There will be spoilers; to begin with. That must be perfectly understood, because I don’t want to hear any whining from someone who grew up in a cave without benefit of books, TV or radio, thereby missing any of the countless versions of this holiday classic trotted out every year. Come on! You all know how this story goes. From Roger Zemekis’ latest slapstick outing with dead-eyed CGI characters back to the animated offerings by Richard Williams and Mr. Magoo—from Alistair Sim to George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart—everyone’s had a go at adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
In fact, A Christmas Carol is one of the earliest surviving books ever filmed. The illustration above is from the 1901 version, of which a little over five minutes still exists. Titled Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, it was produced with much hoopla by British film pioneer R. W. Paul. How much hoopla? It got a Royal Command viewing by King Edward VII the following December. Considering its age, the one existing print is in pretty good condition, which leads one to wonder whether the missing footage was lost rather than simply allowed to deteriorate. We see Scrooge in his office as Bob Cratchit shows someone out; Scrooge sends Cratchit home, goes home himself, and sees (in what must have been cutting edge trick photography) Marley’s face appear briefly in place of his door knocker.
Visibly nervous, Scrooge puts on his dressing gown and nightcap and draws the curtains. He settles down to eat his gruel and, after a mouthful or two, falls asleep at the table. Cue the entrance of Marley’s Ghost, rather disappointingly draped in a sheet, who sketches in a pair of improvised vignettes projected against the curtain backdrop: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl. Scrooge expresses belated grief. Whoosh! We’re off to Christmas Present, which is essentially watching first the Cratchits and then Scrooge’s nephew Fred drinking toasts to the holiday. From there we go straight to the graveyard with Scrooge’s tombstone—much lamentation from Scrooge—and there’s just a glimpse of Tiny Tim shuffling off his tiny mortal coil as the film runs out.
Dramatically weak as this version is—no Three Spirits? Scrooge’s tombstone revealed early? WTF?—it would appear to have been based largely on a popular stage adaptation of the time. I can’t imagine what the dramatist was thinking, unless he was trying to save money on costumes, and name me one local stock company that can’t come up with a white nightgown, an XXXL green bathrobe and a black cloak with a hood, for crying out loud.
All in all, A Christmas Carol was filmed six times during the silent era. Some of the versions have been lost, but Edison’s interesting version from 1911 survives, notable also in that it features Charles Ogle (the first film actor to portray the Frankenstein Monster on film) as Bob Cratchit! This fifteen-minute adaptation opens with Bob Cratchit letting Scrooge into his offices, but in after Scrooge crowds a trio of charitable gentlemen, shaking fake snow from their hats like so much parmesan cheese. After Scrooge sternly tells them where to get off they depart, but in comes Scrooge’s nephew Fred to wish him the joys of the season. Unfortunately he has brought some giddy friends with him, and they hippety-hop all over the office before getting the boot. You’d think Fred might have warned them that the old man wasn’t exactly crazy about Christmas frolics.
Pausing only to threaten some carolers with a stick, Scrooge grudgingly sends Cratchit off and we next see Scrooge at his front door, regarding Marley’s face (a rather disappointing magic lantern slide effect) projected over a turtle-shaped door knocker. The scene in which Marley’s Ghost actually confronts Scrooge is pretty neat, though, with a real attempt to echo the original illustration and some lively acting. Cut directly to the Spirit of Christmas, appearing out of thin air. Yes, that was Spirit, singular; we only get one spectrally embodied holiday in Edison’s script. His costume is sort of a mix between those of the Spirits of Christmas Past and Future, but mostly he looks like the Burger King.
Well, okay. Scene where young Scrooge’s little sister comes to bring him home from school, check. Scene at Fezziwig’s ballroom, check, and what do you know? They really are dancing Sir Roger de Coverly. Points to somebody at Edison for research. Scene in which Scrooge breaks up with Belle, check. Now we move to Christmas Present, with “visions of what the miser’s wealth could do.” Here comes the Spirit of Christmas with a big parade horn full of glitter, showing Scrooge the Christmas dinner the Cratchit family could be having if Scrooge wasn’t such a skinflint. And here’s Scrooge’s nephew Fred, asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage, and being refused because he hasn’t a fortune of his own. Scrooge could fix him up, though, couldn’t he? Scrooge is so moved he tries to slip him some spare change then and there, which of course doesn’t work because of the exchange rate between this world and the Spirit world. Finally we get the two grasping specters of Want and Misery (not Want and Ignorance, as in the book, which is odd; unless Edison made the change because it was understood, even then, that the average person in the audience is proud of being ignorant).
Scrooge has a moment of solitary reflection on changing his ways before the Spirit of Christmas returns, looking absolutely ridiculous with a thing like a bride’s veil draped over his head, to show Scrooge solemn and awful visions of the future. And they’re pretty awful, all right: here’s Scrooge’s future self gasping out his last, attended by a hatchet-faced laundress who yanks off his signet ring and looks as though she’ll be back for his bedcurtains and blankets before he’s quite cold. And here’s the money shot, the big moment for the crash of chords, as Scrooge’s tombstone appears! Scrooge, horrified, collapses on the bed and faints.
Next, it’s Christmas Morning, and even though it’s pitch black outside Scrooge’s bedroom window, it’s broad daylight where carolers sing in the streets below. Scrooge goes merrily about his way rectifying wrongs, donating cash to charity, making Fred his business partner with a guaranteed comfortable income, and scaring the Dickens out of the Cratchits by delivering a big holiday hamper in person.
Even with the alterations, this is a pretty respectable Christmas Carol. But, really, Dickens’ original is such a straightforward masterpiece of storytelling that it withstands all kinds of cinematic redaction and revision, unlike, say, The Grinch that Stole Christmas—the Movie, in which Seuss’s story is completely inverted and Whoville is full of grabby people who have forgotten what Christmas is all about. But whether Scrooge is portrayed as a man, a woman, an American, a Depression-era businessman or a TV executive, the main message of A Christmas Carol survives.
You can see both these silent versions for free on Google Video, nice little Christmas trinkets for a cinematic stocking. Next week: more Silent Nights!
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and also a regular blogger for Tor.com. Her mom was a crowd extra in one scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.