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Scrooges, ranked

15 takes on A Christmas Carol’s main character, ranked from Jim Carrey to Mr. Magoo.

The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Michael Caine played Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Disney/Jim Henson Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few fictional characters have been portrayed onscreen as often as Ebenezer Scrooge, the hero and villain of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Really, the list comes down to Scrooge, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes, all British literary characters who’ve been warped and twisted in all directions to fit whatever context a given narrative demands.

IMDB lists 135 separate instances of someone playing Scrooge in one work or another — and that’s to say nothing of characters who are clearly riffs on Scrooge, or cartoon characters taking a whirl at being Scrooge, or any of pop culture’s other many Scrooge permutations. For as long as humans celebrate Christmas and worry about unchecked greed, we’ll need people to play Scrooge.

But who is the best Scrooge? It’s impossible to see every portrayal of Scrooge ever — especially since so many are lost to the mists of time — but I’ve seen a lot of them. So I’ve zeroed in on the 15 most notable Scrooges, then ranked them from worst to best.

I tried to keep to the most famous of Scrooges and characters actually playing Scrooge, not a Scrooge-like character — with a couple of notable exceptions. With all of that out of the way, here are 15 of the most famous Scrooges, ranked.

15) Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)

Hicks, well known for his stage work as Scrooge, played the character onscreen in 1913, one of the very first film adaptations of A Christmas Carol. I haven’t seen that one, so I’m reduced to judging Hicks’s work based on this low-quality 1935 adaptation, where the various ghosts aren’t represented onscreen at all. Instead, we only hear their voices. It doesn’t give the hammy Hicks much to react to, and his performance suffers as a result.

14) Kelsey Grammer in A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)

Adding songs to A Christmas Carol has been attempted many times but rarely pulled off. This made-for-TV adaptation boasts the talents of Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, whose 1994 stage musical is adapted here. The songs aren’t bad, but Grammer doesn’t really add anything to the part. He scowls and stomps around, and he always seems like he’s putting on an act. Thus, the final moment of redemption falls flat.

13) Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol (2009)

There’s one neat idea at the center of this big-screen, computer-animated adaptation of the book: Carrey plays not only Scrooge but also the three spirits who visit him, which underlines how Scrooge’s true transformation always came from within. But this is another project where form defeats function. The film’s manic motion-capture action sequences seem to exist solely to pad out the story, and the alienness of the computer effects undercuts Carrey’s sweetly soulful work.

12) Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)

Some people swear by this musical adaptation (yes, again) of the story, but I’ve never quite gotten into it. Finney, like Carrey, seems a touch young to play the role, and he overcompensates with blustering and shouting. That might be okay if the songs were more memorable, but they’re not. A Christmas Carol usually requires some degree of simplicity, but everything about Scrooge is overwrought, befitting its title as one of the last Hollywood mega-musicals.

11) Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988)

Here’s the one non-Scrooge on the list, since Murray technically plays a TV executive named “Frank Cross,” who nonetheless is visited by three ghosts, etc. Murray is a lot of fun in this film, but of all the Scrooges on this list, he seems the most likely to revert back to “Bah, humbug” by the time January 1 rolls around. It doesn’t help that the movie is a mess — confused and stuffed full of too many big effects sequences.

10) Reginald Owen in A Christmas Carol (1938)

Trying to turn this ghost story into a treat for the whole family stretches back almost to the book’s publication, but this was the first major movie to attempt the transition. As such, many aspects of the story — including some of its moral about taking care of society’s neediest — are left out. Fortunately, Owen, though very stagey, is pretty good, offering a rock-solid take on the character heavily inspired by Lionel Barrymore’s radio work.

9) Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (1999)

One of the problems with latter-day Scrooges is that there are so many interpretations of the character that there’s almost no new ground to tread. Stewart offers his best effort in this made-for-TNT TV movie, and he really sinks his teeth into the scenes where Scrooge is a mean old bastard. But he’s a bit of a letdown when playing reformed Scrooge — even though jovial, chuckling Patrick Stewart is one of this planet’s greatest treasures.

8) Basil Rathbone in “The Stingiest Man in Town” episode of The Alcoa Hour (1956)

Of all the musical Christmas Carols, this one is my favorite. (It was also adapted into a pretty good Rankin-Bass animated special, with Walter Matthau as the old miser.) Rathbone, most famous for playing Sherlock Holmes, mostly shouts a lot to convey mean Scrooge, but when he has his big transformation scene — complete with a song to mark the occasion — you really buy it. Sometimes it pays to cast an actor better known for “good guy” parts as Scrooge.

7) Lionel Barrymore on 1930s radio

This is also cheating, since Barrymore never brought his work as Scrooge to the screen. (He was intended to star in the 1938 film version but fell ill. The radio role was played that year by none other than Orson Welles.) But listen to the above performance, and you’ll understand just why he became the Scrooge to many Americans during the Depression.

6) Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Laugh all you want, but Mr. McDuck was many kids’ introduction to the Scrooge character, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol is the gold standard for the “characters popular from another context get together to act out A Christmas Carol” subgenre. (God help you if you stumble upon the Flintstones variation on that form.) Alan Young’s voice work is impeccable, and the short film foreshadowed Disney’s slow return to form in the late 1980s.

5) Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)

Technically, Atkinson plays “Ebenezer Blackadder,” but the bigger change to the Christmas Carol mythos is that this Ebenezer goes from a kindhearted man to a bitter, vengeful villain, due to spirits who mean to congratulate him and accidentally change his ways. If you need a blast of black humor this Christmas, you could do much, much worse than this.

4) Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Wisely, the Jim Henson Company chose to fill the role of Scrooge with a human being and not a puppet when embarking on its first project in the wake of Henson’s tragic death. That said human being was Caine, who never met a role he couldn’t take 100 percent seriously, was a plus. Caine is just as committed to pretending these puppets are real beings with whom he shares the universe as he is to selling Scrooge’s transformation, and that makes a strong center for this lively little film.

3) Quincy Magoo in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

The very first animated TV Christmas special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol remains one of the very best, thanks to Jim Backus’s murmuring and muttering as the title character. Though Magoo is most known for his near-blindness, that quality barely comes into play in this special, which is mostly a straightforward adaptation of the story. (The idea is that Magoo is starring in a stage presentation.) Backus already plays Magoo as a bit crotchety, so the full-on transition into Scrooge makes plenty of sense. The songs are good, too.

2) George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984)

Scott offers something very different in a Scrooge: a kind of quiet menace. He certainly has his moments when he shouts and snarls, but he never lets Ebenezer be a one-dimensional monster. This Scrooge is world-weary, beaten down by a life of constant disappointment. Scott makes you almost sympathize with the idea of taking out all of that pain and frustration on your fellow man, and when Christmas morning comes and he’s ready to begin anew, he sells that with the same quiet stoicism.

1) Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951) and A Christmas Carol (1971)

Sim just happens to star in my two favorite adaptations of the story — one live-action and one animated. What makes both work is a kind of hushed intensity. These adaptations remember that this is a ghost story and should be just a touch frightening to really work. And Sim stands up to all that horror with an admirable bluster. His Scrooge is a man used to getting what he wants, not afraid to push back when the universe insists he change. That makes his metamorphosis both all the more gradual and all the more rewarding. This Scrooge won’t lapse into his old ways, because his new ones have been so hard-won. God bless us, everyone!

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