The earliest filmed version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol was in 1901. Since then there have been at least sixty-five filmed adaptations – not including the many times where productions borrowed one or more themes or elements from the story. Some adaptations are good, some were even great, but for the last two decades there has been – in my opinion – one that stands out from the others.
Because A Christmas Carol has been adapted so many times, newer versions have a tendency to try to bring new creative elements to the story, or to have some gimmick that will make it feel different from all the others. The 1999 adaptation doesn’t do this, to its credit, and generally plays it straight. Though there is much to love in the likes of A Flintstones Christmas Carol or Scrooged, when I’m in the mood for a faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book, I reach for this version.
Sir Patrick Stewart, who takes on the role of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, had previously adapted A Christmas Carol to be a one-man play which he starred in on the stage beginning in 1988. Though I’ve never been fortunate enough to see this version, in it Sir Patrick takes on most of the roles in the book; over thirty characters. During the play’s run, Sir Patrick began working with director David Jones, who was a versatile director of stage and screen. They adapted the novel into a made-for-television film and it was broadcast on American cable network TNT in the run-up to Christmas 1999.
This adaptation of A Christmas Carol is the first to make use of CGI and digital special effects. Though some of these have aged – the production is over twenty years old at this point – most hold up remarkably well even compared to higher-budget films and television shows of the era. The 1990s was an interesting time for special effects. CGI meant that many productions were able to make use of effects that would have been prohibitively expensive to do physically, yet even at the time many could be underwhelming. The Star Wars prequels suffered greatly from an overuse of CGI that wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, but in this adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the effects are kept to a minimum and aren’t intrusive.
As a big Star Trek fan, the main draw of this adaptation was, of course, the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart. I don’t believe it was broadcast here in the UK before the millennium, but I certainly would have seen it for the first time in the early 2000s. After being initially interested simply because of who was in it, what I found when I sat down to watch A Christmas Carol was a largely-faithful adaptation of Dickens’ novel, one that retained all of the heart and sweetness at the core of this story of Christmas and redemption. Sir Patrick’s performance is outstanding, but it’s hardly the only great work of acting. Richard E. Grant co-stars as Scrooge’s hard-done-by employee Bob Cratchit, and there were great performances from lesser-known actors taking on the roles of the three spirits, the Cratchit family, and the people Scrooge encounters in his visions.
As an historical piece, A Christmas Carol nails the Victorian feel. It even succeeds at showing different periods of the 19th Century – when Scrooge is taken back to his past, the setting and costumes change to reflect the passage of time. Though things like set design and costuming can be subtle, if something isn’t right – especially in a film set in a distinct time period – it can really be offputting. This is one aspect that the film gets spot on.
Making Dickensian language understandable to contemporary audiences can be a challenge. Not quite so much as with Shakespeare or Chaucer, but many 19th Century texts can sound odd to our ears today. Though I’d argue 19th Century writing is often beautiful, when adapted for the screen in particular it can sound ostentatious and stilted. This adaptation of A Christmas Carol manages to avoid that – for the most part – and the dialogue works well, especially when you get stuck into it!
As humans we have an innate fear of death, and it’s from this fear that the first legends of ghosts and hauntings were created. The idea of spirits unable to leave this world nor enter the afterlife is frightening; a fate worse than death, you could say. And A Christmas Carol doesn’t shy away from the frightening side of the spirits who visit Scrooge. I’d even go so far as to say that there are several jump-scares in this adaptation. A great soundtrack accompanies these moments in particular, escalating the tension. It may not be the best version to watch if you have very young children.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a time when folks in Britain were rediscovering many Christmas traditions that had fallen by the wayside. Though it’s not fair to credit the novel with saving or inventing Christmas, many of the traditions we associate with the holiday today are included in the novel – and in this adaptation.
So that’s it, really. I just wanted to highlight this great and underappreciated adaptation of Dickens’ novel as we’re now in the grip of the holiday season! It made my list last year of twelve things to watch during the festive season, but I wanted to expand a little on what I said and give A Christmas Carol its own moment in the spotlight!
As a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Sir Patrick Stewart, I was incredibly excited when I first heard of this adaptation. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw it for the first time around twenty years ago, and it’s become a permanent fixture on my holiday watchlist. I wouldn’t say I watch it without fail every Christmas season, but certainly most years I’ll fire up the DVD and spend an hour-and-a-half with this festive favourite. I highly recommend it, both to Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike.
A Christmas Carol (1999) is out now on DVD and may be streamed on Amazon Prime in the United Kingdom. Access to the film on streaming platforms may vary by location. A Christmas Carol may be the copyright of TNT and/or Sonar Entertainment, Inc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.