Did you know that there are roughly 12 BILLION adaptations of A Christmas Carol? Seriously, go look at the Wikipedia page for “Adaptations of A Christmas Carol” and you’ll see I’m rounding down. So, in light of that, I’m not actually covering all of them in this post. I should also mention that I always had issues with A Christmas Carol growing up. A horrible person is shown visions of his own personal Hell, and we’re supposed to believe it’s somehow miraculous when he decides to be nicer? Wouldn’t it be more miraculous if he stayed a jerk? But as I’ve gotten older, and lived long enough to see myself become the villain… well, the story’s grown on me.
I’ve also become something of a connoisseur of different adaptations, so I’ve decided to give an absolutely definitive ranking of ACC adaptation, from worst to best. I’ve used many factors to create this list, including use of repertory cast, faithfulness to source material, inventiveness, and my own constantly-shifting mood.
#11. The Version of A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey in it.
#10. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol holds the honor of being the first animated Christmas special, premiering in 1962. Magoo’s usual myopia-based hijinks are used in a framing device that introduces a stage adaptation of Dickens’ story, but the Carol itself is played pretty straight. They jostle events around a bit, weirdly swapping Christmases Present and Past, and they also inaugurated the modern Carol ending, in which Scrooge surprises Cratchit at home and pretends to be meaner than ever before revealing his new improved personality.
#9. A Looney Tunes Christmas Carol
Nope. Nope nope nope. Allow me to make his clear: I love Bugs Bunny with the fervor of a 1940s delinquent who just snuck into a matinée for the first time, but this sucker just doesn’t work. Yosemite Sam plays Scrooge (and for some bizarre reason Sylvester is his housecat?) and Porky Pig is Cratchit. Bugs, who is never introduced or given a character of any kind, just wanders in off the street, sees Sam Scrooge being mean to Porky Cratchit, and begins a campaign of torment to make Sam change his ways. He goes so far as to dress as a Ghost and threaten Sam’s immortal cartoon soul:
Bugs “I’m taking you to see the guy in the red suit!
Sam: “You mean Santy Claus?”
Bugs: “No, I mean the other guy in the red suit!”
Sam: (points at floor) “…”
Sam immediately recants, begs Bugs for another chance, and unpacks a Santa Claus costume he just happened to have in his closet so he can distribute money to orphans. So, happy ending? Except later, in the wraparound, Sam angrily insists that he hasn’t changed at all, and demands his money back from his costars. So this one basically does everything wrong. It doesn’t work as a Christmas Carol adaptation because, without any real connection to Scrooge, we’re left with an empty, fear-based conversion. It also doesn’t work as a Bugs Bunny cartoon because it isn’t particularly funny. Yes, Bugs is championing the weak against the rich and powerful (always the best formula) but his attacks seem so random that there’s no emotional resonance.
#8. Beavis and Butt-head “Huh-Huh-Humbug”
Beavis didn’t often get the upper hand in his adventures with Butt-head, but in “Huh-Huh-Humbug” he gets to be the perfect late-90s American Scrooge as the despotic owner of Burger World. His attempts to celebrate a perfect Christmas Eve with porn is interrupted by the appearances of an enshackled Butt-head, Tom Anderson as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Van Driessen as Present, and Coach Buzzcut as Future, who are all campaigning to make him treat his one employee, the former principal McVickers, with more care. Butt-head makes perfect sense for Marley, and McVickers is pathetically hilarious as the Cratchit stand-in, but the Ghosts feel like pretty random choices. As far as modern updates to the story go, Beavis’ single-minded determination to ignore the ghosts and get back to his porn is pretty great.
#7. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)
In addition to being a stellar adaptation of A Christmas Carol, this special also functions as an origin story for the Blackadder clan. Ebenezer Blackadder is sweet, caring, and put-upon, doling out gifts to his relatives and the enormous “Tiny” Tom, until he finally realizes that he prefers being a jerk. The cast here is pretty much a dream come true for the modern nerd, with Robbie Coltrane playing the all-purpose Spirit of Christmas, Miranda Richardson as Queen Bess, and Hugh Laurie as Prince George, who orders Blackadder to keep Jesus out of Christmas, as “He always spoils the X-mas atmos.” This version doesn’t really fit into any of my criteria, since it ditches the source material, the three distinct Spirits, and the redemptive ending, but the pure celebration of wickedness is so much fun none of that matters.
#6. The Real Ghostbusters “X-Mas Marks the Spot”
The Real Ghostbusters, including a disconcertingly blonde Egon, accidentally go through a wormhole and wind up in England in 1837. Ebenezer Scrooge is a real guy, being visited by real ghosts, whom the Busters, um, bust. Which makes them feel good! Until they realize they have literally ruined Christmas, for everybody, forever. So Peter, Winston, and Ray dress as the ghosts to scare Scrooge straight, while Egon ventures into the Containment Unit to retrieve the Spirits. Added bonus: Venkman realizes the true meaning of Christmas, a full three years before his live-action counterpart made Scrooged! Oh, and the script for this one was written by John Michael Straczynzki.
#5. Quantum Leap: “A Little Miracle”
OK, you’d be hard-pressed to name a Quantum Leap episode that isn’t a loose adaptation of A Christmas Carol. So naturally when the show decided to just go ahead and make an explicit take on Dickens’ classic, they give us a well-oiled machine of redemption. Former SNL cast member Charles Rocket plays an eeeee-villl industrialist named Mike Blake, and Sam Beckett is his Cratchit-esque valet, who has to stop him from razing a Salvation Army Mission on Christmas Eve, because subtlety. Since it’s Christmas, Sam and Al decide to “Scrooge” Blake, with Sam acting as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present—first taking Blake to the Skid Row of his youth, and then to the Mission for some Polish food and urchin-cuddling. When this earnestness overdose backfires, Al uses his tech (plus his actual knowledge of the future) to play the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
This is a fascinating episode of QL for a couple reasons. First, this is the only episode I can think of where Sam is explicitly told that he has to save someone’s soul in order to leap. Also, it undercuts the show’s usual Hegelianism because Sam’s blinding earnestness and offers of love all fail: the only reason Blake repents is that Al terrifies him into being better. And once Al really lets himself get into the spirit of being a spirit shit gets DARK. It isn’t enough to tell Blake his life’s work is going to fail—when Blake asks about his ultimate fate, Al informs the weeping man that he “took a header off the top of Blake Plaza right into rush hour.” In changing the show’s usual M.O., it keeps it true to the source material.
#4. Mickey’s Christmas Carol
This is the one I grew up with! Casting the regular Mouseketeers as their Dickensian analogues is perfect—Scrooge McDuck makes a deliriously bitchy Scrooge, Donald Duck gets a rare opportunity to be sympathetic as Fred, and Mickey’s usual kindhearted treacle is put to good use as Bob Cratchit. Where this adaptation loses points from me is in the Ghosts. Goofy just doesn’t work as Marley—even as a little kid I never believed for a second that Goofy could swindle anybody. Sanctimonious, significantly-initialed insect Jiminy Cricket shows up as a particularly mean Past, which works, except that this is supposed to be the bit where you gain some empathy for young Ebenezer, and instead Jiminy just won’t stop lecturing him. The Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk plays Present with a joie de vivre that verges on gluttony (smishashio nuts!) but worst of all, Future is revealed to be Black Pete, which, no. That’s waaaay too human. I like my Futures silent, grim, and unyielding.
#3. The Version of A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart
YES. This 1999 version of A Christmas Carol is my favorite completely straight, live-action retelling, for obvious reasons. Those reasons all being Patrick Stewart. But it’s even better than that—Cratchit is played with barely suppressed Withnailian rage by Richard E. Grant. The Ghosts all work, and Yet To Come is especially spooky with its little glowing yellow eyes that. But really this one’s all about watching SirPatStew inhabit Scrooge.
#2. A Muppet Christmas Carol
Coming in at #2 is A Muppet Christmas Carol! Which is—wait, what? Put all those sharp things down, I know, I know, you thought this would be #1, and you’re outraged. And please believe me, I love this movie! Of all of them, it incorporates the most original text, because it employs
Gonzo Mr Dickens himself as narrator. Plus, Michael Caine’s Scrooge is second only to Patrick Stewart’s, and he actually wrings more dark humor out of the earliest moments of the script than any other version.
Best of all, the balance between the harrowing tale of Scrooge and the Muppety antics is just about perfect—Statler and Waldorf play Jacob and Robert Marley, who heckle their own script, singling out Scrooge’s “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you” as the atrocious pun that it is. But then, as their chains become heavier, their laughter turns into groans of pain, and they’re dragged away to a Hell we really don’t want to see. Pretty intense, right? That’s because the Muppets remember that this is supposed to be a horror tale, and they respect their audience to handle it. The door is scary, the chains are really scary, Past is reeeeaaaalllly scary, the creepy bedclothes-buying spider is extra-super-scary… and then we get what is probably the second-scariest Yet To Come: No face, silent, it walks Scrooge into a black time vortex to go into the future. Also, the songs are great. So, why isn’t it #1, you ask? Because…
See? Good choice, right? And honestly it only barely edges past Muppets, but my black and shriveled soul responds to the holiday nihilism at work here. This is the perfect example of how going off book can be a better choice for an adaptation. Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue (who supposedly wrote an even darker version first, and seriously I’d shave five…okay, two years off of my life to read it) updated it to reflect life in a very particular world: the horror show of television production in 1980s New York.
Every choice they make is perfect: by replacing the personality-free Belle with Karen Allen’s Claire, they show us that Cross rejected an entire alternate life when he drove her away. By taking the time to show us how Cross used TV as an escape from a brutal homelife, they give us a way to understand his loyalty to his shitty-looking career. By giving us a Tiny Tim who’s suffering from PTSD, they refocus Cross’ concerns from the boy’s physical life to, well, his soul, which gives us a handy mirror for Cross’ own existential troubles. And absolute best of all, we get a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that is both a Grim Reaper, and a horrifying personification of the Media.
Roger Ebert (in his one-star review) referred to Cross’ redemption as “an on-screen breakdown” which I completely agree with, but I mean it as praise. Of all the Carol adaptations, this is the one that gets at both the real terror and the real love that lies at the heart of the story.
So…what does everyone think? Am I getting a pony for Christmas, or a stocking full of coal?
Leah Schnelbach expects to be buried with a stake of holly in her heart. Otherwise she’ll probably come back every December to explain the cultural significance of Alf’s Special Christmas. If that doesn’t make you want to follow her on Twitter, what will?