I posted a few days ago about holiday memories being the best gift you can give yourself. One of mine that I didn’t get into in great detail was my annual required viewing of the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This seminal tale, which has probably done more to shape how Christmas is celebrated worldwide than any other work of literature, has been adapted for stage, television and film hundreds of times, the earliest surviving movie being a 6-minute silent British version in 1901. The version aired most often every 24th of December, and most beloved by both critics and families, is the 1951 remake, titled either Scrooge or A Christmas Carol depending on which print you happen to catch (avoid the colorized version at all costs), starring Alastair Sim as the pitiless miser who learns to change his ways following a 1:00 a.m. visit from three pesky spirits. My father introduced me to it when I was very young; he and my uncle were fond of quoting it at length, badly imitated British accents and all, during family holiday gatherings. Now, as a father myself, watching it is the last thing I do before turning out the light on Christmas Eve. And while my son is not likely to understand why Dad’s making him watch this boring black and white thing that doesn’t feature Iron Man in any capacity, it’s important to me to carry this tradition forth for as many years as I’m able.
Consequently it’s difficult for me, as it is with most of the movies that I look upon fondly, to sequester my emotions and memories and evaluate the movie from a strictly critical standpoint. Since it was the version I grew up with, I was surprised to find scenes and characters missing and/or altered in later remakes (like the 2009 Jim Carrey CGI version) that turned out to be upon further investigation inventions of screenwriter Noel Langley and not part of the original story. It might be sacrilege to suggest that anyone could improve on Charles Dickens (or would even dare to try), but for once, we have an example where exploring deeper into the background of an ostensible villain enhances the stakes of his journey. Langley’s script switches the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, making Ebenezer the younger brother who is estranged from his father after his mother dies giving birth to him, paralleling Scrooge’s later disenchantment with his nephew Fred who has cost him the life of his beloved elder sister Fan in the same way. We also see Scrooge, after apprenticing with the jolly old Mr. Fezziwig, come under the influence of the corrupt Mr. Jorkin (a Langley creation) who seduces him to the dark side of capitalism and ultimately introduces him to Jacob Marley, the man who will become his equally covetous business partner. (Gosh, could this sound any more like Star Wars?) But it all works. Ebenezer Scrooge was not born a bad man; like so many of us he made bad choices and reacted adversely to what a cruel world threw at him. He hardened his heart to avoid feeling sad and eventually to avoid feeling anything at all. Langley’s insightful adaptation shows us more of what Scrooge has lost, deepening our desire to see him reconnect with the meaning and importance of Christmas.
None of it would matter, however, if the performances weren’t there, and Alastair Sim’s is probably one of the best ever put to film. His is without flaw, equally credible in full miser mode and giddily standing on his head upon achieving his catharsis, by turns terrifying and repulsive, then endearing and delightful. And as I noted earlier, his inflections around choice lines are the stuff of impersonation fodder for both professionals and fathers and uncles decades onward. He is matched perfectly by Kathleen Harrison, Cockney charm through and through, as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman (i.e. housekeeper), another role greatly expanded from the Dickens original. In fact, there isn’t a poor performance in the lot. It’s a treat as well to see Peter Bull, perhaps best known as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, as the film’s narrator and the business acquaintance of Scrooge’s who insists he won’t go to the funeral unless lunch is provided, and Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of British TV’s The Avengers, as the young Jacob Marley. If you’re a detail-oriented James Bond fan as I am, you’ll also enjoy spotting Francis de Wolff, the leader of the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love, as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present. The acting by the ensemble is so good that it remains fresh and surprising even after dozens of viewings – you really feel the sorrow of the Cratchit family on the loss of Tiny Tim and revel in the triumph of watching him run towards the reformed Scrooge at the finale. You hate Scrooge’s guts for treating everyone so poorly and laugh with him as he tries to contain his glee in finally figuring out the truth that has lain dormant beneath the Christmas snow.
The possibility of redemption remains a powerful driver of human existence. Most major religions, and the criminal justice system, are predicated on the concept that atonement and forgiveness are always within reach. Even for the secular, Christmas can be a time where we can tally the events of the previous year, come to terms with them and resolve to make the necessary changes going forward, with a sense of renewal, optimism and hope. No matter what kind of year I’ve had, whether it’s been a time of robust progress or of perceived stagnation, putting on A Christmas Carol and watching Alastair Sim’s Scrooge plead with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that he’s not the man he was, is an important reminder of possibility, that it is never too late. The challenge, however, is in making enough of those changes so that you begin to live your life as robustly as the post-ghost Scrooge. So that you become, as Peter Bull intones, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Perhaps that’s the lesson my father wanted me to learn by making me watch the movie every year. It’s certainly one I want to pass on, and I’ll make my son watch it until he gets it too.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.