Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Carol version 12: the one with Alastair Sim

"Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with and no ears to hear with all these years?"

How many times has Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol been adapted?  How many radio dramas, feature films, short films, television specials, and parodies have been produced since the book's publication in 1843?  The true answer may be impossible to find without copious amounts of research that I'm not all that inclined to do, but based on what I've found, it's something like 300 adaptations ever since the 1901 British short film Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost.  Let's not even get into how many onstage versions have been penned, going back as far the same year the book was published. That's staggering, yet not all that surprising.  The story and characters are timeless, capturing something that transcends nearly two centuries and appeals to people of all different age groups and cultures.  Is there a definitive version of the story that exists on film?

While that's yet another question that has an impossible answer, I suppose I'll just talk about what I (and many others) consider the best film adaptation of the story to be: the 1951 version originally called Scrooge, but later renamed A Christmas Carol.  This version stars Alastair Sim as the titular character, and a large part of why this version works so well is because of his textured and psychologically complex portrayal of the character.  When he sneers, "Bah, humbug!" you don't feel as though he's acting like Scrooge, you believe that this is Scrooge.   The trouble with playing an iconic character is that the audience already has preconceived notions of what that character is; he is mythic and unattainable.  So many actors who would go on to portray Scrooge in later adaptations do a fine job (as if I've seen every single version), but it more often than not feels like watching a reenactment of A Christmas Carol than the thing itself.  And before you ask, no, this isn't the first Christmas Carol I ever saw.

Another key factor that makes the Sim version so distinct is its dark and somber mood.  While it never approaches true horror, there's a lived-in harshness to the locations, a gloominess to the lighting, a foreboding sense of dread laced into the music composed by Richard Addinsell.  It's an unsettling bit of filmmaking that captures the spirit of the book perfectly, especially throughout the first act.  The art direction is minimal to be sure; this isn't the polished Hollywood filmmaking you might expect out of a 50s Christmas film.  But its simplicity and straightforwardness is part of what makes it work so well, and what little you see onscreen is marvelously detailed.  There's no meandering on mindless action, no stopping to gawk at fancy visual effects, and not a scene goes by that doesn't deepen the characters or move the story forward.

Now, I think it's time to say something that I know will get me burned at the stake: I think this movie improves upon the book.  In small but important ways, Scrooge's character development and relationship with several other characters is made stronger and lends more weight to the narrative. For example, there's the expansion of the Mrs. Dilber character (Kathleen Harrison), who offers some hilarious comic relief when she sees Scrooge transformed at the end of the story.  Another addition is the reveal that Alice (Rona Anderson), Scrooge's former lover whom he'd lost in his pursuit of wealthiness, works in homeless shelters in the present day (developing her character a bit more and backing up some of the things she says to Scrooge earlier in the story).  We get more insight to how Scrooge and Marley acquired their business, and thus Scrooge's steady slope of decreasing compassion happens more gradually than in the original story (and any other retelling).  But the biggest improvement is most definitely the more textured relationship between Scrooge and his nephew, Fred (Brian Worth).  It was always the case that Scrooge's father resented him and and that his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) died at a young age, but there was no connection between the two details.  In this version, Scrooge's father resents him because his mother died giving him birth.  Fan is made to be older and dies giving birth to Fred, instilling in Scrooge the same irrational hatred toward Fred that Scrooge's own father had toward him.  It strengthens the narrative's themes and adds psychological complexity to Scrooge's character.

Some aspects of the film may not sit well with some cynical, modern moviegoers, and I can't say they are totally unjustified.  For starters, scenes featuring Bob Cratchit's (Mervyn Jones) family are very corny and saccharine. However, watching the Crachits have their gosh-darn happy Christmas together despite having almost no food to go around only makes the Christmas future scenes where Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) is dead much sadder and weightier.  It would be like if Cindy died in an episode of The Brady Bunch.  Then there are the special effects, which probably would have been looked dated even ten years before the film was made.  One shot in particular where Fan runs through Scrooge as if he was a ghost is so poorly constructed that you can actually see the edge of the processed film trailing behind Fan as if a big black line is suddenly following her (skip to 24:30 below).

But effects-driven Christmas Carols would come later.  And keep coming. And coming. And coming.  You get my point?  Dickens' novel is about the story and characters, and no other adaptation in an endless sea of adaptations captures the spirit and essence of what it's all about like the Sim version. There's so much heart behind the performances, so much atmosphere in the direction (by Brian Desmond Hurst), and so much that it just got right about adapting the book.  Make no mistake, it owes everything to the original writing, despite making a few improvements.  Everything that works in the film, and in every adaptation, has been because the core of the book is so absolutely fantastic. There is a colorized version of the film that was released in '89, but it diminishes a lot of the creepy mood with saturated colors and brighter aesthetics.  I'd say it's a sin to watch anything but the original black and white cut. Even if you've seen some version of A Christmas Carol a hundred times, watch this one for Alastair Sim and then I dare you to say that he's not the best version of Scrooge the screen has ever seen.