A Christmas Carol (1984)

The 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott feels like it's trying to be difficult to categorize. Released theatrically in England and on TV in America, I'm not even sure whether to consider this a full movie or a made-for-TV production. It's also abnormally difficult to bucket the genre: this straddles the line between horror and drama to an unusual degree.

Taken as a whole, this is one of the better modern adaptations I've seen. It covers the full scope of the story, the casting is good, and it's visually impressive. That said, I don't think it leaves as much of an impression as the best of the lot. Essentially, it's difficult to find anything significant to fault, but it's nowhere near my favorite of the bunch.

Starting with the opening shot, the movie looks good. Rather than spending their budget on expensive sets, they simply filmed in a market town that hasn't significantly changed since the 1800s. Between that and some good cinematography, they're able to pull off some gorgeously atmospheric visuals, ranking among the best-looking adaptations... and they do it without breaking the bank. Ebenezer would be so proud.

Scott takes the role seriously and delivers a fairly straightforward Scrooge. I didn't feel an abundance of depth, but I do think he managed to smooth out several rough spots in the narrative. This Scrooge feels consistent and grounded, and that's no small accomplishment when adapting a book from 1843.

Most of the cast is good, but - as I've remarked in the past - the cast is rarely the issue with these adaptations. I will say that Bob Cratchit and Fred feel a bit awkward in hindsight, though it's no fault of either the movie nor the performances. Fair or not, David Warner (Cratchit) and Roger Rees (Fred) both went on to land iconic villain roles, so seeing them as two of the story's most sympathetic roles gave me a bit of vertigo.

Speaking of the cast, Michael Gough shows up in a bit part, which is fun (side note: by my math, 50% of actors who play Alfred Pennyworth in live-action Batman movies have appeared in adaptations of A Christmas Carol).

There's not a great deal to cover in terms of the story: this sticks fairly close to the book, mainly deviating to flesh out Scrooge's backstory and relationships. In that respect, this resembles the 1951 version, which makes a degree of sense. Clive Donner, the director of this movie, also did some editing on the 1951 film. The new stuff here isn't as well integrated compared to the earlier movie, however. That version was enhanced by its additions; this time they get in the way.

There's a new brief scene early on between Scrooge and Tiny Tim that definitely should have been cut, and not just because Tim is one of the movie's largest missteps.  Someone seems to have reasoned the more pitiable they made Tim, the more sympathetic he'd be. The problem is we have a mental image of Tim - overshooting it doesn't make his predicament feel worse, it just feels like someone's trying to manipulate our emotions. It doesn't help that there are scenes the character's makeup makes him look like a zombie. And of course, they made the poor kid milk all this. The result isn't touching: it's cloying.

We also get a scene of Scrooge as a businessman. This sequence isn't awful, but it's not particularly important, either. Mostly, it's just here to introduce a few characters from the Christmas Yet to Come section early. It does give us a rare moment of levity in an otherwise unusually dark adaptation, so I suppose it qualifies as a positive, albeit a small one.

The sequence I found most distracting was an extended bit added to the Christmas Past when Scrooge's sister, Fan, tells Scrooge he can return home. Rather than leave this as a happy year, the movie adds in a meeting with Scrooge's father where he informs both his children that Scrooge will only be staying with them three days before leaving to start an internship with Fezziwig. It's a bewildering addition that mainly serves to add another reason for Scrooge to dislike the holidays. And, I suppose, to connect this sequence with Fezziwig's party. We get more added stuff with Scrooge and Belle, of course, as well as a brief explanatory scene where he talks with someone else boarding with Fezziwig. None of it feels necessary, and it drags out the movie.

Present and Future are better paced. There are changes, but they're all fairly minor, such as condensing the three characters pawning Scrooge's stolen possessions into a single woman.

Let's talk ghosts and spirits for a moment, because this is both where the movie shines and falls apart. Overall, I think they do a good job with Marley. The makeup's good, and while the actor overdoes it a bit in places, I mostly like his take. The issue is with the leadup. They overdid Scrooge hearing Marley's voice in advance and seeing his ghastly face. There's some phenomenal imagery in this section, including a brilliantly realized spectral coach, but hearing Scrooge's name dubbed several times breaks the tone.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is... okay, this one's hard as well. I appreciate what they were going for and how close they tried adhering to the description in the book. They left in the extinguisher, which almost no one does, so they certainly deserve credit on that account. But trying and succeeding are different things: I think they were aiming for a sort of angelic pagan spirit, but the design just isn't quite where it needs to be. The result looks like a cross between the White Witch from Narnia and Jem from Jem and the Holograms: it dates this production in the 1980s.

Christmas Present is pretty much the generic version of the character: a green-robed giant. Once again, it doesn't quite work. They try to sell the character's height with what I assume are stilts (the 1970 musical pulled this off, so it's definitely possible), but they're not taking the time here to frame their shots to sell the effect. The giant looks too scrawny to convey the scale implied by the book.

Christmas Yet to Come, on the other hand, looks great. Maybe the best version of the character I've seen, it's draped in shadow and genuinely unnerving. This, above all else, is where this version shines.

I said at the beginning this was difficult to categorize. It includes sections that are essentially horror (mainly the sections leading up to and including Marley's scene, the tail end of Present, and the entirety of Christmas Yet to Come), while everything else is essentially a drama. There's nothing inherently wrong with that as a blueprint - the problem is that the drama just isn't all that good.

It's not exactly bad - they clearly poured effort and talent in an attempt to get it right, but it doesn't quite coalesce into something authentic. I feel like they tried too hard to sell the emotions and ended up with melodrama. That's not the worse thing in the world, but it's what holds this back for me, despite the excellent ghost story sequences, evocative atmosphere, and impressive production values.

In short, this is better as an adaptation than a movie. Part of me is tempted to hold this up as the new gold standard for translations of the book, but there's a caveat to that. This captures the horror and the drama, but it pares back the humor. I don't think an adaptation needs to include all three elements, but if we're evaluating this as a straight adaptation, it does feel like it's missing something, particularly given how much the drama drags the pace. Swapping out some sentimental scenes for funnier ones would have improved this tremendously.

What this is really missing is some kind of signature to make it stand out from the pack. It really is good - very good, in fact - but given how many adaptations are out there, I'm not sure that's enough. This is a much more serious version than, say, the campy 1970 musical, but that was memorable in a way this isn't. Which version is technically better feels academic: this is really well done, but it's missing that spark of inspiration the 1935 version had, or even the 1970, for that matter.

That said, if for some reason you're in the market for a good version that covers the story, by all means this is a good choice. It basically ties the 1951 Alistair Sim as a solid default, and that's an impressive accomplishment in its own right. But if you've seen several other versions, this isn't going to feel refreshing or original in its approach. There are some great moments in this, but you'd be forgiven for fast-forwarding through the slow bits.