Saturday, December 22, 2012

My Father's Carol

I was exposed to A Christmas Carol thanks to my father. Thus, a number of adaptations are now in my holiday viewings thanks to him. So, I have decided that for this last entry in our series of blogs on A Christmas Carol, I'll let Dad take over...
It began with the broadcast of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol in 1962 and I was only three years old. I had seen Mr. Magoo cartoons already, so when the family sat down to watch it, I just thought it would be another Magoo cartoon. But I didn't know the story yet and I began to get the creeps when the doorknocker changed and then when I saw a ghost's chains being dragged up the stairs.

I mustered all the resolve to not get scared as the story progressed. Marley was soon gone and the next two didn't look at all like ghosts that I'd seen before in pictures, but finally when the last ghost was on, this 3-year old's attempt at courage just finally quit. In short, it scared the Dickens out of me.

With a good deal of comfort from my two older sisters and my parents, I recovered and shortly afterward another version came on TV (live action, possibly the "Tales From Dickens" episode with Basil Rathbone) that was more endurable. And then after at about three years, we acquired a copy of the book for family reading. In both of these instances, it was explained to me as being the same story, just not with Mr. Magoo. The book, I discovered later, was an abridgement; however it was very beautifully illustrated, published by Ideals. A little later I got the ViewMaster set of the story as well. In time I'd read the story many times, seen it on stage, screen and TV, even by chance got a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic where he helped change one Isaac B. Grouch in the same way on his birthday (I'd like to find another copy of this issue, having lost it long ago; do any readers know which issue it is in?).

Many viewpoints have been made as to what kind of story A Christmas Carol is. First of all, it's obviously a Christmas story. Written at a time when Christmas was still coming back into fashion following a time of banishment by the Puritans, Charles Dickens put forth all the cheer possible in his short book to bring the concept alive.

While describing a bitingly cold December winter, Dickens adds details of holly and berries to the scene along with people playing winter games such as sliding on patches of ice. Parties and celebrations are described to the most enjoyable detail, and he so whets the reader's appetite as if meaning to make one's mouth water when he describes the Cratchits' dinner, meager as it is. And when Christmas day finally comes, the church bells ring out making the scene "glorious, glorious!" And Dickens does not let the reader forget the purpose of celebrating Christmas either. One only has to see where he's made references to the Nativity.

Next, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, as it states in its subtitle. Here is where Dickens shows his engenuity. Starting with his preface, he actually appears to be kidding the ghost story genre: "I have raise the Ghost of an Idea...May it haunt [readers'] houses pleasantly..."

When Scrooge encounters the knocker, Dickens gives a description of its ordinary appearance and stating that Scrooge was a man of no imagination, winding it up by just casually saying it has changed to Marley's face. Just imagine how Dickens' American contemporary Edgar Allan Poe might have described it, with his way of chilling the blood. Let's say as a possibility: Scrooge, as he was about to apply his key to the keyhole, beheld in place of the knocker the very visage of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley! 

This humorous approach continues as Scrooge looks behind the door as if expecting to see the back of Marley's head there. Then an image best worthy of gothic stories from that era occurs. Once again, Dickens just gives a simple description, this time of Scrooge's staircase which is very wide, which was maybe why Scrooge seems to see a hearse going on up the stairs. Then once he's in his room, Scrooge looks around everywhere, making sure there's no one under his bed, or in any adjoining room, or even hiding in his dressing gown and then even double locks his door "as was not his custom." And even when Marley finally does appear, being transparent, Dickens has Scrooge remember hearing people say that "Marley had no bowels", especially implying no heart.

But this humor is done away with when Marley reveals his fate as a ghost: "No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse." In short, the fear to have is not a fear of ghosts, but a fear of becoming a ghost, facing the fate of Marley and his spectral companions as they travel about the world.

The three unearthly visitors who come to Scrooge, while they are addressed as ghosts, are not of anyone deceased and would be better described as spirits. Each of them of course represent a different era: the Ghost of Christmas Past reflects Scrooge's past with many faces of Scrooge's past displayed as it casts an unwanted light on what he would rather forget. The Ghost of Christmas Present displays as well as gives power to those who would welcome it; a kind of parallel to the Holy Spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Future is what the future holds for Scrooge: dark, bleak and even terrifying. (You can understand that this is why that three year old me finally gave in to being scared when it came to this point.)

When Dickens collected A Christmas Carol and his other Christmas writings into a volume simply entitled The Christmas Books, he included in his preface "My chief purpose awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." England no doubt considered itself a Christian nation in the 19th century, but living conditions at the time for the poor was no example of Christian charity. Dickens, despite his merriment in the telling, preaches a harsh sermon on the subject of failing to love and the consequences. He vividly describes appalling living conditions at old Joe's, puts a poor woman with a small child in the midst of a freezing night and all but shoves the figures of Ignorance and Want in the form of children into the reader's face.

This brings to mind Jesus' teaching from Matthew 25: "...for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me...Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me" (vs. 42-45, NKJV). Further on the apostle John writes "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (I John 3:17 NKJV).

There's no question of the story's enduring qualities, as every few years another film adaptation comes out (if you think they can't do any others after Jim Carrey's version, just wait and see) or a writer does their own take on it (last year it got its turn with the vampires and zombies treatment; this year Dark Horse released a graphic novel with Eliza Scrooge instead of Ebenezer). Since its message is so timeless, the story can easily be changed to any setting, from the old west (a Six Shooter radio episode and the movie Ebenezer) to modern day (the movies Ebbie, A Carol Christmas, Ms. Scrooge and A Diva's Christmas Carol, all with female Scrooges as well). It has been given to other holidays: a movie called A Valentine's Carol and a Valentine's Day novel Marly's Ghost, Veggie Tales adapted it for Easter, the movie An American Carol used it for Independence Day, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight had its own take for Halloween, and Adventures in Odyssey has its episode "A Thanksgiving Carol" plus the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and the aforementioned Casper the Friendly Ghost comic story. Some TV series will eventually use it for a Christmas episode as has been done too many times to count.

But the important thing is to see Scrooge's redemption as that change of heart that all must have, to not only keep Christmas itself but to have it all year long and to prove it by your love for others.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's A Wonderful Carol

So, are there any stories based on A Christmas Carol or influenced by it that we might not realize are inspired by it?

I'd say... Yes!

There is a very famous film based on a short story called "The Greatest Gift" that had been privately printed by its writer, Philip Van Doren Stern. The film highly expanded on it, and was released in 1946 as It's A Wonderful Life.

The film tells the story of the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who starts as a aspiring young man who wants to travel the world, but repeatedly winds up making decisions (normally to help others) that keep him in his hometown of Bedford Falls. Soon, he has a loving wife (Donna Reed) and family.

In the film, George's past life is shown to the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) before he is sent to earth on a fateful Christmas Eve where George Bailey will get a chance to see a desperate wish fulfilled: that he was never born.

Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, mainly owned by the miserly Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore, who had played Scrooge annually on a radio adaptation of A Christmas Carol), and full of casinos and other businesses of questionable morals, far from the wholesome hometown George knew. An entire ship of army men was shot down in World War II due to George's brother Harry having died because George was not there to save him from drowning as a child, and his wife Mary is an old maid.

Horrified at what his lack of existence has done, George revokes his wish and realizes that while he might not have done what he wanted to, he's actually done so much more at home.

So, how is this story like A Christmas Carol? By reversing the protagonist. Instead of the bitter Scrooge who has not contributed anything positive to society, we have a man who has actually kept his community clean, though he didn't realize it. Instead of a bad man, we follow a good man who fears that he is about to hit rock bottom.

We see George's past, though he doesn't see it himself (though he is made to appreciate it), and instead of a dark future, we see a dark alternate present. Instead of the Ghosts, we have one Angel. But still, we have the major point of a man's life affecting others and how, thanks to divine intervention, he has an epiphany that makes him re-evaluate his life.

Did the makers of It's A Wonderful Life or the writer of "The Greatest Gift" consciously take their idea from Dickens? Maybe. I haven't seen anyone claim so, but Dickens' story was popular, so it could be that it wasn't a conscious take.

But at any rate, even if it does make some similar points, It's A Wonderful Life is definitely worthy of its own status apart from A Christmas Carol, but its possible origins in Dickens are well worth speculating on.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

More Carol Influence

Family Ties: A Keaton Christmas Carol

Alex Keaton is not in the Christmas spirit, forgetting to get gifts and even refusing to buy cough syrup for his sister Jennifer. During the night, Alex has a Scrooge-like encounter with the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future (depicted by his sisters Jennifer and Mallory, respectively). After realizing where he's headed, Alex decides to make things right with his family.

The Dukes of Hazzard: The Great Santa Claus Chase

Boss Hogg tries once again to get those infernal Duke boys out of his hair (or lack thereof) by framing them with stealing a load of Christmas trees. However, they get ahead of him and manage to keep their names clear of this.

However, they decide to give Boss a wake up call by staging a visit from the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future for him. However, it goes wrong and they have to give it up. But then Roscoe gives Boss a copy of A Christmas Carol and Boss reads it, getting into the story. Realizing he's a lot like Scrooge, he brings gifts to the Duke farm and celebrates Christmas with them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two Transposed Carols

Here are two more episodes of TV shows using A Christmas Carol as plot template.

Xena: A Solstice Carol features heroine Xena and her companion Gabrielle visiting the kingdom of King Silvus, who makes people pay exorbitant taxes, and will even foreclose on orphanages. While bringing Solstice cheer around (helped by his clerk Senticles), Xena tricks Silvus into believing he's seeing images from his past, present and future to make him see the error of his ways.

Highway to Heaven: Another Song For Christmas features a modern day retelling of Dickens' story. Angel Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) and his friend Mark Gordon (Victor French) come across Honest Eddy's Used Car lot. He sells an old couple a bad car, promising that it will be the car of their dreams, fires mechanic Dave Ratchett for refusing to roll back odometers, and he also holds the mortage on an orphanage. (Because, you know, nothing's meaner than evicting orphans.) Inspired by Mark's copy of A Christmas Carol, Jonathan decides to help Honest Eddy change his ways.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"A Christmas... Carol..."

A Christmas Carol has not just been adapted, its story has also served as the template for other stories. Here's a couple examples that are very clear where they got their inspiration from.

Brer Rabbit's Christmas Carol takes us to a community based on the tales of Uncle Remus. Brer Rabbit is hosting a play of A Christmas Carol to raise funds for Timmy Rabbit's medicine. However, Brer Fox seems to be messing up everything with his greed. So Brer Rabbit decides to give Brer Fox a surprise with a late night performance of A Christmas Carol with Brer Fox as Scrooge! But Brer Bear catches a glimpse and thinks real ghosts are tormenting Brer Fox, so he turns to social outcast Brer Gator for help. Will Brer Fox learn his lesson? Will Brer Bear ruin everything?

It's a fun little cartoon. It falls far from the impact of Dickens' story, but it's fun nonetheless.

The 2010 Christmas episode of Doctor Who decided to do a sci-fi re-imagining of Dickens story. The title? A Christmas Carol.

On a planet supposedly in the future, fish swim in the air and the weather is controlled by a machine run by Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon). The problem? In the storm clouds currently above the planet is a floundering cruise vessel containing many passengers, including the Doctor's friends Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). The storm needs to subside so they can land safely.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) finds Kazran obstinate to do anything about it, so taking a cue from Dickens' story, he visits Kazran, and then proceeds to go back in time with the TARDIS to Kazran's past, taking the boy on adventures, and introducing him to the captive (and captivating) Abigail (Katherine Jenkins). Throughout Kazran's life, he goes on many merry Christmas Eve outings with the Doctor and Abigail, until he decides to call it off.

A holographic transmission of Amy shows present day Kazran the people that will die, and he reveals that the reason why he is now obstinate to do anything: the Doctor made him care about Abigail, who he had frozen in a box as security on a debt her family owed. She is terminally ill and had only a small number of days left to live, and in her trips with the Doctor and Kazran, she has used all but one. Kazran values that one last day with her highly.

The Doctor returns and Kazran asks if he's going to be shown the future. The Doctor replies he is showing it to Kazran right now, revealing Kazran as a boy with him. The ripple effect makes Kazran realize what he needs to do, and with some help from Abigail, the storm clouds subside and the cruise ship is able to make a safe landing. Kazran and Abigail go to enjoy their final day together.

Writer Steven Moffat cleverly reworks Dickens' tale with sci fi and time travel twists. A very fun and heartwarming episode.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dickens with these books?

We've discussed how A Christmas Carol has been adapted for film, but it has influenced more than dramatic adaptations, though we'll look at some other things it's inspired later. Right now, here are three examples of books Dickens has influenced. It's been adapted for picture books and comics, but these three books do different things with the story.

First up is Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol by Tom Mula.

Mula offers a new perspective on Dickens' story: what was Marley's actual involvement in Scrooge's redemption? Dickens treats him like the opening act, but Mula reveals that Marley was actually orchestrating Scrooge's fateful night in order to earn his own redemption.

Assisted by bogle (a miniature version of himself), Marley applies for a transfer from his post-mortem existence. Thus, he not only warns Scrooge about the three Ghosts, he uses ghostly shape-shifting powers to portray the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. But when it comes time for Christmas Future, a different hooded figure snatches Scrooge away: Death! Marley is in a race against time to save not only his soul and Scrooge's but Scrooge's life as well!

The book also creates a few new scenes: there is more dialogue between Scrooge and Marley (in all three of his forms), and Mula ventures to speculate on things Dickens doesn't answer. After Scrooge's alternate future death, we are told Fred and his wife visit Paris and Bob Cratchit reopens Scrooge's office.

The story is hardly as meaningful or as rich as Dickens' original tale, but it makes a fun aside for the story, particularly if you've ever felt sorry for Marley.

The second book is Carol for Another Christmas by Elizabeth Anne Scarborough.

Scarborough offers a brand new take on the Christmas classic: Data Banks owner Monica Banks has failed to find love and her only family—her brother Doug—is dead. So, she promises a very dangerous piece of software, allowing anyone owning a computer to be spied upon, and makes her entire staff work Christmas Day to finish it.

However, one Christmas Eve, Doug appears in her computer to warn her that she needs to change her ways. And instead of being visited by three ghosts, the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge himself materializes inside her computer, bringing her inside to see her past, the present Christmas Day, and what could be her future. (Shapeshifting seems to be a point here: Scrooge, being a ghost and in a digital environment turns himself into a replica of Queen Victoria for the present and into a clone of Monica for the future.)

Despite its technological trimmings, the story is a lot of fun and has quite a bit of heart as well, though I don't think it hits quite as hard as Dickens did. Worth checking out for a fun read.

The third book is a new, short print-on-demand offering: Cratchit and Company by Garrett Gilchrist.

This story takes place in the future that Scrooge witnessed with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Tiny Tim has died and Bob Cratchit is dismal. However, sometimes even good men need divine intervention.

A light and enjoyable read.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Carrey Carol

It was take three for Disney and Dickens. We've already examined their Mickey's Christmas Carol, and they distributed The Muppet Christmas Carol. For their third take on Dickens, they enlisted Robert Zemeckis who had turned to using motion capture to create computer-animated films with hyper-realistic motion and detail. (Some find the lifelike production design to be creepy, and hence we have the "uncanny valley" effect: the human eye detecting something as human but not quite.)

Motion capture allows for a small cast to perform all roles. Jim Carrey was able to play Scrooge, not just as an old man, but as a boy, a teenager, and a young man as well. Also, he played all three of the Ghosts. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present bear a resemblance to Carrey, suggesting that the Ghosts are indeed Scrooge's conscience or "good nature" trying to come back into dominance.

Gary Oldman plays three roles: Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim. Colin Firth plays Fred, Bob Hoskins plays Fezziwig and Old Joe, Robin Wright Penn plays Belle and Fan, Cary Elwes (Princess Bride reunion!) plays Dick Wilkins and other bit parts. Only twelve other people were in the cast. A criticism arising right away is that none of the lead cast is British. However, the American cast is able to feign British, Cockney, Irish, and Scottish accents well enough.

The film stays very true to the original Dickens novel, setting out to be what I'll call the "hyper Dickens" version. In promotional materials, the crew insists they tried to tap into Dickens' imagination, though I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. They manage to tell the story very well, but definitely play up the grim parts without a lot of embellishment, though there is some.

The film opens with Marley's burial, and he's shown with two coins over his eyes. After paying the undertaker, Scrooge reclaims these coins before the coffin is sealed, saying "Tuppence is tuppence."

Carrey became famous for his comedy roles, but this doesn't allow for his wacky voiced comedy, so instead, it is worked into physical humor. Scrooge slips and falls humorously when he sees Marley's face on the knocker. The Ghost of Christmas Present "bonks" him on the head. When he "snuffs" the Ghost of Christmas Past, the snuffer shoots skyward like a rocket, taking Scrooge with it before it fades away and he falls back to earth. Even more notably, there is a scene during Christmas Yet To Come in which Scrooge runs away from the Ghost into an alley, where dark forms snatch at him, and he shrinks down to a small size, is chased by a hearse, hurled into the air, hits many icicles, and falls into a bag being carried into Old Joe's. (He speaks in a "pipsqueak voice" during these sequences.)

Most notably, this version plays up the creepy factor. This occurs first when Marley is talking to Scrooge. Marley's jaw breaks off, and he is forced to use his hands to operate his lower jaw before he ties it up again. A ghost outside Scrooge's window suddenly flies at him. The Ghost of Christmas Present dissolves into a laughing skeleton before disappearing, while the forms of Ignorance and Want spring into adults, asking "Are there no prisons?" "Are there no workhouses?" and acting wildly before they are put behind bars and into a straitjacket.

To be honest, when I saw that part, I had to think "You blew it!" Ignorance and Want are supposed to elicit pity and revulsion from the audience. Pity that they are children, and revulsion at what they have become. Suddenly making them insane adults takes away from that.

As for the Future, aside from the aforementioned sequence, the Ghost is seen mainly as a shadow, and when he leaps into three dimensions, he has a skeletal hand. He also opens Scrooge's grave, which shows his coffin glowing red-hot, and forces him into the hole.

I'm not sure that this Carol made the situations that Dickens tried to address clear. We see begging boys who are thrown a piece of meat that a dog steals, but I couldn't help but think that the scene was done to showcase 3D rather than depict the sorry social state of Dickens' London.

A point often neglected in adaptations has been heavily criticized. Scrooge notes public kitchens for people who cannot have a place to cook their meals and wonders why these places are often closed on Sundays, when this is the only day they might be able to dine. Scrooge apparently assumes the Ghost is some God-sent divine manifestation, and the Ghost replies that denying the poor such things is not to blamed on his kith and kin but on those who practice "passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness" in their name. This adaptation has the Ghost call them "these so-called men of the cloth." This has been interpreted as a jab at organized religion. I am not going to comment on this point further.

There are some very fine points. The designs of the characters and locations are well done. The Ghost of Christmas Past is depicted looking almost like a candle with a humanoid body made of wax and a flame for a head, with a gentle Carrey face inside of it. The Ghost of Christmas Present stays mainly inside a room in Scrooge's house, making the floor transparent and flying it over London, so it seems, showing Scrooge scenes of joviality underneath. An interesting take indeed, but something feels much more right when Scrooge is actually standing among the people he is observing.

Overall, there's plenty to like about this Carol. It's well-performed, well-designed, and the story stays very faithful to the book. Yet you can't help but feel that while the makers tried to recreate Dickens aesthetically, they wound up missing the heart narrowly.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

From 2001 to 2003, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was treated to a three-part film adaptation by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. Using amazing actors, groundbreaking CG, beautiful music and a plot adaptation that did the books justice while not adhering to them too strictly, the story came to life for both old fans and new.

The film trilogy quickly shot into popular culture, complete with merchandise of all forms, including multiple editions on DVD and later Blu-Ray. These included extended versions of the films, which were notable for creating a richer viewing experience.

Fans of Tolkien quickly began to speculate on a possible film adaptation of The Hobbit, the much shorter and less complex novel originally for children that The Lord of the Rings was written as a sequel to. Fan scripts (including one by yours truly) popped up online, and fans realized that there were ways a film could expand on the story using additional material that Tolkien wrote after the book's publication.

Production-wise, it was a project that was up in the air, the rights to distribute a film based on The Hobbit were held by MGM, while New Line Cinema (later swallowed by Warner Brothers) held the rights to make any films. Also, Peter Jackson didn't quite want to make the film. He wanted to see another director helm it. Eventually, MGM offered to cooperate with Warner Brothers/New Line to make the movie happen. Soon, director Guillermo del Toro was attached to the project, and he assisted Jackson and his fellow Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to adapt the book to a screenplay, and they announced they would produce two films.

Two films based on The Hobbit? It was initially announced one film would be The Hobbit while the other would be a Lord of the Rings prequel that would look at Middle-Earth leading up to the events of the 2001-2003 film trilogy. Eventually, though, production was delayed and del Toro had to step out of the director's seat to pursue other projects, but not before revealing they had decided to make The Hobbit into a 2-film adaptation. Shortly, Jackson announced that he would helm the films, and soon production was underway. At the 2012 Comic Con, Jackson announced they were considering extending the project to three films, a plan soon confirmed by Warner Brothers/New Line.

The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey debuted in the US December 14, 2012. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, will be released in December 2013, and the final installment, There and Back Again, is expected in December 2014.

So, what is The Hobbit about? Bilbo Baggins, a peace-loving hobbit living in the comfortable land of the Shire, is invited by the wizard Gandalf to help a pack of thirteen dwarves take back their ancient home and treasure. Bilbo joins, thanks to a wild streak from his mother's side. During the quest, he stumbles upon a magic gold ring that makes him invisible, but it will prove so important to the plot of The Lord of the Rings.

An Unexpected Journey is well-cast. All cast members from The Lord of the Rings films whose characters also appear in The Hobbit return in those roles. The only exception is Ian Holm, who—at the age of 81 now—was far too old to portray a young Bilbo Baggins, but Jackson and Co. decided they would blur the lines between old Bilbo and young Bilbo by having Holm return to play an older Bilbo in a prologue sequence that is set just before the start of the first Lord of the Rings film.

Playing the younger Bilbo is Martin Freeman, famous for his roles in the original UK version of The Office, the recent film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and recently Dr. John Watson in the BBC's Sherlock TV series. Freeman is a suitable Bilbo, and while I was worried that I wouldn't buy him as the character against Ian Holm, there was no problem. Period. Freeman makes the role of Bilbo completely his own while not contradicting anything of Holm's character. (There's the problem of a scene from The Hobbit that appears in The Lord of the Rings not matching up with this film, but frankly, I'm not caring right now.)

The main cast is enormous with fifteen characters. Alongside Freeman's Bilbo and Ian McKellan's return as Gandalf are thirteen dwarves: Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter). They manage to be comical but also brave and daring as well. It was strange that many roles were filled by handsome men when dwarves are typically stocky. The leader of them, Thorin, is easily the most developed character of the bunch (and to be fair, Tolkien gave him the biggest backstory), though the others are not relegated to filling the background. They fight together, look out for each other, offer banter and comic relief. Balin is quite friendly to Bilbo and gets a bit more development than the others as well.

The film is about three hours long. Some may not like to see a three-hour film without the ability to pause when they want and to take a break, but I was able to sit through the entire thing. While it covers the first six out of nineteen chapters of the book, it is paced briskly enough and really feels like Jackson took every possible chance to bring Tolkien's world to life in its fullest glory. A little streamlining has been done, and elements that likely won't be relevant until the third film are already set up.

On the expansions, despite my being quite familiar with Tolkien's book, they felt natural considering these are films by Peter Jackson. While this is very much Tolkien, it is also a revisionist take on the story. In the book, Gandalf says he received the map critical to the story from Thorin's father, who was found in the dungeons of the Necromancer. In the film, Gandalf is made aware of the Necromancer by his fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) after he has given the map to Thorin.

Something that I look forward to seeing unfold in the next two films is the involvement of the White Council. Almost entirely absent in the book (it requires Gandalf to leave Thorin's company and it gets a very brief mention later), it was expanded upon in Tolkien's appendices in The Lord of the Rings, and now further expanded here. This brings back Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) from the first trilogy, and gives an expanded role to Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This plot will actually set up quite a big part of The Lord of the Rings.

The music by Howard Shore heavily harkens back to cues from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but as the films cover very similar ground and go to many similar places, it really isn't bad at all. It creates a musical continuity for the films, though I suspect we will hear more new music in the next two films.

I was worried that Jackson might do what George Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels. I only saw the first of those because it was the first Star Wars film I'd seen and it made absolutely no sense to me. Seemingly, enjoying it required familiarity with the original films. The Hobbit book stands on its own, and I think the films will as well, though they have been designed to dovetail with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I will envy people who will view all six films in chronological order as their first experience to this film series.

The film has been noted for introducing a new format for 3D film: using a frame rate double the usual speed. This seems to have been both loved and hated. I saw the film in 2D at normal frame rate. I don't care for 3D myself, and to me, making films look really realistic ruins the fact that this is supposed to be a fantasy epic. Also, 2D matches the look of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Overall, I loved seeing Middle-Earth return to the big screen, and feel that Jackson has produced a quality film. I look forward to seeing the next two installments, and am even considering seeing this one again soon! I even look forward to the home video release!

The Musical Carol

Madison Square Gardens had a popular stage version of A Christmas Carol that ran from 1994 to 2003. I recall seeing the number "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball" performed at a parade. In 2004, it received an adaptation for television.

Unfortunately, it feels like it was meant for the stage. Kelsey Grammer plays Scrooge and it feels as if he was brought in just for name value. Jason Alexander plays Marley and Jennifer Love Hewitt plays Emily, Scrooge's girlfriend who has been curiously renamed. Jane Krakowski, Jesse L. Martin (the original Tom Collins from RENT) and Geraldine Chaplin play the three ghosts. The ghosts also appear at the beginning and end as a lamplighter, a sandwich board man, and an old woman who is supposed to be blind, though she seems to make some very good eye contact.

Apparently, Madison Square had their Ghost of Christmas Past played by a man and some feel this production broke tradition. I had no problems, but I couldn't help but feel the songs in the section were forgettable. A big example of a number translated poorly from stage to screen is "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball." The repeated "rat tat tat tat tat" feels silly on screen, while when it is being done by live performers in front of you, it's rousing. Even Mrs. Fezziwig repeating the title line just feels ridiculous: shouldn't the guests know where they are?

I can't find the scene from the film on YouTube, but here is the number on stage.

Christmas Past has been heavily altered: the only scene directly from Dickens' book is Fezziwig's ball. Scrooge's father is taken to jail and Scrooge goes to work as a child. Later, when he and Marley open their firm, they deny Fezziwig a loan to save his business, deeming it an unwise investment. This display of greed over compassion is what prompts Emily to end her engagement with Scrooge. I'm always leery when adaptations rewrite entire portions of the story. While the scene with Fezziwig in trouble is actually not bad, it's retrodden ground that was done much better in 1951. Also, making Scrooge a hard person so early seems quite unwise. This makes him quite set in his ways and an overnight conversion less likely. The point of Dickens is that Scrooge had lost his way: this makes it look like he hasn't had it in a long time.

The Ghost of Christmas Present opens with a number called "Abundance and Charity," which on film feels too long and doesn't really bear on the plot. When a number stops the story, then its inclusion needs to be questioned. I'm sure on stage (I believe it was originally performed to be a rousing tap dance) it was quite rousing, but on screen, it's just taking a break the audience doesn't need, especially since they'll also have commercials. This is just about the only real problem with this part.

The Ghost of Christmas "Yet To Be" is the biggest deviation from Dickens: it is, instead, an old woman who remains mute, but manages to gesture. The future scenes are rushed onscreen into a single sequence in the graveyard: even Old Joe is there, which is an odd thing indeed for film. But we do get probably the best song in the film here in "God Bless Us Everyone," even though I find the way it is executed implausible for film.

The London scenes definitely say that the film was based on a play. We never see the office of Scrooge and Marley. Instead, the opening and closing acts takes place mainly outside, suggesting that this is how it was done onstage.

In the end, this version is unimpressive, particularly since Scrooge's story has been expanded on better in the 1951 version with Alastair Sim, and Mr. Magoo, Albert Finney and the Muppets have provided excellent musical versions (with better songs) already.

Overall, skip it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Carol: The Movie

2001 brought a new animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Titled Christmas Carol: The Movie, it featured Simon Callow as Scrooge (and Dickens in a removable framing sequence, notably Mr. Callow has reprised the role twice on Doctor Who), Kate Winslet as Belle, and Nicholas Cage as Marley.

The animation on this one is nothing to write home about. While a well-designed production, the overall appearance looks definitely more suited for a television production rather than a theatrical release, which this one got.

Now, the story adaptation. Belle is given an expanded role in the present. Instead of marrying, she works at an orphanage that is having trouble and she sends a letter to Scrooge for help. Old Joe appears early and does business with Scrooge. It is suggested that Tiny Tim dies of pneumonia brought about by Scrooge tossing cold water at him as he sang carols with a group. (Presumably, it compounded on his already weakened condition and had a fatal effect.) Marley appears at Scrooge's office just after Bob leaves (Scrooge closes it) and tells Scrooge of the three ghosts. Later, he reappears as the knocker. And finally, two mice appear and are made the subject of many scenes for seemingly no reason other than to give children cute animals to look at.

It is as if the creators attempted to streamline Dickens' tale (in the live action epilogue, Dickens notes that this version differs from the book), but in doing so, muddied the message. A lot of emphasis is placed on Scrooge's relationship with Belle, made clear by the creators having Kate Winslet sing the song "What If," which became a hit. It's a good song, but is just about one of the few highlights of the film. Scrooge's neglect of the poor is glossed over. Yes, I'm sure the orphans need help as well and do deserve attention, but this feels like such a simplification.

Very much, this one comes down to "why did we need this take on A Christmas Carol?" The answer: we didn't.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stewart's Carol

Few actors have become as attached to A Christmas Carol as Patrick Stewart. Having done a one-man version for about a decade on stage, as well as recording an unabridged audio book, it was inevitable that he would eventually take the role of Scrooge on film.

Funded by TNT and produced by Hallmark Entertainment, Stewart also took the role of executive producer.

Due to the production's familiarity with Dickens' story, this is perhaps one of the truest to Dickens. Exceptionally little is omitted, and fleshing out is restrained. Scrooge is shown signing Marley's death certificate, and many scenes are nicely extended. One favorite little flourish is Scrooge in church faking his way into singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

Stewart, though bald (a look I don't normally think of for the character), makes an effective Scrooge, carrying him from villain to sensitive to outright joyous on Christmas morning. The three ghosts are done excellently, and in my own opinion, I rather like these Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present more than their incarnations in 1951 and 1984. The First Ghost has the snuffer cap and light is used effectively in his presentation. The Second Ghost is much more open and willing to speak with Scrooge than his 1984 counterpart, who often sounded like he was angry with Scrooge.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows a change from past interpretations by emphasizing its unclear nature rather than playing up a creepy factor. This works better, in my opinion. as the story has been retold so often that the viewer already knows that the Ghosts are not trying to do Scrooge harm but good.

The rest of the cast—including Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit and Ian McNiece as Fezziwig—round out an excellent adaptation.

Definitely check this one out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Muppets' Christmas Carol

1992 brought another wacky family-friendly comedy group bringing a take on Dicken's Christmas tale: the Muppets. Now, we saw Mr. Magoo do this by almost ignoring his traditional antics and just doing the story straight. Disney we saw do the opposite with Mickey Mouse, letting their antics overwhelm the story.

So, what about the Muppets?

To be honest, I think they found the right balance.

Their version opens with a snowy version of Dickens' London. Except most of the inhabitants are Muppets, including Dickens himself, portrayed by Gonzo. Accompanying him is Rizzo the Rat. Gonzo introduces the story and Scrooge, leading into the first song sequence, "Scrooge," as seen above. Scrooge himself is played superbly by Michael Caine.

As you can see, this one surprisingly shows the poor of London out in the street, however their effectiveness is lessened by the fact that they are Muppets. However, a later scene shows a rabbit who'd been singing at Scrooge's door shivering as he tries to sleep outside. (Later, he is the boy who Scrooge has buy a turkey for the Cratchits.) Thus, perhaps this does well at showing the victims of lack of generosity, but portraying them as non-human creatures makes the viewers connect with them a little less.

Bob Cratchit is portrayed by Kermit the Frog, and a group of rats assist him in book-keeping. (A humorous exchange occurs when they complain about how cold it is, and Scrooge shouts, "How would the staff like to spend Christmas UNEMPLOYED?" Suddenly, all of the rats have island dress added to their attire and sing "This is our island in the sun!") Fred arrives (played by actor Steven Mackintosh) and asks Scrooge to come to dinner. During his visit, Dr. Honeydew and Beaker arrive, asking for charity donations. Eventually, the day ends, Bob convincing Scrooge to let the staff have Christmas off.

Arriving home, Scrooge sees his knocker turn into the faces of his dead partners, Jacob and Robert Marley (played by Statler and Waldorf). They later visit him, informing him that he will be visited by the three ghosts.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is effectively portrayed by a digital effect, making a small, wraithlike white creature with a child's face. She flies Scrooge out the window (Gonzo and Rizzo coming along for the ride), showing him his boyhood school. Fan is not shown, instead we see his graduation and eventual turn at Fozziwig's (Fozzie the Bear) Rubber Chicken Factory. It is here that we meet Belle, and later, we see her decide to leave Scrooge.

Belle's departure was highlighted with the song "The Love Is Gone." Disney, the distributor, decided to have the song cut because they felt it was too dreary for a children's film. It was reinstated for the VHS release, and was available on the first two DVD releases. (Since the edit of the film with the song was made for the VHS, it was only available in fullscreen, so the latter DVD contained two versions.) When the film was re-released this year on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital copy, the extended version was unavailable, which is too bad, as it is a fine song and makes for a great point for the film.

Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present, an original Muppet, who shows Scrooge the next day's joviality, greatly highlighting Dickens' theme of loving your fellow man.

We see the Cratchit home. Mrs. Cratchit and the children are portrayed by Ms. Piggy and child versions of herself and Kermit, Robin portraying a very charming Tiny Tim.

We also see Fred's Christmas Party, but no Ignorance and Want, one of the few omissions of the film, and a reminder that this film was developed with children in mind.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come arrives, and I can recall how scary he was. Simply a shrouded figure with skeletal hands, even Gonzo and Rizzo dip out for a moment, promising to return for the finale. We go through Old Joe's, the discussion of Scrooge's death by his business partners, the Cratchits' loss of Tiny Tim, and Scrooge seeing his own tombstone before Christmas morning. One of the darker touches is that Scrooge and the Ghost walk through portals that open in a swirling motion in space, making them look like vortexes or wormholes.

Scrooge decides to make a bold new start, and after sending the boy to get a turkey, he heads out and meets Dr. Honeydew and Beaker, and gives them a large donation. Beaker is so moved by this, he gives Scrooge his scarf, giving Scrooge extra determination to stay on the right side of life. He sings through London, buying gifts for his staff, old friends, Fred and his wife and even some of the people he meets on the street before heading to the Cratchits' with to raise Bob's salary and promises to help the family.

About to enjoy a Christmas dinner, Tiny Tim says "God Bless Us Everyone!" and all sing "The Love We Found," the response to "The Love Is Gone," which makes that song's deletion all the worse.

At the very end, Gonzo comments to Rizzo that if he liked the story, he should read the book.

With the omissions and changes for the Muppets to tell the story, I feel this version managed to get the heart of Dickens' story right while still allowing the Muppets to be the Muppets. It is still one of my favorite versions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Scott Carol

1984 brought a new version of A Christmas Carol, this time featuring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. It premiered on television on December 17 and is now considered one of the best adaptations of Dickens' story. It even rivals the 1951 version with Alastair Sim, and coincidentally, the film editor of that version directed this new one.

The story sticks to Dickens' story quite well. Early in the film, Scrooge suggests that if Bob is cold, he could wear a few more layers of clothing. Scrooge is also shown visiting the stock exchange building where he sells some corn he has at an expensive rate. The two men collecting for charity appear here instead of at Scrooge's office.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (definitely female here) at first shows Scrooge's past reflected in her snuffer before they are transported there and says she shines the Light of Truth. This is the earliest live action adaptation (the Williams/Jones animated version did it as well) where Scrooge actually uses the snuffer to get rid of the Ghost. The scene where Fan arrives to pick up her brother from school is expanded upon with Scrooge's father appearing, telling Scrooge that he'll only be home for a few days before beginning work with Fezziwig.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is quite a versatile actor here, though I feel his acting might be a little hammy, particularly with dialogue invented for this adaptation. He'll go from gentle-toned to being stern with Scrooge, talking between clenched teeth to get his point across.

A scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present gets the point across brilliantly by showing a homeless family who decide not to go to a workhouse so they won't be split up.

While the story adaptation is great, the production is extraordinary, for some reason, yours truly just can't really like this one. George C. Scott's a great Scrooge, though.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Disney Carol

In 1983, the Walt Disney Studios released their first visual take on Dickens' story. Titled "Mickey's Christmas Carol," it featured classic Disney characters in the roles of the Dickens cast.

Scrooge is represented by Scrooge McDuck (voiced by Alan Young, his first time voicing the character he would later make famous on Duck Tales), Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse take the role of the Cratchits while similarly designed Mouse children serve the roles of their children. Goofy represents Marley, Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio represents the Ghost of Christmas Past, Willy the Giant from Fun and Fancy Free (specifically the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment) is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and a hooded Black Pete plays the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Rounding out the cast is Donald Duck as Fred, Daisy Duck as Belle, Mole and Rat from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (specifically The Wind in the Willows segment) and Mr. Toad himself is Fezziwig. Making appearances are the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, Cyril the Horse, Grandma Duck, Badger, Clarabelle Cow, Gus Goose, Horace Horse, Chip and Dale, Huey, Dewey, Louie and various characters from Robin Hood.

While the story is very condensed, the heart of Dickens' story has been eviscerated. Instead of being ignorant of what Bob's family needs, Scrooge pays him a pittance salary just to be miserly, allowing Bob one piece of coal a week. In addition to clerking, Bob gets an extra haypenny for doing Scrooge's laundry.

Fred heartily greets Scrooge with a wreath and is comically kicked out. Mole and Rat are sent off with an argument of "Giving money to the poor makes them not poor anymore, and since your job is collecting for them, you'd be out of a job." Gone is Dickens' much more meaningful writing off of the needs of the poor by suggesting they go to prisons or work houses.

And really, this is it. Mickey's Christmas Carol doesn't revel in that it's "A Christmas Carol," but rather that it is Disney. Scenes featuring characters from Disney films are almost copied, now with a Dickens theme. With the legacy of the Disney brand, it is almost shocking that Mickey and his friends could not set aside their antics as Mr. Magoo had done over 20 years before. Certainly Disney has better animation than Mr. Magoo, but the heart is not there.

"A Christmas Carol" was never about how one man could make a better world, but how we all can. And "Mickey's Christmas Carol" fails miserably to convey that message.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Williams and Jones Carol

Chuck Jones decided to adapt "A Christmas Carol" and to help him do it, he enlisted one of the best animators he knew of: Richard Williams. Having seen work by Williams that literally animated Victorian artwork, Jones realized this style would suit Dicken's story wonderfully.

The design of the entire production almost looks like John Leech's illustrations for the original edition of the book come to life with a fluid and strikingly natural movement. There is some simplification done to make animation functional, but the amount of detail in every frame is simply amazing.

The one disadvantage that met Jones and Williams was the fact that they had to adapt the story into twenty-five minutes. While they set out to make the most faithful adaptation, they estimated that in order to adapt the book exactly, they would need at least seven more minutes. Hence, the story loses a few scenes and cuts many very short. The most notable omission is that Fan arriving to retrieve her brother from school is gone and we don't see Belle's life with her husband. The Cratchits are not seen mourning the loss of their son, but instead Bob himself is seen crouched by a bedside with a covered body on it crying, "My little, little child! My little child"

Voicing Scrooge was none other than Alastair Sim, bringing a new interpretation to the character twenty years after his famous turn in the 1951 film. (Apparently, he took some convincing, the final factor being that he would never need to play Scrooge again after doing it in such excellent live action and animated versions.) Michael Horden also reprises his 1951 role as Marley's Ghost, while Michael Redgrave narrates.

Perhaps the production's crowning achievement is the presentation of the Ghost of Christmas Past: an out of focus spirit, its gender is indeterminable both in look and voice. (It has a rather feminine skirt as part of its robe, though.)

Surprisingly, this version of "A Christmas Carol" has the distinction of winning an Academy Award. Though it was made for television, it was subsequently released in theaters. The outcry about a television production winning such an award set up a new rule for the Oscars: a premiere on television would invalidate such an honor.

Despite being one of the best versions of "A Christmas Carol," and quite possibly the best animated version, this cartoon has not been released on DVD. It received a release on VHS. However, a fan of Richard Williams' animation made a high definition version which can be seen on YouTube.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Finney Scrooge

In 1970, a new Scrooge appeared in theaters. This was the first theatrical color and musical film adaptation of the story for theaters.

Albert Finney plays a curmudgeonly Scrooge who becomes a lively cheery soul after his visitation. The story follows that of the book rather closely, adding in Scrooge being briefly harassed by street urchins as he makes his way home on Christmas Eve, when he also visits people who owe him money, grudgingly giving them extra time to pay off their loans, often requiring additional fees.

More time is spent with Bob Cratchit, introducing Tiny Tim and his siblings and mother a little early as Bob goes shopping for the Christmas dinner.

Marley takes Scrooge flying through the sky with other phantoms, warning that he may share their fate.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (dressed like a proper Victorian lady) also shows some scenes of Scrooge's courtship with Isabel, who is now Fezziwig's daughter. Her relationship with Scrooge is demonstrated by her putting an engagement ring in a scale and having it outweighed by two coins.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has Scrooge get drunk off of the "milk of human kindness," and does not display Ignorance and Want. Scrooge awakes in his bed, and finds the next Ghost waiting for him in his home.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is the most altered. Old Joe, Scrooge's business partners and the man who owed Scrooge money are not seen, instead Scrooge's funeral procession is seen, with one big twist: these people are joyfully celebrating his death as they still owed him money. When Scrooge sees his grave, he begs that he may change, then he sees it open, then the Ghost's face is revealed to be a rotted skull. Scrooge falls into his grave into Hell, where Marley greets him. He is given an icy office to do paperwork for the Devil in, then his chain is placed on him. This makes him wake up and decide to change his ways now.

Scrooge dances and sings in the street, buying toys and food for the Cratchit family, gifts for people he meets on the street, accepting Fred's invitation, and forgiving debts as he buys a Father Christmas costume and delivers his gifts to the Cratchits' home. Eventually, he tires and heads home, hanging the false Father Christmas bear and hat on his knocker, saying he will prepare to spend Christmas with Fred. (We felt the film-makers missed a beat by not having the knocker turn into Marley's face there.)

The film is punctuated by twelve new songs and a large finale that reprises many of them. The opening song "A Christmas Carol" plays over the opening credits. "Christmas Children" is sung by Bob as he goes shopping. "I Hate People" is sung by Scrooge as he leaves his office. "Father Christmas" is jeeringly sung by the street urchins who harass Scrooge. "See the Phantoms" is sung by Marley as he and Scrooge fly through the sky.

"December the 25th" is sung at Fezziwig's Party, while the song "Happiness" is sung by Isabel. "You... You..." is sung by a reflective Old Scrooge about his ended relationship with her.

"I Like Life" is sung by the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge, while Tiny Tim sings a song called "The Beautiful Day." The rousing "Thank You Very Much" is sung during Scrooge's funeral procession, and he joins in, having just missed noticing his coffin.

Scrooge sings "I'll Begin Again" after he awakes from his vision of Hell, and the finale consists of "Thank You Very Much," "Father Christmas," "Thank You Very Much" again, and finally "A Christmas Carol."

While it's a cheerful and bright adaptation, it again fails to point out exactly why Dickens wrote the story. The poor are seen as honest working people or jovial street urchins who would get by pretty well even if Scrooge hadn't reformed. Again, the main people who appear to benefit from Scrooge's reformation are the Cratchits.

But this jovial and rousing take on A Christmas Carol should not be missed.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

One would expect Mr. Magoo would do anything but a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The poor-sighted character was largely created for humor and getting into trouble.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol doesn't ignore that Mr. Magoo is who he is: the framing story (sometimes cut for television broadcast) is that Magoo is starring as Scrooge in a play based on A Christmas Carol, and at the beginning, singing "It's Good To Be Back On Broadway," he narrowly avoids being injured in a traffic pile-up he causes, and he mistakes a restaurant for the theater entrance. When he finally arrives, he's a half hour late, he walks into the wrong dressing room, and is hurled onstage. This causes the director to be injured by a falling sandbag. At the end, Magoo takes his bow with his back turned to the audience, then he accidentally demolishes the set.

However, Magoo is superb as Scrooge. Nephew Fred and Fan are not in this version, yet the story manages to hit all the right points without them. The social class of Scrooge's London is fleetingly represented as Scrooge chases poor caroler boys away.

An interesting switch is that the Ghost of Christmas Present is the first of the three spirits, then the Ghost of Christmas Past, and finally the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. This is hardly a flaw, however.

There are also songs: "Ringle, Ringle," which Scrooge sings as he counts his coins, then reprises with different lyrics later when he starts helping the Cratchits. "The Lord's Bright Blessing" is sung during the Cratchit's Christmas dinner, the children wishing they had better things, while Bob encourages them that while it's all right to hope for those things, they should appreciate what they do have. It is reprised as the play's finale. "Alone in the World" is sung by boy Scrooge as he sits in his school and he is joined by the older version of himself, making for a very endearing scene. This is reprised as Scrooge sits at his tombstone in the future. Belle sings "Winter Was Warm" as she reflects on happier days while courting Scrooge before she ends their relationship. This is also sung by the chorus during the end credits. Finally, the song "We're Despicable" is sung by Old Joe and his customers who are selling the dead Scrooge's things. This also allows for the crudest humor in the adaptation: Joe and his customers steal from each other and one continually has her hat beaten down onto her head.

And yet with all that, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol manages to hit all the right emotional points. Definitely worth watching, if not for a nice adaptation of Dickens' story, then for its first animated adaptation, and the first animated Christmas special.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sim's Carol

One of the most popular film adaptations of A Christmas Carol is from 1951, featuring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. This version was made in the UK and was released there as Scrooge, while in the United States, it was released as A Christmas Carol.

The film effectively depicted Scrooge's London in its appropriate setting, making the picture of the social statuses clear. An effective and memorable shot are ghosts like Marley reaching in vain to a freezing mother and her baby.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is depicted as an old man with long hair, and his scenes are extended by showing many of Scrooge's past Christmases. His relationship with his sister Fan is deepened when he laments no one will ever love him, and she says she will, and he tells her that she must live forever. Later, he is at her bedside when she dies while giving birth to Fred.

Earning much more screen time is the development of Scrooge's business with Marley. They go to work for a Mr. Jorkin after ending their time with Fezziwig, who turns out to be an embezzler. They help him by buying his business and making it their own. Later, Scrooge seems to care little as Marley dies, leaving him everything. In this version, Belle is renamed Alice, and later, she is seen working with the homeless.

Also given an expanded role is Ms. Dilber "the charwoman," who has worked for Scrooge and Marley in their home and is later the woman who steals some of Scrooge's belonging to sell on the black market. This version makes her intentions clear: she no longer has a job, so she resorts to theft to provide for herself. This is because Scrooge only pays enough for her to get by. After Scrooge has his experience, he raises her wages.

Overall, a delightful and provoking take on Dickens' story, though the additional scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Past might prove to be too much. They explain why Scrooge is the way he is, but it can prove tiresome. Still, it is pulled off quite well. Quite recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Vincent Price Carol

There were many television adaptations of A Christmas Carol aired during the early days of television, many performed live. The earliest existing version is from 1949 and was hosted by Vincent Price, who appears onscreen, reading from a well-worn copy of the book.

The adaptation is simple and basic, and the production values are mediocre. Nephew Fred, Belle, Fezziwig, and Old Joe are all gone from this version. So are many of Dickens' heavy themes.

Overall, this version is more for fans of Vincent Price or those wanting to see most of the adaptations of this story. There's better versions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reginald Owen's Carol

In 1938, MGM rushed out an adaptation of A Christmas Carol featuring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. They had originally wanted Lionel Barrymore, but he was suffering a bad bout of arthritis, and had already gained immortality in the role on radio.

The film offers a cheerful take on Dickens' story, and as such, cuts out some of the sadder parts of the story. Gone are the phantoms Marley shows Scrooge outside of his window, Belle, Ignorance and Want, and the people who stole the late Scrooge's things to sell them.

Added is more scenes with Fred in the beginning. He goes coasting on the ice with some boys, two of whom happen to be Tiny Tim and his brother. Fred even helps Tiny Tim along, seeing that he's unable to do it himself. Arriving at Scrooge's office, he treats Bob Cratchit to some port wine. Later, when Bob leaves the office, he makes snow balls with some boys, and is dared into throwing one at a man in a top hat, who happens to be Scrooge, who promptly fires Bob, taking a shilling and a garnished last week's wages to pay for the ruined hat. Bob is forlorn, but eventually decides to give his family a fine Christmas anyway.

When Marley's ghost is visiting Scrooge, Scrooge calls for some night watchmen to arrest the supposed intruder. They don't see anything and Scrooge turns them away.

Finally, Scrooge and Fred and his fiance Bess deliver the prize turkey to Bob's place, gives him his job back and a raise, and promises Tiny Tim that he'll take him to a doctor.

While there's nothing really wrong with making Dickens' Carol a brighter and more cheerful tale, the fact is, it's not as meaningful without the grimmer parts. While this one is a lovely adaptation, it loses a lot by sweetening it so much.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Seymour Hicks as Scrooge

Sir Seymour Hicks is, so far, the only actor to portray Scrooge in a live-action version onscreen twice. His first appearance was in a silent film from 1913, but is more famous for his performance in the first sound version of A Christmas Carol, titled Scrooge, from 1935.

This version finally brings in a nice jolt missing from the silent versions: Dickens' excellent dialogue. One standard for adaptations that don't move the story from its original setting in 1843 London is that they generally use most of Dickens' original dialogue, altered slightly for the film and sometimes embellished.

There are embellishments here: Scrooge actually asks Bob about his family, and near the end, mentions how he'll be a second father to Tiny Tim. The film effectively shows 1843 London, yet fails to show the difference in social class. The "melancholy tavern" Scrooge has dinner in is expanded upon, though it's not a tavern, but apparently a fine establishment, as the Queen arrives to have dinner there, making everyone sing "God Save The Queen."

One issue though is that of the four ghosts Scrooge sees, only the Ghost of Christmas Present is seen. Marley's face is seen on the knocker, but when he enters Scrooge's room, he is invisible, Marley himself clumsily saying that only Scrooge can see him. To be sure, Hicks acts well against nothing, but considering that even the silent films could portray Marley effectively, this is disappointing.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a vague figure, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come only has his pointing finger visible.

A lot of the Ghost of Christmas Past's scenes are cut. The scene of Belle ending her relationship with Scrooge is seen, spurred by her witnessing him refusing mercy to a debtor. Then, there is the scene in which Belle's husband tells her he saw Scrooge after Marley died. Ignorance and Want are also not shown. I can understand on some levels why these were cut, but seeing the neglected boy Scrooge and the merry young Scrooge who worked for Fezziwig also help his character. I can only asume they did not want to hire more cast or build more sets than necessary (Bob Cratchit's home and Fred's home are both sets that are reused), but if that's the case, why the extended dinner scene?

While Hicks makes an effective Scrooge, what is cut from this Carol is really a disappointment.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Silent Films

There were about seven silent film adaptations of A Christmas Carol from 1901 to 1923. However, I've only been able to see three of them: Scrooge. or Marley's Ghost from 1901, a later one from probably 1910, and a rare version from 1922.

Silent films are often mis-represented today. The technology to record sound and play it back in synch perfectly didn't come around until about 1923 and wasn't applied to feature films until 1927.

Thus, films were not dialogue heavy before sound came around. We see an example already in Marley's Ghost: intertitles are used to briefly describe the scene the viewer will see. The scene is then acted in completely silent pantomine, so motions are exaggerated to convey how the characters are acting.

For 1901, it works well, though some scenes from Dicken's book are not carried over. The scenes in the offices of Scrooge and Marley now focus on just Bob and Scrooge.

The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are excised, now Marley himself shows Scrooge his past (nicely done by having the past projected in Scrooge's room), present ("God Bless Us Everyone" is written on the wall in the Cratchit home), and future, where the first scene is Scrooge seeing his tombstone. It cuts over to the grief of the Cratchits, but this is where the extant fragment ends.

For the time, the retelling is well done. I do, however, think it could have been better. For example, perhaps Marley might not just be a man wearing a sheet?

The 1910 version manages to do a better retelling of the story in about ten minutes. The intertitles do a better job this time and more of the story is displayed. The ghost effects are much better done. The three ghosts are replaced by a single ghost who first wears a wreath, then has a torch, then wears a shroud. The visions of Scrooge are projected in his room, a rather effective take on the story.

The 1922 version brought much better visuals and a better adaptation of the story, though scenes such as Fezziwig's party are still missing. Still, it's rather basic.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Young British author Charles Dickens was noticing problems in England in the early 1840s. The impoverished had little chances of bettering their lives. Children, depending on the financial state of their parents, were sent to lonely schools or had to work at a young age. Dickens himself had experienced the former as a boy, and had witnessed the latter recently, seeing children at work in the Cornish tin mines.

Dickens made up his mind that there needed to be a reform and decided to write a political pamphlet about it. Suddenly, an idea struck him. In his book, The Pickwick Papers, he wrote about a grouchy gravedigger's overnight conversion into a more congenial man after he was shown images of his past and future by goblins. What if he now characterized the upper class as just such a man who is shown the error of his ways? A similar plot, but now much more fleshed out.

Dickens walked through a graveyard and noticed a tombstone bearing the name "Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie," and it noted he was a "meal man." Due to his mild dyslexia and poor light, Dickens was quick to rework it into his main character: Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean man.

Furthermore, why not use the setting of Christmas to better demonstrate the message he wanted to get across? A harmony of goodwill to one another was decidedly lacking in England at the time. Perhaps the story of old Scrooge could teach people to treat their fellow people better.

The book A Christmas Carol in Prose being a Ghost Story of Christmas—most often referred to by its shorter title which appeared on the cover, A Christmas Carol—was published in September 1843. The book sold quickly, though Dickens never made much of a profit on it, having settled for a lump sum from the publishers. It was illustrated by noted artist John Leech.

The book struck a chord with England, however. While some felt Dickens' message was wrong, more often than not, readers picked up on the message and took it to heart. It was also quickly adapted for stage, and readings were performed, some by Dickens himself.

The story is now very familiar.

Opening on Christmas Eve, 1843, we find the firm of Scrooge and Marley under the operation of Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Marley, we are told from the beginning, is dead, and Scrooge is a lot like him: "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." Dickens does not tell us exactly what Scrooge does. Perhaps he is a banker or moneylender. He is an elderly bachelor and very wealthy, though he has no intention of sharing his wealth.

The office of Scrooge and Marley is visited by Scrooge's jovial nephew Fred, later clarified to be the son of his late sister Fan. Fred invites his uncle to celebrate Christmas with him the next day, which Scrooge declines in a very impolite manner.

It is through Fred that Dickens makes his stance on how to treat your fellow man clear: "I have always thought of Christmas time... as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Scrooge is solicited for financial aid for the poor by a couple of well-meaning fellows, and it is here that Dickens clearly characterizes the poor opinions held by the upper class in England through Scrooge:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die."

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that."
 Scrooge grudgingly allows Bob to have Christmas Day off work with pay. After closing and having dinner at his "melancholy tavern," he goes home, but when he is about to unlock his front door, he sees Jacob Marley's face instead of the knocker. The vision goes away, but Scrooge is unsettled and makes sure to lock and double-lock his bedroom door.

Going about his usual nightly routine, Scrooge thinks he sees a hearse pass him on the stairs, and seeing illustrated Biblical tiles by the fireplace, Scrooge can't help but think of the images as Marley's face.

Suddenly, every bell in the house begins to ring and when they stop, Scrooge hears a thudding and clanking as footsteps are heard downstairs and they come upstairs. Jacob Marley's ghost enters Scrooge's room, looking exactly as he did when he was buried, with a chain from his waist made of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel."

Marley tells Scrooge that his soul has had no peace since he died seven years ago. “It is required of every man,” he explains, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

Marley explains the chain as representing what he worked on in life, and tells Scrooge that he has one himself, which was equal to Marley's seven years ago, and is now "ponderous." Marley further explains that he has come to warn Scrooge that he may yet avoid Marley's fate. Three spirits will visit Scrooge, Marley warning, "Without their visits you cannot hope to shun the path I tread."

Marley flies out the window, Scrooge seeing many other chained ghosts sobbing that they've missed their chance to do anything good for the world.

Dickens gets to play with time travel a bit. Marley's dialogue makes it sound like the spirits will visit Scrooge on separate nights, but the visits occur in one night. But the time travel begins right off with the first one: Scrooge says he went to bed after two, but the clock strikes midnight when a spirit radiating light identifying itself as the Ghost of Christmas Past opens his bed curtains.

Dickens uses descriptive imagery to depict the ghost. It is like a child, but yet also like an old man. It carries a sprig of holly, but its dress is decorated with summer flowers. It also carries a cap like a snuffer.

The Ghost takes Scrooge to the school where he was a boy, and he sees himself studying. He reflects on spending the holidays alone as a child, accompanied only by the characters he'd read of in books. Then, they go to a later Christmas in the same school, but his sister Fan arrives and tells him that their father has reformed and says he can go home. These stir up some nostalgic memories in Scrooge, and he even resents sending a caroling boy away empty handed recently. It also makes him wish he'd been kinder to Fred, for Fan's sake.

Another later Christmas shows a young Scrooge working as an apprentice for a cheery fat man named Fezziwig. This makes Scrooge reflect on how he's treated Bob. Fezziwig could throw a joyous party, but Scrooge can barely begrudge Bob a day off?

Still a later Christmas shows a young woman named Belle ending her relationship with young Scrooge, claiming he loves money more than her.

The Ghost shows one more vision to Scrooge: Belle and her husband, and her husband saying that he saw Scrooge, and he looked to be very alone in the world. (The husband mentions Marley is dying, placing this at seven years ago.)

Scrooge has seen enough and forces the snuffer cap over the Ghost's head, especially when he realizes he sees faces from the past in its face. He finds himself in his bedroom and returns to bed.

When Scrooge awakes, it is midnight again, and he decides to be ready for the next ghost. It doesn't come to his bed, but he does notice a bright light, so he leaves his bed and enters the adjoining room, finding the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Leech accurately depicts the scene Dickens describes, and Scrooge is much more willing to go with this ghost.

The Ghost shows Scrooge many scenes of joviality and Christmas cheer that will occur, but two stand out specifically. The first is Bob Cratchit's home, where the family prepares Christmas dinner before Bob and his young invalid son Tim come home from church. Scrooge marvels at how the family manages such merriment over such a meager meal. He asks if Tiny Tim will live.
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
 The second place is that of the home of Fred. He and his wife and their friends are having a merry discussion and play a game, and Scrooge hears himself mentioned. Fred really wants to spend time with his uncle and have him share in the joys of the holiday with him and his friends.

Soon, though, the Ghost announces he is about to leave. But he makes it clear that while many were merry during this Christmas, some went unnoticed. Dickens characterizes this by having two emaciated children crawl out from under the Ghost's robe. The Ghost introduces them as a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want. The Ghost warns Scrooge to beware of both of them, but most of all Ignorance, "for on his brow I see that written which is Doom."

Thus Dickens drives the point home. Ignoring the real issues will be the doom of humanity.

Midnight strikes and the Ghost is gone. Coming to Scrooge is a figure shrouded in black. He identifies it as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. It does not speak but only leads him, nodding and gesturing to where it wants him to look.

Scrooge sees some men he's done business with discussing the recent death of someone they didn't particularly care for. Then, Scrooge is shown a shop where people are selling stolen goods from the dead man's home. Then, Scrooge is shown the body under the sheet. The Ghost seems to ask Scrooge to lift it, but Scrooge doesn't have the nerve to do so. He asks to be taken to see someone who shows emotion for the man's death.

Scrooge is shown a mother and children who are met by the father who went to see if he could get mercy on a debt they owed, only to discover the man they owed money to is dead and thus, they will have time to have the total sum before a new creditor takes the account.

Then, we are shown the Cratchit's home. They are in tears, and Scrooge sees that Tiny Tim is dead. Bob is especially dismal, though we are not told why.

Then, the Ghost shows Scrooge to the churchyard, and Scrooge begins to ask if what he's seen is what will be or what might be. He soon manages to convince himself it is the latter. He begins to connect the pieces. Sure enough, the Ghost has him examine a grave bearing the name EBENEZER SCROOGE. He was the dead man, the father and mother and their children owed him money, and not only has Bob lost a child, he is also unemployed.

Scrooge begs that he may change this horrible view of the future, promising, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

And as Scrooge reaches for the Ghost to beg it for a response, it turns into his bedpost. It is Christmas morning, and Scrooge is at home. He is not dead, and he can change the future and he decides to set about it at once. He sends a boy he sees outside his window to purchase a large turkey that he sends anonymously to the Cratchits by a cab. He attends church, is able to make a late donation to the men who were collecting for charity, and he attends Fred's party.

The next morning, Scrooge catches Bob arriving late and makes a pretense that he is angry at him. Making Bob fear the worst, Scrooge declares he is going to raise his salary, and furthermore, they will have a long overdue talk about Bob's affairs.

Dickens finishes the story by saying that Scrooge had learned his lesson and lived by it to the end of his days. Thanks to his intervention, he saved Tiny Tim's life, and—we may assume—he helped Bob have the child's health seen to. Whether or not Scrooge's life was extended is not addressed, but it is sure he was able put many of his own affairs right as well. was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
I had not noticed how heavy handed Dickens could be at allegory. In fact, I believe the only heavier one I've seen is The Pilgrim's Progress.

Something my father notes is how Dickens suggests all of Scrooge's visions may have been influenced by drinking (perhaps at that melancholy tavern). Scrooge himself suggests that Marley's ghost might be influenced by indigestion. In the final paragraph, Dickens writes, "He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle."
Whether it was liquor or indigestion or divine intervention, Dickens gets his point across that one person's life can touch so many others. Those who have a lot should at least try to help the not so fortunate. We are not told why Scrooge is so rich, nor are we told why Bob is so poor. Using only what Dickens tells us, we can't say Scrooge worked hard for his money, or that it was Bob's fault that he was poor. We don't know, and thus, we should not judge.

The truly inspiring message of Dickens' story resounded with many readers and in a short amount of time, the story was adapted for stage. Later, it was adapted into many silent films. Today, there are countless adaptations in print, audio, film, and television. Scarcely a year goes by without some new production either being based on the story or inspired by it, from the early silent films to a Christmas episode of Doctor Who.

Perhaps, with the message of setting our differences aside and helping one another, A Christmas Carol is now just as relevant and needed in 2012 as it was back in 1843.

Over the next several days, we will be looking at various adaptations of Dickens' story. Did they manage to bring Dickens' message across intact, or was it considerably weakened by translation? We shall see.