THERE are more than 200 Christmas Carol movies, which reinforces how deeply embedded in our collective psyche Charles Dickens’s allegory is. Recently, we have had three more.
First was Mark Gatiss’s West End stage adaptation, due to be screened on BBC4 on Christmas Day at 7 p.m. This was quickly followed by the 30th-anniversary re-release of The Muppet Christmas Carol (Cert. U), starring Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog as Dickens.
Netflix is also screening a new musical: Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (Cert. PG), directed by Stephen Donnelly.
This is an animated reworking of the Albert Finney vehicle. Dickens gave his story this title because he wanted it to be, like the yearly carols, proclaiming Christian values. Lacking specific mention of the nativity has enhanced its universal appeal, enabling both atheists (like Gatiss) and believers (such as the Muppets’ creator Jim Henson, a Christian Scientist) to relate to it. All adaptations throughout the years do try to speak to their time.
While sticking close to the original 1843 novella, the 2022 Scrooge adds contemporary twists. As with The Personal History of David Copperfield in 2019, it is a colour-blind production. The debt-ridden storekeeper Tom Jenkins is one of several black characters. Voiced by Giles Terera, he reprises Leslie Bricusse’s song “Thank You Very Much” from the 1970 picture. It tends to reveal the inferior quality of the composer’s new numbers.
All the animated characters bear a resemblance to the actors who provide the dialogue and sing. Instances of beautifully captured physiognomy and body language add, at times, a certain frisson to the piece.
If we compare these December releases, Michael Caine has a sardonic disposition, while Lee Evans’s Ebenezer Scrooge is more malevolent. Both of them laugh rather more than in the Dickens original, but it is at other people’s expense. A redeeming feature of the Netflix Scrooge is his dog. Named Prudence after the virtue, she makes facial expressions that regularly indicate to her master a better way to behave, long before the ghosts arrive. Scrooge’s problem is that he has forgotten what love is. In the latest film, the Spirit of Christmas Past forcibly reminds him of the joy to be had.
The Muppets’ tone is similar. Doubling the number of Marley ghosts, they warn their erstwhile partner: “As freedom comes from giving love, so prison comes with hate.” There’s some calling on scripture in Donnelly’s screenplay (e.g. “You reap what you sow”) and even the appearance of a priest at Scrooge’s projected graveside. Scrooge makes a plea for Tiny Tim. “If I am beyond salvation, so be it; but, please, the boy need not die — not while I have it in my power to help him.” Contrast this with the Muppet film, in which Scrooge’s reform feels like a means of escaping hell.
Dickens’s protagonist and his screen successors all tend to vow that they will try to live Christmas every day of the year. In 2022, it becomes: “I will learn from the past, live only in the present, and strive for a better future for all.” Is that the Spirit of Our Own Age talking? Or hope of a Christmas Yet to Come?