Ever since its initial publication in the 1800s, countless readily-available adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of varying quality have been produced for a range of mediums. One of the best versions to date is this 1971 animated television special, and unfortunately it’s also one of the most forgotten and underrated retellings of Dickens’ classic novella. Helmed by Richard Williams (The Thief and the Cobbler) and produced by animation legend Chuck Jones (1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!), 1971’s A Christmas Carol was originally produced for TV, but received so much attention and acclaim that it was released theatrically and subsequently earned an Academy Award. As of 2011, this is the only cinematic rendering of Dickens’ tale to win an Oscar, and it’s very deserving of such a prestigious honour.
The story of A Christmas Carol has been redone so many times, so this plot synopsis will be kept brief. A bitter old miser more concerned with his own affluence than human compassion, Ebenezer Scrooge (Sim) is both feared and hated. On the night of Christmas Eve, he’s visited by his deceased former business partner Jacob Marley (Hordern), who warns Scrooge about the error of his ways. Scrooge tries to dismiss Marley’s ghostly visit as a figment of his imagination, but he’s subsequently visited by three more spirits during the night: the Ghost of Christmas Past (Quick), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Felton), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (West), all of whom come armed with grim visions.
Unlike the numerous feature-length retellings of the tale, this A Christmas Carol runs a scant 25 minutes. Fortunately, its brevity is a huge benefit, as director Williams did not waste a single frame. The film hews closely to Dickens’ original vision (no writer is credited – only Dickens), briskly moving through the well-worn plot without ever growing dreary or boring. Furthermore, this concise TV special still packs a huge emotional punch and efficiently delivers all of the provocative messages associated with this timeless morality tale. Admittedly, a few moments feel a tad rushed (perhaps an extra 5 minutes could have launched the film to perfection), but this was probably the best adaptation that was possible in a 25-minute timeframe.
For the visuals, Williams stuck as closely as he could to the pen & ink sketches by John Leech that appeared in the original 19th Century novella. A Christmas Carol may look dated compared to the animation perfection of today, but it nonetheless remains impressive, with innovative pans, zooms and scene transitions giving the director’s vision a distinctive look. The skilled team of artists used lighting to great effect as well, capturing the elegiac austerity of London in the mid-1800s. Calling upon his usual instincts, Williams wanted his version of A Christmas Carol to be dark and gloomy, doing justice to the story’s bleak supernatural elements. Consequently, Williams played up the horror aspects whenever possible, and this version is at times genuinely scary. As a result of this, 1971’s A Christmas Carol is prefaced with a title which warns viewers that this is “A Ghost Story of Christmas“. Heck, the picture even fell into obscurity directly because TV stations have deemed Williams’ vision “too scary for kids” and thus do not wish to purchase the airing rights.
Narrated with gripping passion by Michael Redgrave, 1971’s A Christmas Carol is notable for giving Alastair Sim the chance to reprise his former role of Ebenezer Scrooge. For those unaware, Sim was highly acclaimed for playing the embittered curmudgeon in 1951’s Scrooge, and to this day is widely considered to be the best Ebenezer Scrooge in cinematic history. Fortunately, Sim’s work here is excellent as well; the actor slipped back into the role as if no time had passed, resulting in a memorable vocal performance. And Sim is not the only actor from the 1951 film here – Michael Hordern also reprised his role of Jacob Marley.
Without a doubt, this incarnation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the greatest ever produced to date. It’s fast-paced and visually stunning, and it does a great job of conveying both the grim nature of Scrooge’s journey and the uplifting disposition of his redemptive epiphany. Highly recommended.