The Ninth Day of Christmas: Scrooge
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) is one of a plethora of retellings of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (written in 1843). Though it was not the first cinematic adaptation of the novel, it made such a mark in its telling of the story that it is still widely regarded as the best on-screen version of A Christmas Carol ever made.[i] Though I have previously called Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942) the granddaddy of Christmas movies, in terms of a Christmas story that captures hearts and minds, there has been nothing more powerful and enduring as A Christmas Carol, and no single cultural work has done more to cement the Christmas values we hold dear in Britain. So, given that we all know the story of a grumpy, miserly old man who thinks Christmas is “humbug” being shown the error of his ways, what I will assess is how well Hurst’s adaptation conveys this narrative through its creative choices and what sets it apart from other recitations of the legendary tale.
Often the way filmic versions of A Christmas Carol are differentiated is through their lead performer. The story rests so fundamentally on the back of a single character that it is essential that an actor can pull off the range of emotions and tonal shifts in Ebenezer Scrooge as he develops throughout the narrative, and I would go as far as to say that an adaptation can literally live and die on this single factor. It is to Scrooge’s credit, then, that its lead performer has become the benchmark for all incarnations of the character. If you know one thing about the 1951 version, it is that it stars Alastair Sim, a man whose naturally striking appearance lends itself to both the harsh nature of Scrooge’s humbug, and then the deep, full-throttle joy of his transformation. As all of the best actors do (and let’s face it, the role has become a sort-of rite-of-passage for men of a certain age), Sim brings unique attributes to the role, namely an authentic grumpy-old-man aura and hints of inner misery behind his bluster and cruelty. Though he perhaps lacks just a little of the energy and subtlety of actors in the other great versions of the tale, his sheer commitment to projecting the feelings of his character makes Scrooge a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and an appropriately emotional experience as we come to the repentant third act of his character arc.
This slight lack of subtlety is indeed a bit of a running theme in Scrooge, the film generally opting to tell the story as straightforwardly as possible without confusing the matter with any unexpected spin or specifically directed focus. The film clocks in at just over 80 minutes, making the term rollercoaster even more appropriate, as it races through the plot points without pause or unnecessary exposition. And this might well be why the film is so highly regarded: it is very much the essence of Dickens’s tale; the purified distillate of the beloved story without the frills that might put you off another retelling. However, contrary though I might be, for me, this is exactly why I cannot claim Scrooge to be my favourite adaptation. It is so basic, so skeletal; the bare bones of Dickens’s admittedly superlative story without an intriguing perspective to flesh it out. In fact, I would go as far as to say Scrooge feels rushed in parts, its failure to pause for breath or emphasis making its impact just a little less forceful as it accelerates into its resolution.
Nevertheless, there is much to admire in this version despite its imperfections. I would even argue that some of its seeming deficiencies surprisingly work in its favour. Aesthetically, the monochrome and rudimentary special effects, though potentially woefully antiquated to a 21st century audience, actually make the whole affair feel closer to its Victorian setting, boosting Scrooge’s authenticity in the process. And it is impossible to argue with the resolution. As Scrooge takes a newly rejuvenated Tiny Tim’s hand and the two march off together to new Christmas adventures in the snow, our hearts are warmed, and we feel the sheer power of redemption through kindness and giving. This redemption heals the family, the needy, and the self; the paragons of Christmas spirit all accounted for and reconciled in less than an hour and a half of solid family entertainment.
At time of writing, Scrooge is unavailable to watch for free on any of the main streaming platforms, but there are plenty of places you can rent it, look out for it on Channel 5 over the Christmas period, or you could add it to your DVD collection!
[i] The earliest film version that survives is Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (Walter R. Booth), from 1901, demonstrating that cinematic adaptations of this novel have existed from the very early, pioneering days of cinema itself. Nevertheless, the 1951 version tends to top just about every ranking, including these two thorough lists: https://collider.com/a-christmas-carol-adaptations-ranked/ and https://www.cinemaessentials.com/2017/12/best-film-versions-of-a-christmas-carol.html