According to the Dickens Society of London, there have been more than 3,000 adaptations of Charles Dickens’ works, most of them for the stage, but 156 for the movies and television, not including, however, the bowdlerized, bastardized, and otherwise misbegotten adaptations that draw on Dickens but have nothing to do with the spirit in which he wrote. The most misbegotten of all turn up on television during the holidays, and you should avoid them at all costs. I am referring, of course, to the vulgar travesties of A Christmas Carol.
We get, for example, the awful Scrooged, with Bill Murray, or A Diva’s Christmas Carol, with Vanessa Williams. These are empty exercises. Dickens’s story is about sin, redemption and salvation, and as G. K. Chesterton once wrote, it may be his “greatest work … the perpetuation of the joyful mystery of Christmas.”
Nonetheless there are some quite respectable versions of A Christmas Carol, and you should try your best to see them. The gold standard in this is the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim, but we will talk about that later. Meanwhile there is the 1938 Hollywood version, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, and assorted actors from the old MGM stable. It remains a joy, especially when it depicts the Cratchits.
There is also the 1984, made-for-television Christmas Carol, with George C. Scott as a full-throated, outsized, but still wonderfully modulated Scrooge. It was filmed in Shrewsbury, England, and many of the supporting actors come from the Royal Shakespeare Company. It should be revived on television every Christmas, although unfortunately it is not. The 1999 Christmas Carol, though, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge, is shown now on cable all the time.
There is simply no justice in that. The critics praised Stewart’s Scrooge, but Scott’s Scrooge is much the superior. Stewart, however, is bald and British, and he enunciates very clearly, and the critics were beguiled. But he declaims his way through the part, and while Scott’s Scrooge is genuinely repentant when he meets Dickens’ ghosts, Stewart’s might just as well be Jean-Luc Picard meeting some Klingons.
There are other Christmas Carols, too. The Brits did a notable one in 1935, although they called it Scrooge. Seymour Hicks was in the title role. There is also the 1970 musical Scrooge, with a singing and dancing Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost. The score, however, is nothing much, although if you insist on a musical Christmas Carol — and I can’t imagine why — there you have one.
And finally, of course, the gold standard by which all the other versions must be judged: the 1951 movie in which Alastair Sim, as Scrooge, gives the performance of his career. Dickens describes Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” and that’s what Sim’s Scrooge is. But Sim also understands the Dickens story is a fantasy, and that whatever its moral lesson it is also meant to amuse.
So even when Sim’s Scrooge is at his most squeezing, wrenching, and grasping, he is also both comic and pathetic, unlike, say, the upright Patrick Stewart. Dickens wanted us to pity Scrooge and not scorn him, and Sim makes that easy to do. Meanwhile, the production itself is a wonder, faithful to Dickens’ London. You must see it, though, in black and white, and not in the computer-colored version. Dickens’ London does not do well in color; it is supposed to be all light and dark shadows.
When the Sim movie is shown on television, it is often listed in the TV newspaper guides as A Christmas Carol, although its official name is Scrooge. No matter; it is still the same movie. Meanwhile there is a scene at the end, when Scrooge shows up at his nephew’s home but hesitates to enter the drawing room until the maid smiles and beckons him in. And if that doesn’t make you cry, it should.
This piece was originally published on December 23, 2002.