Ever since I played Jacob Marley in my school’s version of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol,” I’ve been hooked. It has long been my favorite holiday story of all time, and I have devoured all the filmed versions of it.
For some reason, I’ve always identified with Scrooge. I am not a bitter person by any stretch of the imagination. However, I am inclined to see more of what’s bad in life, to think the worst of people, and not be surprised when they inevitably disappoint. I have sharpened a very sarcastic edge over the years, and much like Ebeneezer, my faith in humanity’s overall goodness is almost nonexistent.
I hasten to add that I have enjoyed many blessings in my life, almost too numerous to count, but I have witnessed a great deal that has led me to view humanity in a negative light. It doesn’t warrant going into here. Suffice to say, it exists.
One of my best friends is a talented artist and his caricatures of our group are legendary. When it came time for him to do his take on, “A Christmas Carol” it was a given I would be Scrooge and he would be Bob Cratchitt. We joke that every Christmas Eve I am visited by the three spirits and it has no effect.
There have been countless retellings of "A Christmas Carol," both on film and television. At last count, there were at last ten versions (if you include "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol!") Many distinguished actors have taken a shot at the role including Reginald Owen, Frederic March, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Henry Winkler and Patrick Stewart.
Some of them have missed the mark entirely. Some have added new dimensions to this intriguing character, but it is the late Alastair Sim who took this role and made it his own.
In fact, every Christmas Eve I watch his performance, soaking it all in, and finding something new to love about it each time.
In the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol" (simply titled "Scrooge" when it was released) Sim played this role with all the appropriate malice, disgust and wickedness it required. Anyone who tries to soften the character waters him down and makes his conversion at the end much less wondrous than Dickens intended.
Case in point: when Patrick Stewart essayed the role in his magnificent one-man show on Broadway I thought, “Here is a man worthy to succeed Sim as THE preeminent Scrooge.” However, on film, he chose to play Scrooge as cold rather than heartless, indifferent rather than spiteful, cheap rather than avaricious. It doesn't work nearly as well.
The only performance of Scrooge that comes near Alastair Sim is that of George C. Scott in the 1984 TV movie. Scott conveyed all the anger and rage of a man who resented the world and wanted no part of its celebrations, who "warned all human sympathy to keep its distance!" His booming voice and stern demeanor made him a natural for the role, but it still falls short of Sim.
Why is Sim so brilliant in this role? Yes, he is as cruel, wicked and spiteful as the role demands, but it is his disdain and revulsion for everything Christmas stands for, and the subtle ways in wish he shows it, that make this performance the best. It's not how he berates or chastises, but the incredulous disbelief he displays at the happiness of people like poor Bob Cratchitt or his nephew Fred.
Sim is also magnificent as he essays Scrooge's slow conversion as the three ghosts, past, present and future, take him on a tour of himself and his ultimate destiny, should no change occur. His deeply expressive face speaks volumes when confronted with the tragedies of his own life and that of Bob Cratchitt.
The icing on the cake is Scrooge's jubilation when he realizes he has a second chance at life. His elation is palpable, brilliantly comedic and truly poignant all at the same time. You can't help but feel happy at the sight of this man who realizes he has wasted his life, and is ready to make amends.
Another reason this version is so successful is that it does not stray too far from the original text. The least successful versions ignored important passages, made up some of their own, or dumbed down the brilliant Victorian-era dialogue.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the experience of watching a man forced to revisit all the joys and sorrows of his life - to realize all the pain he has experienced caused him to shut himself off from his fellow creatures rather than constantly be disappointed by them.
In doing so, he has also shut himself off from much potential joy. In the end, he realizes humanity is worth the effort, that his pain is no worse than that of others. In fact, he is witness to several examples of those who suffer, and whose faith in each other, in humanity, and Christmas is strengthened.