When it comes to favorite Christmas tales on the screen, there are probably two. There’s no confusion about the first, because there is only one It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, Frank Capra’s classic is so expertly wrought that no one has even attempted a big screen remake. The second is a little more problematic, because there have been many worthy takes on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Case in point, we’re actually going to take a look at a few of them this month. In 1984, George C. Scott humbugged to memorable effect in a made-for-TV adaptation. Albert Finney sang and danced his way through the title role of 1970’s Scrooge. Even Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, Blackadder, Captain Picard and Mickey Mouse have taken their shots (with varying degrees of success). But widely believed to be the best-loved and most-remembered version of A Christmas Carol has to be the 1951 edition of Scrooge, with the inimitable Alastair Sim as London’s cruelest miser.
Sim, a veteran of British stage and screen, started his motion picture career in the mid-’30s and ended it in the early-’70s. In between, he appeared in over fifty films, but the role that has given him true immortality is that of Scrooge. Sim is not just one of many actors to play the part — for everyone who has seen the crisply-made black-and-white production, he is the definitive Scrooge. Everyone else, from George C. Scott to Bill Murray, is an impostor.
Any film-goer or classical literature fan is familiar with the story. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that nearly any one that goes to a school in America is familiar with the story. As such, I’m not going to go into the story. You know it by now-Ebenezer Scrooge is an old man living in London, England, thriving off the fortunes of his business but not able to enjoy the splendor of his wealth due to pure greed that exists within his soul. On Christmas Eve, he’s visited by three ghosts. Said ghosts show him the past, present and future. Tiny Tim coughs, Tiny Tim dies, Scrooge repents, Scrooge changes his ways, Tiny Tim lives, we all have some smiles and feel good at the end.
So why is this particular version of a story so imagined so widely loved? Alastair Sim isn’t just good as Scrooge, he completely embodies him. He’s grumpy and frumpy and in a split second manages to turn Scrooge into a likable character towards the end — a character no longer driven by hatred and malice but rather by love and kindness.
This is a universal theme as old as the days — money isn’t true happiness — and Scrooge is the most clear and evident and believable example of this. It’s a true classic story in the sense of the meaning, and not only does it deserve to be remembered as a fine story, the film itself deserved to be remembered as the classic it is.
Scrooge is remarkable for staying faithful to Dickens’ classic story as it remains fresh and vivid, even upon repeat viewings. The entire cast is excellent, but it is the great performance of Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge that distinguishes this version from several other adaptations of this work. Sim creates a complex characterization, and, in the film’s many flashback scenes, the audience is given a compelling view of the character as he evolves into the not-so-lovable curmudgeon visited by ghosts. Indeed, such complexity is necessary for the story to have its full impact, as the viewer must feel both sympathy and disapproval for Scrooge, a difficult combination for an actor to convey. The crisp, black-and-white cinematography of C.M. Pennington-Richards doesn’t hurt either.
Some movies are just fun, while other movies actually conceal important messages. Scrooge is, without a doubt, one of the most important and moralistic films ever made. Dickens’ tale is one of the most black-and-white examples of greed vs. happiness, and the screen treatment is extraordinary: a story of learning to appreciate life instead of humbugging it. After all, nobody likes a humbugger. From acting to set design, I can’t imagine that, if Dickens were alive today, he’d find a single thing wrong with the adaptation of his beloved novel.