "A Christmas Carol" (2010)

It's an unwritten law of the universe that every long-running show must, as some point, do a Christmas Carol episode. Few, however, are as strange or touching as this Eleventh Doctor special, penned by the divinely clever Steven Moffat. Set back when the Ponds were still Ponding around (ah, the good old days), the Doctor must convince the miserly Kazran Sardick (a.k.a. this story's Scrooge) to use his weather-controlling machine to prevent a ship from crashing -- a ship on which, of course, companions Amy and Rory happen to be on. Probably one of the most surreal adaptations out there, this version involves flying fish, holographic "ghosts," and cryogenics, not to mention the Doctor's usual time-space-continuum-stretching shenanigans. A given in almost any given Moffat episode, there are as many laughs as there are heart-wrenchers, and Katherine Jenkins' vocals as Kazran's musically gifted love interest are hauntingly beautiful, to say the least. Even if you've never watched an episode of the show in your life, watch it. And be sure to have the tissue box handy.

The Classic: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Yep, the Muppets. How could it be anything less than fantastic? Narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo, this version's Scrooge is none other than the lovely and extremely talented Sir Michael Caine. As with any Muppet production, there are a few good musical numbers thrown into the mix, especially the opening song (guaranteed to be stuck in your head for days -- not that you'll mind), "Scrooge." My one gripe about this version is the Ghost of Christmas Past, a feminine, childlike spirit who just so happens to be the most unintentionally creepy Muppet ever. Though true to the original character in form and function, there is nevertheless something about her that just feels a little off, and it's a real relief when the jovial, rosy-cheeked Ghost of Christmas Present finally takes her place. In spite of her, however, the overall film is pure Muppet magic, and it remains, in my mind, the best adaptation yet.