When tradition turns to tedium
The arrival of the holiday season can be seen in a number of ways: the appearance of Christmas lights hanging from the houses of your eager neighbours; Lite 96’s 24-hour playlist of carols and hymns; children making snow angels; and the words “Christmas Sale” printed in virtually every flyer that comes with your Sunday newspaper.
For me, however, the realization that Christmas is indeed upon us once again came on Nov. 16, with a brief emailed message. It was inviting me to the opening night performance of A Christmas Carol, being staged by Theatre Calgary for the 20th year in a row. My blood immediately chilled.
Don’t get me wrong: I am extremely fond of the 166-year-old literary classic, and its universal themes of love for your fellow man and embodying the Christmas spirit all year long, not just during the seasonal months. But when the same story has been adapted into 115 notable incarnations (according to Wikipedia) and undoubtedly plenty more on a smaller scale, it gets a little bit irritating when the majority of these creators are unwilling to think outside the box in the name of “tradition” or “finding the heart of the story.” The very fact that this year marks the 16th consecutive appearance of actor Stephen Hair in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Theatre Calgary version says something about how tired this tradition has become.
I myself have seen A Christmas Carol twice on the Theatre Calgary stage; once because a friend of mine was playing Tiny Tim (he held the role for about three years, unless my memory has failed me), and another because my parents had season tickets and wanted to make every dollar count. The second time I saw it, I was immediately bored. “I’ve seen this before,” I thought to myself, and I proceeded to sulk in my chair, waiting for the curtains to close. (My parents must have shared my feelings, as we’ve skipped the production in the years since that we’ve had season passes.)
And now, we have Disney’s third undertaking of the story — this time done with creepy motion-capture technology (remember The Polar Express? Same director, same deal) and starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and the three Christmas ghosts. Despite this being another showcase for Carrey’s physical comedy, it’s clear even from the trailer that this follows the same traditional story line as the other countless undertakings. But it’s in 3-D, so I guess that makes it better…?
The fact is, a tale as old as time can only be done “by the books” so many instances before it becomes stale. It takes a brave artist to rethink something so beloved by everyone, and the results can be all the more glorious simply for being so refreshing. Even if the experiment fails, the attempt can inspire its own following, and can even replace the original source in the hearts of the devoted.
Such is the same with A Christmas Carol, so here’s a list of some of the most notable and inspired retellings of Charles Dickens’ tale yet attempted. Some of these are readily available for you to see for yourself, while others have come and gone. Hopefully, though, they may give you something to think about when planning your own interpretation.
Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol (1988)
There’s more to Patrick Stewart than frequent visitors to Comic-Con would have you believe. This man matches Ian McKellan for bridging the gap between contemporary films and traditional theatre, as Stewart is a veteran of Shakespeare and other old English stagecraft.
This one-man production still stands as a high-point in his career: Stewart, working from his own adaptation, reads and acts out the entire story on his own, reportedly with just a table, a chair, a stool, a lectern, and an over-sized book to accompany him on stage. Stewart acted out several of the principle characters, and critics have frequently used the term “tour de force” to describe the overall effect. The production has been revived several times over the course of 20 years, and Stewart has continued to win awards for the performance right up to the most recent staging in 2007.
Steve Nallon’s Christmas Carol (2003)
Speaking of one-man shows, this must have been awesome: renowned impressionist Steve Nallon acting out A Christmas Carol while impersonating famous people in the various roles. One might not be able to recognize all of the people being summoned, but some notable casting decisions include Tony Blair as the young Scrooge, and Robin Williams as Scrooge’s cousin Fred. Woody Allen, Margaret Thatcher, The Flintstones, and David Beckham all show up as well. For anyone who dreams of a perfect cast that spans generations and personas, this is the next best thing.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
My personal favourite, this version holds a special place in my heart as one of my fondest childhood memories, and my own introduction to the story. Plus, Muppets! As well, Michael Caine gives what I think is the best performance of Scrooge I’ve seen on film, his eyes conveying the sadness that hides deep underneath the greed and contempt the character uses as a shield. The songs are all fun and innocent (except for the melodramatic break-up ballad “When Love Is Gone,” sung by Scrooge’s lost fiancee Belle) and the whole thing exudes Christmas spirit in its purest form. Not to mention, Tiny Tim (played by Kermit the Frog’s son) is absolutely adorable.
Seriously, anything with Bill Murray is worth at least one viewing, and this is one of his most underrated films. Set in modern times, the movie makes many unique changes to the original story: Francis Xavier Cross, the Scrooge character played by Murray, is a cold-hearted television executive who’s visited by his mentor to see the error of his ways the night before he’s supposed to produce a TV broadcast of A Christmas Carol; the Bob Cratchet character is Cross’s female assistant; her Tiny Tim-reminiscent son, rather than being sick and crippled, is mute, perhaps autistic; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a giant ghost-like figure with a TV screen for a face. The comedy is wickedly dark, and Murray is hilarious throughout as he spins off one-liners with ease.
I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas (2009)
A novelized sequel to the original story, in which Adam Roberts imagines that the sickness slowly killing Tiny Tim was actually an infectious virus that has since spread and initiated a zombie epidemic that could destroy the world. It’s up to Scrooge and the three ghosts of Christmas to save humanity from the disease. If that hasn’t caused you to put this paper down and run to your nearest bookstore, you’ve definitely lost your Christmas spirit.