Well, cinemas have started to re-open, but with the tier system making it harder for a lot of people to get to the cinema I’ve decided I wouldn’t immediately go back to reviewing current releases. So, on that basis, I’ve decided that I’m only going to review one current release this period, Wonder Woman 1984, which will be coming out in UK cinemas on December 16th, and I will attempt to go back to a more regular schedule of new releases in January. In the meantime, I have to fill some content here so I thought I’d take an opportunity with the lack of releases to talk about the sort of Christmas film that I will put on every year, A Christmas Carol. I make sure to watch at least one adaptation every year because I stand by my belief it is one of the greatest works of fiction every created. A Christmas Carol nails its story, and it’s just as relevant now as it was back when it was first written. And, of course, there have been countless film versions. Tons.
I actually had considered doing another tournament to determine which version I thought was going to win, however in my mind it really only came down to 4 or 5 adaptations which I thought were great. Well, I’m not going to talk about The Muppets Christmas Carol since most people have already talked about that one, but yeah, I’m genuinely not too surprised it turned out as well as it did, and the writing is pretty strong. Honestly, you can do way worse. I even kind of like the 2009 film directed by Robert Zemeckis which used Jim Carey in a motion-capture suit to play both Scrooge and the Ghosts. Give it a watch—it’s surprisingly closer to the book than you’d ever believe in many parts. There’s a 1984 with the brilliant central performance from George C. Scott but they really only took the bare bones of the story and kind of did their own thing around it. It’s still a lot more accurate than a lot of versions; I could have done a whole rant piece about why the BBC production that came out last year was a terrible, terrible film. But frankly, I want to be positive, and I don’t want to contribute to the idiots on Twitter that are asking for the BBC to be defunded. That’s a conversation for another time.
That really only left with one option, which is probably my favourite version of the story. The only other one I could have done a piece on was the 1950s film, but as much as I think Alastair Sim is good as Scrooge and one of the best performers to play the role, the problem I have with that film is that too much is bolted on to the story and it feels like it takes away more than it adds. These things are implied; they did not need to be completely seen. This leaves me with what is my favourite adaptation, the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s surprisingly hard to get access to this one—the DVD goes for quite a high price since it’s out of print and not many copies still exist. If you see it for a good price, I’d say bag it. But it does come on television every so often—I caught it on Channel 5 one year which was really lucky, and I’m going to give you several reasons why you should check this one out.
Let’s get some of the negative out of the way first because even though this is my favourite, I will say there are some negatives to this film. The main points of contention are rather minor. Despite the fact it’s a very good adaptation of the book, there are some minor things missing that probably shouldn’t have gone, and the film doesn’t take a whole lot of risks really; it feels like a film playing it safe a lot of the time. Some of the effects have not dated well at all but I think that’s somewhat forgivable for a film that was not on a large budget at the very end of the 90s. I think my biggest complaint is the design of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come: I know they’re trying to go for this idea of him being quite scary being that he’s just a cloak with eyes, but the eyes look more goofy than they do scary and he looks really out of place in any environment he’s in. The only time the design kind of works is during the famous graveyard scene; other than that, it’s just a weird design. I kind of get what they were going for but it’s just bizarre. Well, without further ado, here are 5 reasons why I think A Christmas Carol 1999 is the best version:
Patrick Stewart’s Performance
If you’re doing A Christmas Carol, you need a strong central performance; a bad one ruins your film. And Patrick Stewart nails this performance. A lot of people forget that he was a really great thespian actor after his role in comedy films in recent memory, and his move to comedy has rather lost its lustre considering that the joke of a thespian actor like himself being in these roles is rather bizarre. However, what people forget is the reason why his performance as a character like Charles Xavier or Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation is that he can bring that brilliant range, and he brings it again in A Christmas Carol. Out of all the live-action actors, he’s probably the most physically like Scrooge is described in the book; the only other actor who looks the part is probably Jim Carey but he was assisted by motion-capture technology. Meanwhile, you have Stewart giving it his all, and he really nails a lot of these scenes. In all honesty, it’s a great performance and it’s one that doesn’t get mentioned a lot when we talk about great Patrick Stewart performances. He doesn’t manage to give a wide gamut of emotions but he can play Scrooge’s miserable, grumpy self at the beginning of the story and throughout all the explorations of his past, present and future, all the way leading up to his good cheer on Christmas morning. It’s honestly a really great performance and was worth the film alone.
I know I’ve already mentioned about Patrick Stewart but it feels like everyone else was really well-cast; everyone is really suited to their role. You have, for example, Ian McNeice who plays a brilliant Mr. Fezziwig; Bernard Lloyd is probably one of the best versions of Marley I’ve ever seen; Dominic West plays Fred, which is really against type for what we know him for now; and also playing against type is Richard E. Grant who, yeah, does suit the role coming from a very similar theme background that Patrick Stewart came from. But again, I’m not used to him playing roles like this. It definitely feels like a film where, yes, they got big names but every one of those big names was a very good choice to play these roles.
A lot of Christmas Carol films struggle to balance the tone of the story but the 1999 version really nails it from start to finish. The darker moments are dark when they need to be and the bright and cheerful moments are where they need to be. 1984, for example, put way too many dark moments during the Ghost of Christmas Present story segments and they felt out of place; this is the sort of thing you want for the Yet to Come segment, and that means it doesn’t nail the tone in that point in time. The Ghosts’ central performances in the 1999 version are all excellent, and as a result that keeps the tone going well, and I would say they do a brilliant job of really keeping the spirit of the season alive within it. One particular scene that was lifted straight out of the book was the moment when people in very remote parts of the world were still celebrating Christmas just by singing ‘Silent Night’. It weirdly leads into in the Christmas Day truce during WW1, which is kind of bizarre considering that A Christmas Carol takes place several decades before WW1 but there you go. It’s a powerful moment in history, might as well use it.
It’s Probably One of the Closest Adaptations of the Book
They were really good about adapting the book—you can tell most of the people involved really read the book before the decided they were going to put this to production. There’s a lot of attempts to put in book-accurate dialogue, including what was pointed out very well during Dominic Noble’s look into all the versions of A Christmas Carol, that they put in Charles Dickens’s own conversational pieces with the reader as dialogue between characters. Very early on as well, which is a very nice touch that you don’t get in many versions. Most of the Ghosts are pretty much as described, though obviously I’ve mentioned my issues with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and also the Ghost of Christmas Present isn’t particularly tall when he’s described as a rather large figure in the book. Other than that, there’s not much missing. The Ghost of Christmas Present doesn’t carry an empty scabbard (though really only the 2009 version I saw had that feature). And they had a few more stops along the way to Fred’s house when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning. But if you’ve read the book it’s going to be very, very familiar to you. Side note: the one Ghost I think they really nailed the design of was the Ghost of Christmas Past. Considering that the Ghost is described as being pretty much indescribable in the book, they went for an almost non-angelic and non-human look with the make-up and effects that were available at the time, and I actually think it’s one of the effects that holds up surprisingly well.
The Ending is Enough of a Feel-Good Moment
I know every version of A Christmas Carol ends in exactly the same way, but because of the fact they got the tone exactly right, I actually think the bolting of extra elements to Scrooge celebrating Christmas in the morning adds to the feel-good element of it. And as a result, out of all of them, when you combine the tone, the excellent book-accurate dialogue, and Patrick Stewart’s great performance it means, more than any other, this film nails the ending. And that’s a really hard task to do in order to make it stand out. So as a result, when you take all of these into account it really is my favourite version of A Christmas Carol.