‘Tis the season to binge your holiday favorites! And few Christmas stories are as beloved as Charles Dickens’ enduring classic, A Christmas Carol. You might dread dealing with cranky relatives at Christmas, yet we all seem to look forward to revisiting fiction’s favorite misanthrope Ebeneezer Scrooge.
Pretty much everyone has a go-to adaptation of A Christmas Carol. God knows, there’s one for every taste. Want A Christmas Carol with a large dollop of Old Hollywood gloss? Here’s the Reginald Owen version! Enjoy warm sentiment and meta comedy? Here’s The Muppet Christmas Carol! Like your Dickens extra dark and moody? Here’s the George C. Scott movie! Want musical numbers and a campy as hell Jacob Marley? Here’s the Albert Finney version!
To name the 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation as my favorite isn’t going to score me any originality points. It’s one of the most popular versions, tied with the Scott movie as the definitive cinematic Carol. I watch at least three or four versions of this story a year when December rolls around, but the Sim version is the only one I put on without fail.
What sets the Sim version apart for me is its masterful tone. A great many Carols are too sentimental or sweet, taking the bite out of Dickens’ social criticism and blunting Scrooge’s redemption. And as admirable as I find a great many elements in the much-loved Scott version, I always thought it had the opposite problem, becoming so excessively grim that it undercuts Dickens’ palpable sense of holiday cheer and communal joy (that’s my unpopular opinion for the day—in the name of Christmas, please don’t put a stake of holly through my heart for it!).
Dickens’ original story is so beloved because of its multi-faceted nature. It’s a scary ghost story with a gloriously joyful conclusion. It criticizes society’s callousness towards the unfortunate while affirming that even the worst people can change. The Sim version achieves all of this perfectly and I think the key to that success is Sim in the lead. His characterization is so rich and dynamic. Some Scrooges are such monsters that we don’t want to see them redeemed, so it’s important that Scrooge not be 100% off-putting in his earliest scenes. The best Scrooges infuse their crotchety callousness with a grim sense of humor, and I think Sim managed that best of all.
Humor aside, what defines Sim’s approach to the character is its palpable vulnerability. To put it bluntly, this Scrooge is a sad man who hides his pain behind a hostile front. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when the aged Scrooge realizes he ran out on his dying sister right before he could listen to her request that he take care of her newborn son. Scrooge’s body trembles with waves of regret and self-loathing. He sees firsthand just how hardened he became, even towards the one person who loved him most.
Fan’s early death and the absorption of Fezziwig’s company leave indelible wounds on Scrooge’s psyche. These avatars of love and warmth being utterly destroyed, Scrooge is left with the conclusion that money will be the sole means of protecting himself from pain. The young Scrooge’s line to Jacob Marley during their first meeting is telling:
“I think the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place, Mr. Marley. One must steel oneself to survive it and not be crushed under with the weak and the infirm.”
On that note, few other versions make Scrooge’s subsequent rejection of his fiancée (here renamed Alice) more credible than here. Contemptuous of weakness and poverty, his once-beloved Alice holds little allure for a man obsessed with “gain.”
Sim’s Scrooge also boasts a wonderfully credible transformation. This isn’t a case of some mean old man being scared into reformation through hellfire—this Scrooge is a man on the verge of total despair. It’s not that he just does not want to change: he also believes it’s too late. He’s already immured himself in the deceased Marley’s miserable, dilapidated house (a set which eerily resembles the Bates house from Psycho… or is it just me that thinks that?), treating himself with no more kindness than anyone else. Scrooge’s inner gloom is also reflected in the shadowy, filthy Victorian London sets, lit very much like any hard-nosed noir of the period.
Contemporary reviewers slammed the movie for its darkness, but this willingness to show emotional trauma, poverty, and despair only heightens the story’s moments of compassion and joy. They are no longer taken for granted. It is hard to do good in a seemingly unjust and hopeless world. It is hard to face the day— even Christmas Day— with a heart weighed down by grief and resentment. And yet, when we see the weary but good-hearted Alice comforting the poor at a shelter or the put-upon Cratchits making the best of their meager holiday feast, these moments hit the viewer that much harder because we understand their greater significance. These people have been beaten down by life. By all means, they should be as bitter as Scrooge and yet they choose compassion over self-isolation.
This too is why Scrooge’s awakening on Christmas morning gets me in the Sim version the way no other adaptation does. He’s EARNED it. His giddiness is palpable after so much inner struggle and reflection. I’ve got about every frame and line from this movie committed to memory, and yet this scene never fails to lift my spirits and make me smile like an eggnog-addled fool. It’s truly the perfect finale to a movie I would consider as close to perfect as movies can get.