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Richard Williams’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Remains the Best Adaptation of Dickens’ Masterpiece

Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today, we look back at Richard Williams’s A Christmas Carol.

What’s it about?

A Christmas Carol is an Academy Award-winning animated cartoon adaptation of Charles Dickens’ venerable 1843 novella, about an old bitter moneygrubber who is given a chance for redemption when he is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Eve.

History

Originally produced as a 1971 television special, and broadcast on ABC, A Christmas Carol received so much critical acclaim, that it was subsequently released theatrically, thereby rendering it eligible for Oscar consideration. The film went on to win for Best Animated Short Film and to this day remains the only adaptation of Dickens’ story to win an Academy Award. The win, however, caused some controversy as many industry insiders were displeased that it was even nominated since it was originally shown on television. This led to the Academy’s decision to change its policy, disqualifying any future works initially shown on TV.

Richard Williams’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

Review

Widely considered to be the definitive of the many adaptations, this 1971 animated version features the voice work of Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern, who reprise their roles as Scrooge and Marley, twenty years after starring in the 1951 film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst.

Admittedly, this is an extremely concise, fast-paced version of A Christmas Carol, but it still packs one hell of an emotional punch. With Michael Redgrave commanding the narration you’re immediately engulfed by this confident retelling of this holiday classic. Directed by Richard Williams (who was known for his stylized credit sequences & animated vignettes from 60s films), A Christmas Carol movies through a brisk 26 minutes aptly condensing the familiar plot while earnestly hewing to the author’s vision. The narration itself mirrors the classic 1951 film version and Sim himself lends all his charm to this extraordinary picture.

Williams wanted his version to be dark and grim, in order to represent the supernatural elements of the story, and that it is. A Christmas Carol (after all, a ghost story) plays up the horror aspects of the tale by way of unexpected visual shocks: Tiny Tim’s death is revealed, followed by Scrooge’s own headstone – a ghastly woman rapidly ages before Scrooge’s eyes –and the reoccurring images of the Grimm Reaper’s long fingers pointing only to death. 

achrismascarolanimated1971-300x218

The animation, based on John Leech’s pen and ink sketches and etchings for the original edition of the novel, is inspiring – a morbid, if unique romanticism suffused with, but not subsumed by, a gothic sensibility. The very distinctive look, created by multiple pans and zooms and by innovative, unexpected scene transitions is stunning. The dazzling techniques employed here are a unique curio, and unusually haunting. The artists’ use of lighting adds to the spectral effects and the background images recall the poetic bleakness of mid-19th century England.

For all of the supernatural elements and visceral emotions on display, A Christmas Carol remains a powerful lesson that even the worst of individuals can change their evil ways. Scrooge discovers a new self-awareness and understanding of the past and present, and these life lessons help pave the way for a better future.

– Ricky D

Richard Williams’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

How Christmassy is it?

100 %, even with the dark proceedings.

You may like it if…

The intended audience does not include young children and some regard the film’s bleak mood and emphasis on dark images as the most frightening of the many adaptations.

Other observations:

Anchor Bay acquired the rights to distribute a VHS version but once their rights lapsed, it has been sitting in limbo ever since. I was told Amazon.com has used copies of the Fisher-Price version of this film starting at $38.95. As for the used Anchor Bay version … Well, those go for about $249.99 and up to $349.90.

Williams’ 1982 holiday cartoon Ziggy’s Gift is, however, available on DVD, and also comes highly recommend.

Why this has aired so little and then disappeared altogether is unacceptable. It deserves a late-night spot each and every Christmas Eve.

Final thoughts:

Accept no substitutes! Sim is positively brilliant, even when animated.

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