Dozens of Scrooges: Who says you can't binge-watch 'A Christmas Carol'?
Charles Dickens always has a seat at my family’s holiday table.
My dad – author, editor, preacher and teacher – is a voracious reader. Growing up, our home was crowded with books, with new bookshelves being added often and a house rule that if a book came in, one should go out.
On any given day, he’s likely to be in the middle of more than one book, his choices leaning heavily toward non-fiction.
An exception is Dickens. He’s immersed himself in the works of the 19th-century novelist and social critic for many years, reading all his books at least once. He revisits “A Christmas Carol’’ every holiday season ever since his school days.
A former English major, I’ve read several of Dickens’ works myself, but I must admit to a far spottier reading habit and a broader pop culture appetite.
Nonetheless, when my husband and I became parents, my dad’s passion for “A Christmas Carol’’ inspired one of my favorite new traditions.
Every year, right after Thanksgiving, my son Luca and I watch as many film, TV and Internet-only versions of this well-told tale as we can cram into the last days of the year. As soon as the leftover pumpkin pie is served, we are knee-deep in Fezziwigs, plum pudding, prize geese and a cavalcade of uninvited late-night spirits.
It began with our mutual love of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,’’ a great place to start if you want to get your own kids engaged in the world of Scrooge. The Muppets’ 1992 version starring Michael Caine sticks surprisingly close to the classic story, and is delightful.
Like my dad before us, Luca and I favor the 1951 Alastair Sim tour de force. Sim’s interpretation of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is widely recognized as the definitive cinematic take on Dicken’s novella. Luca and I look forward to watching it every year, and it is the version against which all other worthy versions (George C. Scott comes immediately to mind) must be measured.
It’s important to note that neither Sim's and nor any of the other stage, broadcast or streamed versions of “A Christmas Carol’’ can fully do justice to the dire message at the heart of Dickens’ classic story.
We have failed in this life if we turn a blind eye to the desperation we find all around us, and do not do our part to allay it.
I’ll pass the mic to my dad, Charles Paolino here:
“Dickens had experienced a powerful dose of inhumanity as he grew up in impoverished and humiliating circumstances, and he went out of his way as an adult to witness the suffering of those whom the Industrial Revolution had left without hope of a decent, dignified life,’’ he writes in his blog.
“His reaction to what he saw is often obscured in the popular images of the characters Dickens created … As charming as ‘A Christmas Carol’ can be, it is darkened again and again by Dickens’ flaring temper. This indignation drives these stories, but it often gets left behind when the text is reinterpreted for the stage or the screen.’’
So if you want Dickens, the real deal, it’s best to settle down in front of the hearth (or the Yule Log on your favorite smart TV streaming service) with a good reading lamp and meet the Ghosts, all of them, on the printed page.
My hometown of Collingswood has, in the past, offered a free marathon reading of the Christmas classic, with anyone who showed up taking a turn reading a stave. Covid has put the brakes on this tradition, but hopefully only temporarily, as it was always a holiday highlight for us.
Yet, who can resist settling down and watching old Ebenezer reckon with his demons, be they dressed for a holiday banquet or slack-jawed and hauling around chains fashioned from their poor life choices?
Living at a time when the distance between the haves and have-nots gets wider by the day, and a global pandemic has put so many around the world on even more precarious footing, makes my yearly marathon with Luca about much more than spooky ghosts, classic characters and an old man’s change of heart on Christmas morning.
I know that no matter who is chiding Bob Cratchit for adding coal to the hearth or sipping his gruel alone in his chambers or flying around London clinging to the robe of a ghost, Luca is taking in the core messages: The only life worth living is one of generosity, the sharing not just of one’s own fortune but also of one’s own spirit.
We share this rock with our fellow humans for a few fleeting years. We can cling to what we have, close our ears to the needs of our neighbors, and seal ourselves behind ever more locks and chains, as Scrooge does before Jacob Marley makes his big entrance.
Or we can bound out of bed, toss open the nearest window sash and challenge the first child we see to fetch the fattest goose for a family in need.
Our 12 favorite 'A Christmas Carol' versions
Feel free to join Luca and me in our yearly quest. As you plot your own binge-watch, here are 12 of our favorite versions (some unconventional, some irreverent), more or less in reverse order. There are dozens of others ("Dr. Who, for instance, or Black Adder, or Alfred Finney) that didn't make our list, but may make yours.
12. This is actually a tie. It's either “A Christmas Carol Minute Book Report’’ (YouTube) – the holiday tale told at warp speed with stick-figure drawings — or it's "Christmas Carol: A Short Film'' by Nathan Carter, a young British YouTuber who created most of the story from his bedroom with the help of a flat screen TV, mural of London, a few special effects and a bunch of creepy masks.
11. "Thug Notes: Christmas Carol'' (YouTube) – This streetwise version is not for the politically correct or for little kids. The irreverent send-up of Cliffs Notes is hilarious. Here’s fair warning: Thug Notes Dickens can be a gateway drug into Thug Notes To Kill a Mockingbird, Thug Notes MacBeth, Thug Notes The Raven and … well, you may need a new data plan.
10. “1200 Ghosts: A Christmas Carol Supercut’’ (Country Living Magazine) – A 53-minute mashup of most of the available versions of the holiday classic made for the screen and spliced together by YouTuber Heath Waterman. This is the one to watch and not get FOMO about all the ones you don’t have time for.
9. “A Christmas Carol’’ (YouTube) A 1910 silent version starring Marc McDermott – black and white and over in 15 minutes. Grainy, quiet and efficient.
8. “An American Christmas Carol’’ (Amazon Prime) starring Henry Winkler. Winkler plays Benedict Slade, a Depression-era miser revisited by the ghostly figures of people whose stuff he repossessed for unpaid loans. This 1979 version strays the furthest from its source material but it’s an engaging holiday story full of heart — and hey, he’s The Fonz.
7. “Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol’’ (Amazon Prime/iTunes/Vudu) is a 1962 animated version in which the beloved, near-sighted cartoon character is tasked with bringing Dickens’ classic to the stage. It’s sweet and great for kids, although in my house we fast forward over the treacly song about “razzleberry dressing.’’
6. “Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol’’ (Disney+/Amazon Prime, Vudu/You Tube/Apple TV) is a 2009 animated tale that also features Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth and Cary Elwes. Carrey plays all of the spirits as well as Scrooge himself in this stop-motion wonder by Robert Zemeckis (“Polar Express,’’ ‘’Forrest Gump,’’ ‘’Back to the Future’’).
5. “Scrooged’’ (Amazon Prime/Vudu/YouTube/Apple TV) is a 1988 modern holiday classic starring Bill Murray and the always-fabulous Carol Kane. This raucous romp is definitely not for young kids, but middle school kids and older will like this lively take on ghosts, redemption and Murray merriment.
4. “A Christmas Carol’’ starring Sir Patrick Stewart (Amazon Prime/YouTube/Vudu/Hulu/Apple TV and more). Few actors bring the gravitas necessary to make you momentarily forget about Alastair Sim, but this made-for-television version directed by David Jones comes close. This is a timeless version well worth your time, even if the ghosts aren’t quite as memorable as in other interpretations. The film came after a successful run of one-man shows by Stewart on Broadway and in London.
3. “A Christmas Carol’’ starring George C. Scott. (Google Play, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV, YouTube). You can picture the scowl Scott adopts for nearly all of this Emmy-nominated film. Any argument over Dickens' work on film will undoubtedly pit the Scott fans against the Sim purists. You already know where Luca and I stand, but don’t miss this formidable interpretation either way.
2. “The Muppet Christmas Carol’’ starring Michael Caine, with Gonzo narrating the tale, which also features Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit (Disney+). This musical version is also one of the best of the Muppets canon. While you're on Disney+, you can also chase it with the Academy Award-winning "Mickey's Christmas Carol'' (1983).
1. “A Christmas Carol’’ starring Alastair Sim (Turner Movie Classics/various streaming services). Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, this 70-year old black-and-white interpretation is nearly perfect, and provides a bit of revealing backstory missing from the novel. Michael Hordern’s turn as Marley is perfect, and no one brings the childlike wonder and joy to the Christmas morning scene like the irrepressible Sim in his bedclothes.
I don’t know how many years Luca and I have binge-watched all things Scrooge, but it likely started sometime around his eighth Christmas. He’s 15 now, and I admit to holding my breath a little on the way back from Thanksgiving dinner at his grandparents', when I asked if he were up for “Christmas Carol-ing’’ again with me this year.
My question was met with a resounding yes.
He has challenged us to beat last year’s record and go for 15 versions.
God bless us, everyone.
Tammy Paolino is Features Editor for the Atlantic South region of the USA Today Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who loves to cover trends, diversity, the arts, food and drink. Reach her at email@example.com or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription.