For over a century, the general public has been inundated with countless film, television and stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ 19th Century novella A Christmas Carol. Amidst this uncountable glut of retellings, director Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film Scrooge (renamed A Christmas Carol for its American release) is typically considered one of the best – if not the best – screen rendering of the timeless tale. Although it’s not perfect, this visualisation of Dickens’ story is a strong effort, with screenwriter Noel Langley (Wizard of Oz) adhering closely to the source material’s narrative trajectory while at the same time adding his own effective spin on the story. Indeed, Scrooge is now considered one of the most quintessential festive movies in history, right alongside such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.
For those of you living under a rock, A Christmas Carol is a simple morality tale. Ebenezer Scrooge (Sim) is a man of little compassion who regards the festive season as a costly burden. Due to his vile attitude, he is one of the least liked citizens in his community. On the night of Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his deceased former business partner Jacob Marley (Hordern), who warns Scrooge about what’s in store for him. As the night unfolds, Scrooge is visited by more spirits who take him on a journey of his tragic past, the bleak present and his depressing potential future, showing the bitter old curmudgeon that the path he has chosen may lead to an eternity of torment.
Noel Langley’s screenplay mines a lot of material from Dickens’ original novella, including large portions of dialogue and various story beats. At the same time, though, Langley made considerable revisions to the source material which gives Scrooge its own life. A rote page-to-screen adaptation rarely works, so Langley either erased or streamlined certain scenes, and introduced his own slant on Scrooge’s back-story. For instance, he conceived of an emotionally raw scene in which Scrooge mourns the death of his sister. Furthermore, dialogue was altered for better effect, making the dry 19th Century talk more involving and concise. It all comes together remarkably, allowing Scrooge to stand as both a great standalone film and a well-judged adaptation of classic source material.
Looking back on the film in the 21st Century, Scrooge is not an extravagant production, but it does encapsulate the flavour and ambience of London in the 1800s. And unlike most motion pictures of the same vintage, the special effects have held up rather well, with simple but effective optical effects bringing life to the ghosts. However, Scrooge is not perfect, mostly because it’s pretty lax from time to time. The ghosts are not overly frightening, which is especially troublesome when the ghost of Jacob Marley appears to Ebenezer. Marley’s appearance should have been a scary, intense scene which conveys the pain and suffering that Scrooge’s soul may one day endure. Instead, it’s not sinister at all; in fact Michael Hordern’s performance is almost comical at times. Moreover, while Alastair Sim is a terrific Ebenezer Scrooge for the most part, his emoting is at times too histrionic, and he seems to begin repenting a bit too soon. Consequently, it doesn’t feel like Scrooge went through many genuinely trying things throughout his time-travelling adventure. These flaws probably could have been rectified with stronger direction. Don’t get me wrong, though – despite this, director Brian Desmond Hurst’s handling of the material is fairly competent, yielding a number of strong scenes and some effective staging.
Over the decades, countless actors have played the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, including George C. Scott (1984’s A Christmas Carol), Michael Caine (The Muppet Christmas Carol), Bill Murray (Scrooged), Albert Finney (1970’s Scrooge), Jim Carrey (2009’s A Christmas Carol) and even Scrooge McDuck. It’s quite something, then, that Alastair Sim is widely considered to be the best and most definitive Scrooge. Since the direction is such a mixed bag, Sim is the one who carries the film for the most part, and he’s easily the best thing in this adaptation. Sim nailed all of the demeanours the role demanded – he emanates the right amount of humbug-ness in early scenes, and at the climax his maniacal zest for life is spot-on. Furthermore, Sim conveys genuine anguish when confronted with humiliating scenes from his past, begging for the visions to cease as he suffers honest-to-goodness emotional distress. Because of Sim’s efforts, Scrooge comes across as a three-dimensional human being even at his nastiest. Due to the acclaim that Sim received for his performance here, he eventually went on to play Scrooge again in a 1971 animated TV special that won an Oscar.
Despite its shortcomings and dated nature, there’s no denying that Scrooge is a Yuletide classic; a picture which both demands annual viewings and stands up to them. It’s not the definitive version of A Christmas Carol, nor is it the best, but that’s because it’s difficult to call something “definitive” or “the best” when there are far too many screen reiterations of the story to count (there are certainly many more than this reviewer will ever have the time to check out). Let’s put it like this: If you prefer Christmas films with heart – a quality lacking in most modern festive movies – thenScrooge is definitely one to check out.