A Christmas Carol has probably been filmed, staged and adapted more than just about any other literary work. As my ‘Dickens in December’ season carries on, I’d be very interested to hear which adaptations of this great tale are other people’s favourites – my own, out of those I’ve seen to date, is probably the Alastair Sim version, though I do also love the more recent Patrick Stewart film, which my family often watches at Christmas.
One of the shortest and earliest versions was the Edison Company’s 1910 film, which is only around 10 minutes long. I saw this version today and was very impressed. Despite its single-reel length, and despite being made with a fixed camera, it does get a flavour of the novel and it also has quite impressive special effects in the scenes with the ghosts, apparently achieved by double exposures. There are several copies of the film on Youtube, some of which claim to be remastered, but I can’t see much difference between them in terms of quality – all are fairly poor prints, not surprisingly with a film more than a century old – except that the “remastered” ones have a yellow tint. They also all finish very abruptly, so there may be some footage missing at the end. The print I have linked to below (not remastered/yellow) has quite atmospheric music, although it is a bit loud, so I turned down my speakers. It is also possible to buy this film on DVD in region 1 from Kino, as part of the Christmas Past DVD which includes a number of early films from Edison.
It was directed by an uncredited J Searle Dawley, who claimed to be the world’s first professional movie director, and starred Australian actor Marc McDermott, who was discovered by Mrs Patrick Campbell, as Scrooge. McDermott was only 29 when he took on the role of the elderly miser, but he plays the part convincingly.
The story is inevitably very compressed, with one ghost returning several times instead of three, and brief glimpses of past, present and future. Many of the scenes feature three elements – with Scrooge himself in the foreground, and the ghost standing between him and the scene he is observing, also made to look ghostly. One especially striking scene is the one where the children representing Ignorance and Want appear, their hands clawing at the ghost’s skirts. I was impressed that, even with its short running length, this version does include the social aspects of the story and gives them their full weight.
Instead of memories of a bitter failed love story for Scrooge, the film gives a simpler romantic dilemma – his nephew, Fred, can’t marry the girl he loves because of his lack of money, until Scrooge hastily makes him a partner in the last couple of minutes of running time. Another change from the book is that Scrooge himself takes the prize turkey round to the Cratchits’ home for Christmas dinner instead of sending it with a boy – this makes for a wonderful, comic scene, which is sadly cut off too soon as the film ends.
For further reading, there is a great article about this film at the Silent Volume blog.