A Christmas Carol
It was noted by a contemporary of Charles Dickens that the author of A Christmas Carol liked the idea of Christmas more than he enjoyed Christmas itself. At parties, he often declined the food and drink and games that he extolled in his ghostly little book, choosing instead to watch and enjoy the merrymaking of others.
I have often suggested that there is no tragedy so great that a writer isn’t off to the side taking notes. I have never written my autobiography, but I know that much of my life is found in the fiction I have written.
Without question, the many ups-and-downs of Dickens’ life appear in his novels. There is no reading Oliver Twist or David Copperfield without recognizing that the author is touching a deep part of his own memories and experiences. Yet, Dickens - the court reporter – is able to stand aside and write effectively as if those experiences had happened to someone else. It’s a deeply personal detachment.
In many ways, A Christmas Carol exemplifies the best of what Dickens does so well: integrating his personal experience and insights into the human condition with a broader understanding of our need for tradition, especially around holidays like Christmas. Why else would it remain one of the most popular Christmas stories of all time? How else could Dickens be credited with saving Christmas from the Industrial Age – and not only the Industrial Age, but every age we’ve had since its release? Every new shift in culture, from The Gilded Age to the Technological Age, gives birth to a Scrooge. And every shift renders to A Christmas Carol a new relevancy.
Apart from the many editions of the original novel, A Christmas Carol quickly made its way to the theatre (sometimes to Dickens’ consternation). He did his own public readings as early as 1852. Musicals followed – and continue being created to this day. A short film was produced in 1901, lasting a little over 6 minutes. The first feature-length version for film appeared in 1916. The BBC first broadcasted its radio adaptation in 1923. Television adaptations, often produced as live broadcasts, appeared as early as 1944. Muppets, Magoo, and Mickey have all had turns with the story.
The story of A Christmas Carol is able to weather any medium. But its success beyond the page, to my mind, is based on the actor playing Scrooge and, more specifically, how that actors handles the moment of conversion. For that reason, I’m not a fan of performances by Reginald Owens, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine or many of the others who’ve attempted the character. Their conversion must be convincing – which, I admit, is no small thing to pull off.
That’s why I point to Alistair Sim’s performance in 1951’s A Christmas Carol as the definitive version. Sim brings to Scrooge everything Dickens put on the page for the character, and then some. He captured the curmudgeonly but ironic wit, the belligerence, the pathos and, finally, the conversion of Scrooge.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Brian Desmond Hurst, the director, or more so, screenwriter Noel Langley. Langley’s script not only captures the heart of Dickens’ story, but also “fixes” it – making it work for the screen in a way the other adaptations miss. There are sections in the film that are so Dickens-like that it’s a surprise to find they don’t exist in the original novel. It is the version Dickens himself would have written, had he been alive to do it. That’s what makes it the best and most enduring of them all.
In Scrooge and the world around him, we have the artful mix of past, present and future, of evocative traditions and present enjoyments, of the concrete and the supernatural, of mortality and life, of mystery and wonder – and, more than anything, of the hope for something beyond ourselves.