A Christmas Carol (2009) Stave I: A Fairly Promising Start

This Christmas, I’ll be doing something different on The Adaptation Station. I’ll be going through one particular adaptation, analyzing it scene by scene. I’m not doing it because I love Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, more than the source materials of many of the other things I’ve covered on this blog. There are plenty I love equally. Neither is Robert Zemeckis’s 2009 animated adaptation one of my favorite retellings of the story[1]Its official title is Disney’s A Christmas Carol to distinguish it from all the other Christmas Carol movies, but Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol gives you a better idea of what to expect … Continue reading, though I do find it interesting. Hopefully, it’ll be interesting enough to benefit from the longer format. I hope readers enjoy this because I’d love to give some other movies this treatment. But naturally, those who haven’t seen this film yet and wish to avoid spoilers are also going to want to skip this series. Now that I’ve got that warning out of the way….

The movie’s first moments are pretty great, establishing the atmosphere of A Christmas Carol-or rather its two contrasting atmospheres, which might be called the Merry and the Scary. First, jolly, joyous music is heard on the soundtrack, and we get a beautiful of image of a well-to-do Victorian Christmas.

Then the music grows ominous as the camera pans down to a copy of A Christmas Carol. It flips open and we zoom in on the haunting (no pun intended) first words, “Marley was dead.” Then the page turns, and we’re confronted with an illustration of the man himself, a corpse with a bandage wrapped around its head, lying in a coffin.

The illustration dissolves into reality or rather into animation. The dead man’s business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) signs the certificate of death, which is the first thing we’re told the character does in the book, so that’s pretty great adaptation.

I kind of love Scrooge’s handwriting. It looks just how I’d imagine it based on his personality.

Scrooge’s interactions with the undertaker (Steve Valentine) and his young apprentice (Daryl Sabara) do a great job of establishing his cold, miserly character and are quite entertaining in their morbid humor.

I’ve put off talking about the animation long enough. I don’t really like mocap animation. At least not for entire movies. There have been many live action ones that used it for individual characters with great success, but I’m not sure if there’s ever been a great movie entirely animated with motion capture. There’s always something about the human character’s faces that distracts me. That being said, I don’t hate it as much as many seem to do. And the movie’s backgrounds are quite beautiful. The character designs are also wonderfully Dickensian, that of Scrooge himself being a case in point, though I noticed some of them getting reused on a number of the background characters.

A quirk of Robert Zemeckis’s mocap movies is that they tend to have small casts with each actor playing multiple roles. I don’t really understand the point of this. Is it just cheaper that way? Do fewer actors balance out the cost of the technology itself or something? Is it just to show off the range of each member of the cast? Or is it something they do just to show that with motion capture they can?

Anyway, Scrooge leaves the undertaker and makes his way down the streets of London, stopping to silence some carolers with a look and scoff at some boys hitching a ride on the back of a carriage and, in a great nod to the book, scaring away a seeing eye dog.

As the opening credits roll, we get a montage of the city. The swooping, zooming cinematography makes it transparent that this movie was meant to be in 3D, but honestly, I love it. The soundtrack by Alan Silvestri is the best of any Christmas Carol movie in my experience. And the scene does a great job of establishing the cultural milieu of Charles Dickens. I especially love the vignette of the boys begging by the Lord Mayor’s house. It’s a bit weird though to spend so much time establishing the world seven years prior to the story’s main events.[2]The 1999 made-for-TV Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart does the same thing by the way.

Cut to “seven Christmas Eves later,” Scrooge is counting money at his office while his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) rubs his hands together for warmth and looks longingly at the coal box and the key to it on Scrooge’s desk. Scrooge’s nephew (Colin Firth) enters to invite him to Christmas dinner the next day with his wife. The two of them debate the merits of the holiday. After the nephew departs, two gentlemen (Cary Elwes and Julian Holloway) enter, asking for a donation to help the poor and needy. Scrooge coldly replies that the “surplus population” have the prisons and workhouses to take care of them. (The way Scrooge casually dangles the charity collectors’ credentials over a candle, nearly burning them, is a great little touch.) If you’re wondering why I’m summarizing so much of this, it’s because the dialogue in this scene is very close to the book, all but word for word. Since I love the book, I also love it and if you’re not a fan of the material, well, I’m sure you know enough not to bother with this movie at all. The acting ranges from good to great. At least, I think it does. It’s hard for me to judge mocap performances. Personally, I wish Colin Firth had been Scrooge. It seems like a role in which I’d be much more interested in seeing him. But it’s not as if he’s bad as the nephew or as if Jim Carrey were bad as Scrooge.

Here’s an example of the movie reusing character designs. The grocer who appears at the end of the movie (with the giant turkey for the Cratchits) looks just like the guy on the left.

After Scrooge begrudgingly gives his clerk the next day off and locks up for the night, a jubilant Bob slides down the hill “in honor of its being Christmas Eve,” another fun little detail from the book. I didn’t think much about him wiping out and landing on his butt on my first viewing, but in retrospect, it’s a sign of things to come. Meanwhile, Scrooge arrives at his effectively creepy house.

On the doorstep, Scrooge drops his key. “Alter it!” he grumbles, an amusingly appropriate curse as the doorknocker in the frame with him at the moment is about to undergo a transformation. “Why do these things always happen to me?” he says after stooping down to retrieve the key. He doesn’t yet see what the viewer does: that his doorknocker has been replaced by the face of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. Apart from its eyes being shut, it looks much as the book describes.

“It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.”

Well, it doesn’t seem like part of its own expression in the movie at first. Then after Scrooge has stared at it for a little bit and reached out to touch it…

I’ve come to the realization, by the way, that I don’t really like jump scares in movies, mainly because once you figure out the concept, you start to expect them right before they happen which ruins the whole point. Being a character rather than a viewer though, Scrooge is effectively freaked out and falls backwards on the steps. When he looks up, the knocker is back to normal. Scrooge enters the house, lights a candle and makes his way up the stairs.

Again, this movie’s backgrounds are great.

The movie includes the details of Scrooge, slightly on edge, double locking the door to his bedroom and checking the lumber room. Sadly, it doesn’t include Marley’s face reappearing in every image on the tiles around the bedroom fireplace. I don’t know why so few movies include that detail, given how cinematic it is and how often A Christmas Carol has been and continues to be adapted for the screen.[3]The 1984 and 1999 films are among the few. As in the book, as Scrooge sits by the fire and eats gruel, all the service bells in the room begin to ring of their own accord, the noise growing to a thunderous clamor and after they’ve died down, Scrooge hears the sound of chains being dragged on the floor up the stairs and down the hall to his room. In your average Christmas Carol, these chains would be accompanied by pounding ominous music. Here they’re heard against a background of complete silence. The music only returns when the chained ghost of Marley (Gary Oldman) comes through the door. It works very well.

In general, Marley’s creepiness is highly effective. The way his eyeballs never quite look at Scrooge until they roll slightly down in their sockets is a great gross touch, though his spittle flying at Scrooge[4]In 3d! is pretty stupid. The dialogue, in which he tells Scrooge how he (Marley) is doomed to wander the world in torment for eternity as punishment for the missed opportunities of his life and how the three spirits who will haunt Scrooge over the course of the next few nights are his only hope of escaping the same fate, is very faithful to the book. Unfortunately, there’s one really dumb part of this otherwise exemplary scene. At one point, as in book, the bandage around Marley’s face is removed and his jaw drops open. What’s not in the book is the attempt at comedy as Marley is unable to talk with a detached lower jaw and has to try to hold it up as he speaks. Not only is this not funny but the Zemeckis inexplicably chose to have it when Marley gives one his most pivotal speeches.

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Why would you want the audience to be distracted during those words is beyond my imagination. Finally, Marley readjusts the bandaging, and you think the dumb joke is going to die, but no. He’s now rendered himself unable to speak and has to readjust it again. Let’s just say Marley’s eyes weren’t the only ones rolling at that point.[5]To be fair, there was always a bit of grim humor in the way Dickens described Marley taking off the bandage “as if it were too warm to wear indoors.” The 1999 movie strangely decides to … Continue reading

As Marley departs out the window, his chains wrap around Scrooge’s chair, pulling it after him before vanishing. Scrooge leans out the open window and gets a glimpse of the spirit world.

This movie has the most emotionally intense depiction of the ghosts who, like Marley, “sought to interfere for good in human matters and had lost the power forever.” Dickens writes that Scrooge “had been quite familiar with one old ghost” crying over a homeless woman with an infant. That seems to be the case here, as Scrooge’s screams grow even louder when it looks up to face him. It flies towards the window, but Scrooge races to his bed and pulls the curtains shut. Right before he does so, we see the window close and the phantoms outside it disappear. It’s an imperfect but fairly promising start to the movie.

Next Week: The Ghost of Christmas Past is on Fire. Literally.


1 Its official title is Disney’s A Christmas Carol to distinguish it from all the other Christmas Carol movies, but Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol gives you a better idea of what to expect from it.
2 The 1999 made-for-TV Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart does the same thing by the way.
3 The 1984 and 1999 films are among the few.
4 In 3d!
5 To be fair, there was always a bit of grim humor in the way Dickens described Marley taking off the bandage “as if it were too warm to wear indoors.” The 1999 movie strangely decides to play the moment for laughs rather than horror too, though it works better there.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.