With Christmas almost upon us, what better time is there for delving into that perennial holiday favorite, Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’? While nothing quite compares to reading the original, there have been any number of film-makers that have attempted to capture the spirit of Christmas with film adaptations. There are many viewers that maintain the 1951 English version with Alastair Sim playing Scrooge is the standard to which all others must be compared, it having been deemed a Christmas classic since its release.
It was with some amusement then, that I came across a review of the film written in the year of its release. John McCarten wrote the review in the December 8, 1951 issue of the New Yorker magazine. He starts by complaining of ‘yet another version of Christmas Carol’. It’s a strange thought when, in 2021, we think of the Sim’s version as some kind of starting point – the ancient granddaddy of all Christmas Carols – Yes, Virginia, there really was a Scrooge before Mr. Sim.
McCarten rather enjoyed Sim playing the role, right up to the point of Scrooge’s redemption when he “…unfortunately…acts as if he’d got senile dementia rather than religion…” He also managed to give a ‘thumbs down’ to the three Christmas spirits: “The first of these looks like the sort of pious fraud who would adulterate the flour in mission doughnuts; the second is a kind of Santa Claus in chestnut whiskers, who is as full of loud and empty laughter as a salesman in a smoking car; and the third is a gloomy apparition shrouded in black.”
Despite the reservations, McCarten concluded that “there’s enough good here to warrant the attendance of all save the hardest of heart.” Like McCarten, I admire Mr. Sim most when he’s playing the pre-repentant Scrooge – the ‘covetous old sinner, hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire’. I used to think that the wacky episodes in the post-redemption Scrooge had something to do with the acting style of the period. It was satisfying to encounter a reviewer from the period who also found it was less than compelling.
Over the years I’ve watched a fair number of other versions just to see if anyone can capture the transformation more convincingly. There are three I’ve found that are at least as engaging as the Sim version. The Muppets Christmas Carol is just plain fun with catchy songs and Michael Cane managing a more than credible job as the famous curmudgeon turned to saint – despite the frenetic antics of the puppets surrounding him. Patrick Stewart left his starship long enough to accomplish a fine portrayal of the character, but my favorite is the 1984 version with the late George C. Scott. Now there was an actor who could do mean and still have a realistic change of heart. If you’ve never seen this version, give it a try. In fact, give all three a run this year. I’ll guarantee that it will be far better than brooding on the Ghost of Christmas COVID.
Stoke up the fireplace, get the hot toddy/mulled wine ready, sit back and let the spirit of Christmas seep into the house with your favorite Scrooge movie.