So You're Planning to Remake A Christmas Carol...

If you've been following along, you know I've been watching adaptations, remakes, homages, and reimaginings of A Christmas Carol in bulk this year. As you might expect, I've got some thoughts about what makes an adaptation work and what doesn't. I figured I'd pass on my notes to whatever studio executive thinks it's a good idea to remake Scrooge for the [checks notes] I have no idea what number time we're up to.

As a sidenote, this article is mainly going to concern itself with adaptations of the original book. I might turn to quasi-sequels like Scrooged and Spirited for guidance, but that's not what this is about.

Do We Need Another Adaptation?

I thought I'd start with some thoughts on whether there's even a point in doing this again. You may be surprised to hear my answer is, "Maybe."

One takeaway from this whole project is that while there are a lot of versions out there, there isn't really a single definitive one that meets all the following criteria:

  1. Great Portrayal of Scrooge
  2. Solid Pacing
  3. Covers All Significant Story Beats and Stays Close to the Text
  4. Timeless Look

The two that probably come closest are Mickey's Christmas Carol and the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. Both of these hit three out of the four criteria (Mickey's fails #3, while the Scott film has pacing issues). The Scott production also only kind of passes #1. I think he does fine work, but his Scrooge is lacking the depth I want from the character.

My favorite adaptation is the 1935 British film, Scrooge, because I think it delivers on that depth. It's also well-paced overall, despite some unnecessary expansions in the first act showcasing Victorian Christmas celebrations that have nothing to do with the central narrative. But while I love this version, I think the cuts made to the "Christmas Past" section alone rule out any chance of being "definitive." On top of that, the effects are extremely dated, as are some sound choices. This is a great version that should be referenced more than it is, but it's certainly not the only version we need.

I know the 1951 version with Alistair Sim is widely loved, but to me the pacing is slow, the tone is off, and the visuals are dated. The 1970 musical is immensely fun, but the only one of the above criteria it passes is #4 (even then, only because I said "Timeless look" instead of "Timeless look and sound"). Likewise, the 1971 animated short is really only focusing on how everything looks and sounds: it's so good on those counts, I strongly recommend it, but I don't think it's in serious contention for the crown. The Muppet version (mostly) looks great and has the best performance of Scrooge since Seymour Hicks, but it comes at the expense of tone, story, and pace. Then there's the 2009 Jim Carrey motion capture monstrosity, which stays far closer to the text than I think it gets credit for, but fails every other category (and more importantly isn't very good as a movie). This year's Scrooge: A Christmas Carol does well enough on counts 1 and 4, is sort of on the fence as far as #2 is concerned, and fails the third test so completely as to render the discussion moot.

I don't want to imply the four bullet points are a checklist, and that the first movie to check them off will be the definitive version film: these are really more the starting point. You'd also want to do the minor characters right, have good music, deliver on atmosphere (really important - I'd list this above, except virtually every big production of Scrooge nails this), and so on. But the fact no adaptation has even hit those four basic criteria demonstrates that no existing version is anywhere near being the definitive one. Given how iconic the story is and how many attempts have been made, I find that a little surprising.

And, it's a good illustration of why there's room for another try. Let's start thinking about what a definitive Christmas Carol would even be.


I don't think many people ever really stop and consider what genre A Christmas Carol even is, and sadly that generalization seems to extend to some directors tackling the material. Based on the way it's discussed, it seems to be commonly dismissed as a "classic," without further consideration, which I think is a shame.

The thing is, A Christmas Carol is many genres. The book can be accurately called time-travel, fantasy, drama, comedy, horror, adventure, morality story, and probably a few others I'm not thinking of. And on top of all that, it also contains moments of romance, which most versions try and expand on.

That being said, every adaptation I've seen seems to fall into one of three buckets: drama, comedy, and ghost story. To be clear, this doesn't mean any version doesn't contain elements of other genres (most contain bits of all), but they can all be described first and foremost as being one of those (okay, okay, a couple really fall between two: for example the 1984 George C. Scott is pretty close to a 50/50 split between drama and ghost story).

This is as much a question of tone as genre. Really, what I'm saying is every version of A Christmas Carol feels like it's a comedy, a drama, or a ghost story (again, allowing for a couple weird exceptions that split the difference between two of those three).

The first piece of advice I'd give anyone approaching this is DO NOT MAKE ANOTHER DRAMA.

Seriously. Just don't. It's a common way to take the story, presumably because it's relatively easy and cheap, but it results in the least interesting adaptations. I'm not saying there shouldn't be any drama, but I'm skeptical there's a way to make it the primary genre and still end up with something worth seeing.

Why is this? The simplest answer is everyone already knows the damn story. If you try and ratchet up the tension around Tiny Tim's fate or Scrooge's doomed romance, the audience is going to fall asleep. They know what's going to happen, so extending the time spent on reaction shots isn't likely to enhance the impact. We know Belle's going to walk away, so why should we care about their courtship? We know Tim dies in the tangent timeline and survives in the prime universe. Your goal isn't to make Tim's hardships more unbearable: it's to make us like Tim.

Fixating on drama when we're not invested risks melodrama, which no one wants. The 2019 BBC miniseries made this mistake (among others).

That leaves comedy and ghost story as remaining options. Note I keep saying "ghost story" instead of "horror". While I actually think a decent horror production of A Christmas Carol might be interesting, what's worked historically has been a more unsettling, surreal approach. Look at the 1935 for inspiration, or the 1971 animated short. Alternatively, the ghosts of Past and Future in the Muppet adaptation are genuinely unnerving (side note: the primary genre for A Muppet Christmas Carol is comedy, but I think the spirits offer a good template for creepier adaptations). And the 1984 with Scott has perhaps the best Ghost of Christmas Future to date. None of these really cross the line into horror (the 1971 short comes weirdly close, though), but they all demonstrate how to tell a spooky Victorian ghost story that won't scare off kids. Well, not all the kids, anyway.

I do have a word of advice on this front: if you're making a ghost story, avoid using comic relief to undercut the scares. This, as much as the bad animation, is what makes the 2009 motion capture version such a mess. Same goes for the 2022 Netflex animated Scrooge: A Christmas Carol. The point of telling a ghost story is to build tone and atmosphere (the book is full of the stuff, by the way). Either commit or don't waste your time.

If you're making a comedy, the genre to be most careful adding is drama. There are ways to incorporate dramatic moments in a comedic adaptation, but they need to be surgical and strategic. With few exceptions, the times this can work are mainly limited to the future section (the Muppet adaptation does well here). Even then, it tends to work better if you throw in some expressionism, rather than realism (the Muppets do this a bit, while Scrooged completely embraces this). Half your audience will think they're still watching a comedy; the other half will appreciate what you're doing, and both halves will (hopefully) still enjoy the film.

A word of warning, though: if you're making a comedy, for the love of heaven and Christmas time don't try and play up the drama around Scrooge and Belle. Do the scene, but keep it brief or make it funny. The 1970 musical tries this, and it's the low point of an otherwise enjoyable fiasco of a production. When in doubt, turn to Mickey's Christmas Carol, the gold standard of comedic adaptations of this work when it comes to tone and pacing.


Let's talk about Scrooge himself. If I had to point to one element most versions get wrong, it's him. And, unless you're making a comedy, you've got little to no hope of recovering from a bad Scrooge. It's usually not even a case of the actor being bad - if your casting doesn't match your vision, it's going to be a mess.

The reason you can get away with this in a comedy is you can sometimes capitalize on that mess. The 1970 musical gets away with a ridiculous-looking Albert Finney in the lead role, because the mess is half the fun. You're laughing with and at the movie throughout, and having a great time doing so.

If you make something darker, such as the 1999 version with Patrick Stewart, you don't get the same leeway. Stewart's take on the character doesn't have much emotional range, and as a result, the movie feels stale and uninteresting, almost like you're listening to a book on tape.

Part of me thinks the Muppet version would have been better off with a comedic actor in the lead, despite the fact I believe Michael Caine delivers the second-best performance of Scrooge I've ever seen (more on that in a moment). He's absolutely fantastic, but for a movie already struggling to define itself, he becomes one more element that's out of place.

So, first things first: cast an actor who's right for the genre you've selected. Once you've done that, what separates the good from the legendary?

Assuming you're making a ghost story or (dear God no) a drama, you want a Scrooge with some depth and complexity. This is where most versions come up lacking: the default approach seems to be to take Dickens's writing at face value and attempt to recreate whatever emotions the book ascribes to Scrooge on any given page. I get it: who wants to be called arrogant for thinking they know better than Dickens?

The problem is books aren't movies. A lot of Dickens's choices were likely driven by flow and the impact his words would have on a reader. To put it another way, Scrooge's mannerisms are as likely to be driven by atmosphere as his arc in the source material. In a movie, design and cinematography can create all the atmosphere you need, and you're missing your chance to create something truly compelling.

This is where Seymour Hicks' performance in the 1935 version really stands out. His Scrooge isn't just a horrible person who turns good. He's a horrible person you believe in who transforms in an emotionally believable way into a repentant man who seems just as real. There's depth and humanity in him at the end and at the start of the movie. He conveys what Scrooge believes and why in his delivery, physicality, and expressions.

I'd argue Michael Caine does something similar, at least in the second half of the film. He manages to communicate the character's emotional journey, showing us how his visions gradually transform him into a better person. He's a bit one-note at the start, but once the movie gets going, he becomes something more. Again, I don't think this works all that well with everything else going on in that production, but Caine's approach offers another case study for anyone planning a serious adaptation.

Alistair Sim isn't too far off. I wish he were more consistent, but the scenes where he's good - and there are quite a few - are really good. You can add George C. Scott's to the list of solid performances, though I'd definitely rank him a distant #4.

When it comes to Scrooge, it's okay to expand on the text, particularly if you're adding nuance to existing dialogue. Scrooge can have an inner life. There can be actual logic behind his philosophy at the beginning (kudos to the 2022 Netflix animated version for realizing this). He can - and should - be more than a cipher for a morality story.

Additions and Subtractions

The problem with A Christmas Carol isn't that it's unfilmable. If anything, the story is too filmable. You could literally transcribe every line of dialogue from the book and call the script done. It's about the right length.

There are a few problems with this approach. First, it's easy to transcribe the dialogue, but a lot of the book's details are nebulous and difficult to translate to the screen. Scrooge being passed by a spectral carriage on his staircase, countless ghosts appearing outside his window, a couple Christmases passing at his boarding school, the Ghost of Christmas Present taking him through all twelve days of Christmas in a single day, and the appearance of Want and Ignorance are all sequences that make more sense on the page than on screen, which hasn't stopped various adaptations from trying to include them.

Should things like these be cut? Restructured to make more sense? Filmed in their entirety to retain as much of the source material as possible?

I don't have answers for any of these on their own. To be honest, I've seen almost every one of the examples above pulled off in a way that felt interesting in context, just as I've seen versions drop the ball. The best advice I have is to focus on Scrooge's emotional arc and the movie's atmosphere. If you think including some version of that horse-drawn ghost carriage aids in that, keep it in. Otherwise, stick with the core of the story.

One side note here before I move on to additions: be very careful with Want and Ignorance. These make it into most versions (or at least most movie-length ones), and they rarely work. Most of A Christmas Carol is shockingly timeless, but the political fears these are referencing are rooted in nineteenth-century Europe. I'm not saying they can't work in a modern movie, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a version where I thought they did.

Let's talk additions, which in most cases means the Christmas Past section. This is the section of the book which feels most rushed, making it tempting to expand. I think this can be done well. The 1951 version with Alistair Sim manages to expand on Scrooge's backstory in a way that feels tonally consistent. That said, the Alistair Sim version is primarily a drama, which you'll recall I advised against. For the most part, the more you add to the Christmas Past section, the more your movie will feel like a drama. Tread carefully.

The worst case of added material I've come across is the 2019 BBC miniseries, which expanded and altered the story to the point I hesitate to call it a real adaptation as opposed to a complete reimagining. I want to be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, provided you make something good. The last thing you want is to drop the ball while attempting to rewrite A Christmas Carol from scratch and accidentally produce something as awful as... well... the 2019 BBC version. 

Sticking to the source material doesn't guarantee success, however. The 2009 Jim Carrey version is extremely true to the book (aside from some weird, tone-breaking adventure stuff thrown in for the kids), and it's one of the weaker entries.

The Three Spirits

There are three variations on the ghosts that can work, and - before you leap to conclusions - they don't align perfectly with the drama/horror/comedy trifecta I've been discussing. Okay, they're pretty close: two of them are comedic and creepy, but the third is surreal, not dramatic. Oh, and your genre/tone shouldn't necessarily match up with these 100% of the time.

Obviously, if you're making anything other than a comedy, you should probably avoid comedic spirits. Even here there's a caveat: if you don't push things too far, you can introduce a bit of comedy in the Ghost of Christmas Present. He's more than a little outlandish, and it can give his death at the end of the Christmas holidays more impact if his jovial nature starts out humorous.

But if you're doing this as a ghost story or drama, avoid making the spirits of Past and Yet to Come silly. You can either maintain the book's creepy tone, or you can go in a more surreal direction.

What do I mean by surreal? I'm mainly referring to the first and third spirits in the 1935 Seymour Hicks version and the final spirit in Scrooged. These reference expressionism in their portrayal of the ghosts. The Hicks version did so in a way that retained horror influences. In short, making the visions feel dreamlike or nightmarish can result in a fascinating final result.

And don't think comedies can't go this route, too. In addition to Scrooged, The Muppet Christmas Carol effectively incorporated similar ideas in the final spirit. Meanwhile, the 1970 musical descended into a surreal hell - it was still ridiculous, but it was weird and fun. It's an effective tool for giving an otherwise comedic spin some gravitas. The 2022 Netflix animated remake cut the scene in hell but incorporated some of the visuals in other ways.

Alternatively, throwing in a genuinely scary moment can make for an effective twist on an otherwise funny adaptation. I wouldn't describe the third spirit in Mickey's Christmas Carol as terrifying, but him pushing Scrooge into the grave certainly makes for a creepy moment relative to the rest of the short. I wouldn't recommend dwelling on it, but a brief scare before Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day can be compelling.

For anything other than comedy, creepy is a good default if you don't have something very specific in mind. The spirits are creepy in the source material, and it makes for a better overall arc. If you're looking for references, check out the 1971 animated movie for the first ghost and the 1984 for the last. Honestly, if you can look past the uncanny valley, the motion capture version from 2009 did a decent job with that first ghost, too. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a little harder. I don't think anyone's really nailed it, though the Alistair Sim 1951 is very good in most respects. Visually, I think the 1970 did good work with that spirit, as well.

Everything Else

The majority of my remaining thoughts concern a host of stuff that should probably be obvious, but based on most of the versions I've seen clearly aren't.

I'll start with scene and dialogue pacing, something that's gotten worse over time. Compare the 1935 Hicks version with the 1984 Scott: the dialogue in the Hicks version feels alive and natural, while the more recent one tends to devolve into the stale, overlong dramatic delivery you'd expect from an amateur Shakespearean play. The 1935 wanted us to experience the story; the 1984 feels more worried that we might miss a line or something. There's a lot the Scott version does well, but this really holds it back from excellence.

Next, let's talk musicals, namely whether or not it's advisable. There are advantages: it's an effective way to stretch your runtime to feature length without having to add new scenes or stretch out existing ones. It's also a good way to put a unique spin on the material. Just make sure you've got good music. Look to the 2013 PBS concert version for inspiration. Alternatively, the 2004 version with Kelsey Grammer was surprisingly good. Just make sure you're not sabotaging your production - I'm convinced the songs undercut Caine's performance in the Muppet version, and the 2022 Netflix movie fared even worse.

I haven't said much about the supporting cast yet. For the most part, the stuff I said about Scrooge applies here, as well: treat these as characters with motivations, humor, and fears rather than mouthpieces for Dickens's dialogue, and you'll get better results. The portrayal of Bob Cratchit in the 1935 version is the gold standard for that character, just as it's the gold standard for Scrooge (the whole Cratchit family is pretty fantastic there, in fact). I don't think it's necessary (or even advisable) to copy that actor's choices, but it's clear every decision is rooted in him treating the character as a well-rounded individual. That's something any version would be wise to incorporate.


I think that more or less sums up the starting points for any Hollywood producers looking to make yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol. No one's really pulled it off yet, but - hey - they didn't have this blueprint. With these simple rules, I'm sure you'll manage to put together the iconic, definitive adaptation Dickens himself would be proud of.

Obviously I'm joking. You all suck at this, and no amount of handholding is going to prevent you from finding new and creative ways to screw this up. I look forward to reviewing your failure on this very site. But, you know, good luck anyway.