This Christmas, Baltimore Banner columnists Rick Hutzell and Leslie Gray Streeter discuss the eternal holiday question: Which film versions of “A Christmas Carol” are worth watching?

Rick: Hi Leslie, Merry Christmas!

I don’t know about you, but Christmas Eve and Christmas Day usually involve a holiday movie for my family. I’ve been astounded at how many different versions of Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” are out there. Some are great, some are plain weird and at least one, I discovered this year, is just bad.

I like the fact that it’s a ghost story first and a Christmas story second, although there’s a lot of writing about how our modern concept of Christmas comes right from Dickens’ little book.

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Leslie: Merry Christmas to you, too, Rick! There have been more than 150 adaptations — some straight, some musical, some animated, and at least one starring a felt frog as Bob Cratchit. The one thing they all have in common is the notion that your past can literally come back to haunt you, with bleak harbingers of your future if you don’t learn your lessons.

I’m a parent, so I like a show about consequences. I wouldn’t suggest to my kid that he’ll be visited by ghosts if he doesn’t shape up, though. Probably.

Let’s start with classic takes on Scrooge. My favorite is 1999′s “A Christmas Carol,” which originally aired on TNT and starred Patrick Stewart as the most un-Jean Luc Picard character you can imagine. Where the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” captain was warmly authoritative and congenial, Scrooge is brusque and curt.

The plot follows the novella — the startling visit from Jacob Marley that sets up the subsequent three hauntings and Scrooge experiencing, against his will, the costs of his gradual retreat from society and basic human connection. Stewart has such a deft way of channeling how that retreat was born both of selfishness and self-protection, like in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Past makes him witness how he chooses work over Belle, the love of his life.

“Why doesn’t he go after her?” Scrooge asks the ghost, anguished in his helplessness. It’s so striking how Stewart plays the mental and emotional separation from this younger version of himself, as if somehow he might be compelled to make her stay and stave off the loneliness he knows is coming. It’s so sad, and I imagine all of us have a scene in our past like this that we wouldn’t ever want to relive.

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Because I believe that most movies and TV shows eventually come back to Baltimore, I was delighted to find Dominic West, the shaggy dog of a detective from “The Wire,” cast as Scrooge’s kind-hearted nephew Fred. The production is appropriately spooky and redemptive. It’s definitely a version with which, as Captain Picard might say, you should “engage!” (Sorry, that was terrible. I regret nothing.)

Rick: I do like Picard — I mean Stewart — and his version. It sticks close to the original story, and Dickens did about 100 readings of a slimmed-down version of his story that influenced this one.

But a classic movie, in my opinion, sticks close to the original while leveraging the language of film. Maybe none does this better than the 1951 British film, “Scrooge,” starring Alastair Sim.

I’ll grant you this, it does have a dated look. Shot in black and white, you can find a colorized version, but those always seem fever-bright to me. This one hits all the major notes of the story — the cruelty of Scrooge, the three hauntings, and redemption at the end. It’s scary, funny and heartwarming.

It also includes the children hiding under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Ignorance” and “Want.” Many versions don’t have them, yet they are the message Dickens was giving readers: Ignore the poor at your peril.

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Like all art, this movie reflects its time. Dickens didn’t mention much Christianity in his little book beyond Tiny Tim’s, “God Bless us every one” This one adds several references, so maybe they thought Dickens needed a holier rewrite.

Leslie: I don’t know about the holy parts, but I have always been tickled by the idea that anyone ever looked at this bleak, austere story of proper English Christmas and thought, “You know what this needs? A musical number!” Yet it’s happened. A lot.

The 1970 musical "Scrooge" stars Albert Finney and features Alec Guinness.
The 1970 musical “Scrooge” stars Albert Finney and features Alec Guinness. (Courtesy photo)

Rick: I hadn’t thought of the British musical “Scrooge” in years, the 1970 adaptation starring Albert Finney.

Watching it again, I couldn’t figure out what Finney was doing with his body, all hunched over. But it worked, physically making him Dickens’ “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” It’s a delight to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Alec Guinness, play Marley’s ghost. It looks like they filmed him walking underwater and then filmed the image again in reverse.

As for the music, well, I guess actors who can’t sing were an artistic choice of the era. Composer Leslie Bricusse also wrote the music for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with Gene Wilder and “Dr. Doolittle” with Rex Harrison — same thing.

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The one great number you’ll be singing after this is “Thank You Very Much.” It’s a romp celebrating Scrooge’s death — and he joins in the merriment, unaware of why everyone is so happy.

One final thing: Scrooge repeatedly dismisses his nephew with “Good afternoon” here. It’s straight from Dickens, and you see it echo in the memorable “good afternoon” gag of the 2022 musical “Spirited” with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell.

Leslie: I’m so glad you mentioned “Spirited.” It’s not a strict retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” and your patience for it may depend on whether you like people bursting into song every several minutes. (There are so. Many. Songs.) It takes a little while to reveal that two of the nice men who run an elaborate Christmas ghost visitation service are actually (SPOILER!) Jacob Marley (Broadway’s Patrick Page) and Ebenezer Scrooge himself (Ferrell), the prototype for this novel holiday-based “Scared Straight” program.

Their new business model is a literal production with a cast of spirits, including the instant recognizable voice of Tracy Morgan as the ominous and caped Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Each year, they select a different surly human who might be persuaded to repent their terrible ways and avoid being prematurely buried alive in their own regrets ... and actual dirt.

Originally set to haunt someone else, Present runs into a truly odious media manager named Clint (Ryan Reynolds at his most deliciously smug), and decides he’s his guy, even though Marley believes he’s unredeemable. At first it seems Marley might be right: Clint is bemused but not impressed by his haunting — he even hooks up with Christmas Past. But as expected, he’s forced to confront some of his not-greatest hits, including the death of his sister and encouraging his niece to go low during a student government election.

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As he works on redeeming Clint, Present struggles with his own mortality, or rather the opportunity to reclaim it as a real live human if he retires. One impetus is his growing fondness for Clint’s long-suffering assistant, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer). Spencer almost never gets cast as a romantic interest, and she and Ferrell have a sweet, palpable chemistry. The movie also taps into Reynolds’ ability to turn snark into sincerity and even anguish. It wears its weird little heart on its sleeve and in its songs. I loved it. But I like random bursts of show tunes, so of course I did.

Rick: I really enjoy this version. And the “Christmas Tree Song” by Reynolds reminded me of lawyer Billy Flynn in the musical “Chicago,” who sings “All I Care About” to explain manipulation and money.

Bill Murray stars in the 1988 film "Scrooged," an update of "A Christmas Carol" featuring Karen Allen.
Bill Murray stars in the 1988 film “Scrooged,” an update of “A Christmas Carol” featuring Karen Allen. (Courtesy photo)

Leslie: “Spirited” is certainly over-the-top, but no decade is more over-the-top than the ’80s. Just look at 1988′s “Scrooged” for proof. Gymnast Mary Lou Retton as a somersaulting Tiny Tim might not seem so modern today, but the movie mostly holds up as a reminder that greed and regret are timeless. In the film, ruthless TV executive Frank (Bill Murray) is trying to pull off a schlocky live Christmas Eve production of “A Christmas Carol,” featuring Retton, Buddy Hackett and Jamie Farr.

There are lots of other era-appropriate gems: In the middle of terrorizing everyone involved, including beleaguered Bob Cratchit stand-in Eliot Loudermilk (a quietly deranged Bobcat Goldthwait), Frank is visited by the ghost of Blake Carrington … er, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), his former boss and template for his money-grubbing ways. When Frank, understandably freaked out, shoots at this moldering animated corpse in dusty gold clothes, Hayward casually drinks a scotch that springs out of the bullet holes.

The wild ride that follows is full of the most on-the-nose ’80sness you’ve ever seen, from the ghosts (a cigar-chomping cabbie played by Buster Poindexter and a cheerfully violent fairy godmother-like Carol Kane) to its focus on homelessness, to Claire, the Belle of this piece, a social worker played by a luminous Karen Allen. Murray brings his best “Ghostbusters”/Nick the Lounge Singer smarm to the role, but also the humanity that smarm hides. But for all of the made-to-be-dated references, director Richard Donner crafted a delightfully glib and surprisingly touching “Carol” that holds up.

Rick: It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I love a good backstory, so I’m going to throw 2017′s “The Man Who Invented Christmas” into the mix.

It’s a fictionalized version of how Dickens thought up “A Christmas Carol,” but the humbug here is just another way of retelling this tale. Dan Stevens is likable as the author — probably far more likable than Dickens himself, who didn’t like Americans, was a British nationalist in the era of colonialism and a racist, misogynist and antisemite, to boot.

OK, it was Victorian England, so those things shouldn’t surprise anyone. But some of his stories prove that ideas can rise above the limits of an individual.

The depiction of Dickens’ creative process — he finds the characters all around him as his deadline for publication approaches — is wholly made up. But it is fun.

The best thing here is Christopher Plummer, who died in 2021 after a long, distinguished career. I can’t figure out why he didn’t play Scrooge before.

Like “A Christmas Carol,” this movie is based on a book by the same name. Dickens’ most enduring work and Les Standiford’s 2008 book are both worth a read to see where these ideas took root.

Leslie: My next film is, like all of these, based on the original, but unlike the rest of them, there are puppets. The Muppets taught my generation everything from empathy to our ABCs, so of course they put their furry stamp on Dickens — sort of a refresher to all the lessons they presented to us as children. 1992′s “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a magical, musical take on the tale, with Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as our hilarious and occasionally sober narrators.

Our Scrooge this time is played by Michael Caine, with all the menace and also the lightness that has to come from playing against a company of frogs, pigs and adorable pauper mice. The actor is known for rarely turning down a role or a check (yes, “Jaws The Revenge,” I’m talking about you) so I always wondered if he was really into it.

Turns out he was: In 2016, he told GQ that he’d made the film so his then-7-year-old daughter could finally see him in a movie. Decades later, he said, his grandkids enjoy it, too, because it “never gets old, unlike me.”

The 2022 Netflix version of "A Christmas Carol" features some of the same songs from the 1970 musical, and a dog.
The 2022 Netflix version of “A Christmas Carol” features some of the same songs from the 1970 musical — and a dog. (Courtesy photo)

Rick: 1970 “Scrooge” composer Bricusse is also sort of back decades later in Netflix’s 2022 animated adaptation, also called “Scrooge.” He wrote a new opening song for it, “I Love Christmas,” with two more written after he died in 2021 by director Stephen Donnelly and arranger Jeremy Holland-Smith. Two songs from Bricusse’s earlier live-action musical, “I Like Life” and “Thank You Very Much,” are here, too, sung by Fra Fee and Trevor Dion Nicholas.

As for Dickens, he’s here in spirit. Although Luke Evans does say “Bah, humbug” once or twice, most of Dickens’ memorable words are absent. Oh, and Scrooge has a dog in this version, for no discernable reason.

The computer-generated art doesn’t have much character, though representing the Ghost of Christmas Present as a wax candle figure is clever. There are lots of good voices, but in this case, the most adaptable of Christmas stories is stretched too far to resonate.

Watch this if you must, but I think there are better places to introduce your kids to this story.

Leslie: If you’re introducing future generations to enduring works, “A Christmas Carol” is probably one of the most timeless.

Its lessons are urgently needed: how our actions, past and present, impact the future, not just for us but for everyone around us. Be kind. Be charitable. Don’t be a Scrooge.

God bless us every one.

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