A Christmas Carol: A History in Film

By Ryan Gullett

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens

Birth & Early Life

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812. Charles Dickens portraitThe Dickens family lived in the coastal region of Kent in southeast England until Charles' ninth birthday when they moved to London. John Dickens, Charles's father was a kind man but financially irresponsible and he accumulated tremendous debt throughout his life. When Charles was twelve, his father was arrested and sent to debtors' prison. Dickens' mother moved the family into the prison to live with their father except for Charles for whom she arranged to live alone with other child laborers working in a blacking warehouse pasting labels on bottles.

The traumatic three months apart from his family took a heavy toll on Charles. He considered living and working in a miserable work house beneath his station in society, and this attitude cause a great deal of strife between himself and his fellow workers. Finally, his father was released from debtors’ prison and Dickens could return to school. He eventually became a law clerk and then a court reporter before taking his place as one of the most popular English novelists of his time. Dickens completed his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, at age twenty-five, which met with great success. This began his career as an English literary celebrity, during which he produced such masterpieces as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities.

One of Dickens' most beloved tales, Ebenezer Scrooge A Christmas Carol, is a relatively simplistic allegory and seldom considered one of Dickens’ important literary contributions. The importance of the tale lies in the emotional depth, descriptive narration, and endearing characters. The novella was written in 1843 with the intention of drawing attention to the plight of England's poor. In the tale, Dickens combines a description of hardships faced by the poor with a sentimental celebration of the Christmas season. The calloused character of the penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge, transforms into a generous and joyous individual after his confrontation with three spirits of Christmas.


"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

Charles Dickens commences his tale with the death of Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge's miserly partner seven years prior to the tale. The ghost of Marley visits Scrooge. He emphasizes this death as the beginning of events that led to Scrooge's other -worldly visitors. Events begin to unfold with the miserly old man, Ebenezer Scrooge sitting in his counting house on a frigid Christmas Eve. Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's kind-hearted clerk sits working in the anteroom , shivering because Scrooge's frugal attitude extended to his refusal to pay for coal for the fire. Soon, Scrooge's nephew, Fred, visits him and invites him to his annual Christmas party. Scrooge then utters the famous "Bah! Humbug!" to his nephew, who leaves wishing his uncle "Merry Christmas" in spite of his uncle's poor attitude. Two portly gentlemen also visit Scrooge to solicit funds for the indigent and destitute. Scrooge again refuses and bids them clear off.

Later in the evening, Scrooge returns to his residence and receives a chilling visit from the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. The ghost relates a chilling tale of his punishment to wander of the Earth carrying heavy chains draped over his haggard body for the past seven long years in payment for the greedy and self-serving life of his spirit. Marley states that his visit precedes the coming of three spirits who will visit Scrooge over the next three nights and who, Marley hopes, will persuade Scrooge to change his ways.

Ghost of Christmas PastScrooge awakes later just before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange child-like phantom with a brightly glowing head. The spirit escorts Scrooge on a journey into Scrooge's past, specifically his past Christmases. Scrooge revisits his lonely childhood school days, his apprenticeship with a jolly merchant named Fezziwig, and his engagement to Belle, a woman who leaves Scrooge because his lust for money eclipses his ability to love another. Scrooge, deeply moved, sheds tears of regret before the ghost returns him to his bedroom.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, a jolly giant clad in a green fur robe, Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge through London to unveil Christmas as it will happen that year. Scrooge watches the Cratchit family prepare a meager feast and eagerly watches Bob Cratchit's crippled son, Tiny Tim, a courageous boy whose kindness and humility warm Scrooge's heart. The specter then takes Scrooge to his nephew's Christmas party, where Scrooge finds the jovial gathering delightful. As the day passes, the spirit becomes noticeably older and at the end of the day, the spirit shows Scrooge two starved children, Ignorance and Want, living under his coat.


At the death of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge encounters the mysterious and foreboding Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who leads Scrooge through a sequence of mysterious scenes relating to an unnamed man's recent death. After several scenes, Scrooge becomes anxious to know the unknown man's identity and begs the spirit to reveal the man's name. After pleading with the ghost, Scrooge finds himself in a graveyard. The spirit points to a grave where Scrooge kneels to read the headstone and is shocked to find it is his own grave. After Scrooge implores the spirit to alter his fate while promising to renounce his miserly ways and to honor Christmas with all his heart, the spirit sends him back to his bedroom.

Scrooge, overwhelmed with joy at being given the chance to redeem himself, rushes to the window and calls to the people in the street below, asking the day. They shout back that it is Christmas Day and Scrooge rushes out with the hope of sharing his newfound Christmas spirit. He sends a giant turkey to the Cratchit house and attends Fred's party. Tiny Tim and Bob Cractchit As years go by, Scrooge holds true to his promse to honor Christmas and he cares for Tiny Tim as his own child. "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"


Film Adaptations:

As Christmas has evolved over the years from a celebration of the Christ-Child's birth to the highly secularized holiday of today, Dickens' story reminds us of the season's true spirit and the necessity of generosity towards the rest of humanity. The adaptations of the story into film, whether comical or dramatic, remain true to the lesson found in the novel's pages.

A Christmas Carol, a 1908 silent film produced by Essanay Studios in Chicago starring Tom Ricketts as Ebenezer Scrooge. This film was one of the first adaptations of Dickens' tale to moving pictures. It was an impressive product for this time period.

The Right to Be Happy (1916) was the first feature-length adaptation, directed by and starring Rupert Julian as Scrooge.

Scrooge (1935), starring Seymour Hicks.

A Christmas Carol (1938) was the first American adaptation of Charles Dickens's novella, starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge and Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley as the Cratchits. Many consider this film a classic, the best adaptation of the story yet made.

The film also expands on the story by detailing Scrooge's rise as a prominent businessman who was corrupted by a greedy new mentor that had lured him away from the benevolent Mr. Fezziwig. When that new mentor, who does not appear at all in Dickens's original story, is discovered embezzeling, the opportunistic Scrooge and Marley offer to compensate the company's losses on the condition that they receive control of the company, thus Scrooge and Marley is born. The extra material, although absent from Dickens' original tale, does not detract from the story's lesson and only furthers the understanding of the characters.

Walt Disney's adaptationMickey's Christmas Carol (1983), an animated short film featuring the various Walt Disney characters, with Scrooge McDuck fittingly playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and Mickey Mouse playing Bob Cratchit. This film was made with a young audience in mind, so much of the story has been cut. The core of Dicken’s lesson remains the same although poetic license is taken with the lines of the characters.

Scrooged (1988), a remake in a contemporary setting with Bill Murray being a misanthropic TV producer who is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas. The film was produced and directed by Richard Donner, and the cinematography was by Michael Chapman. The screenplay was written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), featuring the various Muppet characters, with Michael Caine as Scrooge. The Muppets with Michael Caine The Muppet Christmas Carol is the fourth feature film to star The Muppets, and the first produced after the death of Muppets creator Jim Henson. Released in 1992, it is one of many film adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The movie follows Ebenezer Scrooge who is a cruel and ruthless money lender. His immoral business practices cause bring a lot of hardship to London's Camden Town, the film's setting.

A Christmas Carol (2009), London Street at Christmas a "performance capture" film directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts, from Walt Disney Pictures and ImageMovers Digital released in November 2009. Much of the characters’ lines are taken straight from the book and the events portrayed mirror the events in the book. Enormous detail has been put into the animation of old London and the vistas presented reveal a different city than the one most are accustomed to seeing. Although an animated film, the characters come to life as the story progresses and while Hollywood has had its say, the film provides an excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens' work.


Recommended Reading:

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography, 1st ed. New York: Morrow, 1988. p 1-607.