Charles Dickens was a writer who cared deeply about the world and his fellow man. His books were hugely popular, particularly as they were released initially as chapters in magazine serials, so that you had to wait til the next issue to discover what happened to your favourite characters, just like we do when we wait for the next episode of a TV show. (The stories would then be released as a whole in a book, so you could essentially read it whole, like we binge watch series now). During publication of The Olde Curiosity Shop, British readers got their next chapter before American readers, and passengers disembarking from ships on US shores were mobbed by people demanding to know if Little Nell was alright.
Part of the reason for this popularity was that he wrote about everyone, from the very poor and destitute to the wealthy, and he had compassion for all walks of life. He also had a way of creating vivid characters and placing them in situations that were perilous, emotional and where a good heart and true character always won in the end.
At Christmas, Dickens would publish a Christmas story in his magazine. And the most famous of these is A Christmas Carol.
I like to think that the reason that this story is a perennial favourite is that it has heart. In this story, a man whose heart is as tough as an old boot and as warm as a gravestone find himself changed by the magic of this time of year. He’s a hard, cynical businessman in a cold, hard world, and yet, right at his fingertips are the Cratchits, a warm, loving family who are kind and happy in spite of their poverty. Even now in the modern world, it’s nice to think that someone could be changed by being visited by three ghosts who show them the error of their ways and help them find the flickering flame of warmth hidden deep inside themselves.
To say that A Christmas Carol is a perennial favourite is perhaps an understatement. It has been made into a film hundreds of times, the first being in 1901, notably, though this version has been largely lost, and has featured as the plot in various TV Christmas special episodes too. It’s been made as stop motion animation, cartoon, black and white, technicolor. Scrooge has been played by everyone from Alistair Sim and Bill Murray to a cartoon duck and, my personal favourite, Michael Caine.
Because The Muppet Christmas Carol is my all time favourite version of Charles Dickens’ classic.
Michael Caine is a wonderful actor. He’s a man who can play hard, cold men, and in fact made his name doing it, in films like Get Carter, for example. But what I love is that he’s able to show the calculating mind, the sudden bursts of violence behind the cold face. On the flip side, he’s also got the range to be a warm and caring man, a person of strength and vulnerability, like when he plays Alfred in The Dark Knight, for example. So he’s the perfect Scrooge, a man who lost the love of his life, who grew up alone and unloved, and who has become a hard and quite intimidating man.
And perhaps The Muppets are the perfect foil. I think they are. The Muppets are so full of life and humour that they are able to let him play the straight man, while they go nuts with songs, sight gags and puns, with their general merry mayhem.
I love this film. This year it has been re-released in cinemas for it’s 25th anniversary, which means that I’m not the only one who feels that this is their definitive A Christmas Carol, though, you know, I have to admit, I love so many of the others too. But the childlike joy and silliness and friendship of The Muppets, combined with the genuine and heartfelt performance of Caine makes this a winner for me. It will be the version that I watch again this year, and for many years to come.
But what if is the version that makes you cringe? Well, this years latest version of A Christmas Carol story is The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells the story of Charles Dickens as he is inspired to write the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts who visit him, starring Christopher Plummer and Johnathan Pryce. So as always, when it comes to A Christmas Carol, there’s always a new version and a version for everyone.
Oh, and on a last note, Dickens wrote a new Christmas story almost every year, which means that there are some great Victorian Christmas tales you may not have read or heard before. My favourite of these is The Cricket On The Hearth, of which there is a truly awful but kinda hilarious cartoon version by Rankin/Bass, which are known for their old school, clunky but sweet Christmas animations.