There have been at least eight movie or television adaptations of Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol. The best is the 1951 British feature film version directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Noel Langley. It's now available to the ordinary viewer as well as the film buff, courtesy of Blockbuster Video and other major outlets across the country.
Hurst and Langley give the tale an openly Christian interpretation, presenting it as a drama of repentance and forgiveness. Ever since Dickens first published the work in 1843, Ebeneezer Scrooge has been remembered as the archetypal miser—a cold-hearted businessman who values money more than people. The filmmakers remain true to his basic character. His legendary cruelty and tightfistedness are depicted in all their prickly and sometimes humorous detail. But we also get to see inside his psyche, observing him as a vulnerable human being rather than the crude caricature of many adaptations. For, beneath his hard-boiled veneer, there's still a faint flicker of moral consciousness that the events of Christmas Eve are able to rekindle into a positive force.
“Christmas is humbug,” Scrooge (Alastair Sim) tells some London associates. “It is a habit that keeps men from doing business.” The old miser is even reluctant to give his clerk, Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off, and he turns down an invitation for a holiday dinner from his nephew whom he's cut off without a penny. Yet neither Cratchit nor the nephew harbor any resentment against Scrooge who, nevertheless, seems unmoved by their infectious good cheer. They are able to forgive him his hard-heartedness.
Scrooge dines by himself at a restaurant on Christmas Eve unwilling to order extra food because of the cost. As he walks home through the snowy streets, he looks lonely and unsure of himself, his top hat scrunched down on his head and his nose and mouth hidden behind a long scarf.
Later that evening the old miser is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who drags behind him a chain. Its loud rattling scares Scrooge. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the specter warns him. “You bear a chain yourself.”
We see the long-buried spark of conscience begin to work. “Mercy,” he cries, indicating that he's already feeling some guilt about the way he's led his life up until now.
“You have the chance of hope of escaping my fate,” Marley informs him. Three spirits are to visit him and what they reveal will unhinge him. But the possibility of redemption terrifies Scrooge because he can't yet forgive himself. He'd rather be damned than have to confront his sins. The first spirit is the ghost of Christmas past, and the filmmakers show us how the emotional pain of Scrooge's early experiences embittered him. The wounds are so deep he can't bear to watch the past unfold. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father made him feel it was his fault.
Although always a solitary personality, the young Scrooge did once know love. He had a girlfriend, Alice, who was beautiful and kind. “It makes no difference you're poor,” he tells her, displaying an openness he would later discard.
Scrooge was especially close to his sister, Fanny, who, like their mother, also died in childbirth. “Forgive me, Fanny,” he cries in helplessness as she passes away. But he perpetuates the sin of his father by blaming her offspring, his nephew, even though her deathbed wish was that he care for the boy.
As a young clerk, Scrooge leaves the employment of the honest businessman, Mr. Fezziwig, to go to work for a greedy merchant who counsels him: “Control the cash box, and you control the world.”
Scrooge heeds his advice and joins forces with his fellow clerk, Marley, and begins his rise to riches and power. His behavior toward others becomes unfeeling and calculating. Alice, who breaks off their relationship, understands his motivation. “You fear the world too much,” she observes. Psychologically, he's always playing defense, striking out at others to protect himself from further pain. He may be exploitive, but even at his worst he's never dishonest.
The possibility for change is always held before him. “There's still time,” Marley warns him from his deathbed. “Save yourself.” But Scrooge isn't ready.
The filmmakers show him in great torment. “No, no, no,” he moans as he watches himself continually take advantage of others. Evil though his conduct may be, he still has the moral sensibility to judge himself harshly.
“I'm beyond hope,” he exclaims to the next spirit that appears, the ghost of Christmas present. “Go redeem some other creature.”
This spirit realizes that psychologically Scrooge has backed himself into a corner, and he offers him a way out—Jesus Christ. “He lives in our hearts every day of the year,” the spirit counsels. “You have not sought him.” Scrooge then witnesses those he has wronged forgiving him, particularly, Cratchit's crippled son, Tiny Tim, who toasts the old miser, proclaiming, “God bless us, every one.”
Though moved by their generous hearts, he is emotionally paralyzed. “I cannot change,” he cries in despair, obviously now wanting to do so.
But the next spirit, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, conjures up even more disturbing things that eventually overwhelm him. He sees the irreparable damage his actions inflict on decent people and the desolation to which he has sentenced himself.
“I do repent,” he finally declares. “I'm not the man I was,” he repeats over and over, hoping his change of heart isn't too late.
This version of A Christmas Carolcommunicates the deeper meaning of the season. Scrooge's problem is identified as a crisis of the soul, and he's only able to make the necessary inner transformation when one of the spirits points him toward Jesus Christ.
Then the old miser is finally able to repent and forgive himself. As a result, he's suffused with an uncontrollable rush of joy and feels “as happy as an angel.” The movie suggests that if it isn't too late for a cruel, elderly curmudgeon like Scrooge to be saved, there's hope for us all.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.