The Ghost of Christmas Movies Past
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Patrick Stewart do his one-man reading/performance of A Christmas Carol several times. Nothing beats the impact of live theater, and so for years now Stewart has personified Ebenezer Scrooge for me (well, Mr. Magoo will also forever be Scrooge, too, but that’s a discussion for another review). I was delighted to learn that Stewart would be playing Scrooge in a full-blown production of Charles Dickens’s classic novel — playing all this month on the cable network TNT — and fully expected that it would become a favorite Christmas movie of mine. And it has.
It would be impossible to discuss Stewart’s Carol, however, without referring to the Scrooge that many film fans consider the definitive: Alastair Sim, in the 1951 production of A Christmas Carol, also known simply as Scrooge. As wonderful as both films are, they are different in many ways.
The TNT Original A Christmas Carol relies on — oddly enough for a fantasy ghost story — a nitty-gritty realism to distinguish it from previous versions: One striking scene sees Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present standing atop a mountain of coal in the sooty night, watching a group of miners sing “Silent Night.” But it’s Patrick Stewart’s (Animal Farm, Moby Dick) Ebenezer Scrooge, a more steadfast skinflint than any I’ve seen before, that really makes this production a standout.
The tale is one we’re all familiar with, and Stewart’s Carol sticks closely to the source material. Ebenezer Scrooge — a denizen of early Victorian London — is a solitary and miserly businessman who spends his days keeping track in giant ledgers of all the money he doesn’t spend, and his nights alone in a huge, drafty house he’s too cheap to heat. He has no use at all for Christmas and is appalled by the fact that his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant), wants the entire day off without a commensurate cut in wages. But on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts who show him the error of his ways.
Right from the opening, little details jump out here, like the scritch scritch of the pen as Scrooge signs the death register at the funeral of Jacob Marley (Bernard LLoyd). It’s as if, the body barely cold, Scrooge is already writing off his longtime friend and business partner — this is a man with a heart of stone. When he stands over Marley’s grave and bites out his farewell — “We thrived on the idleness of others” — it’s not just a promise that Scrooge will continue to do so but a bit of a reproof, too, as if Marley’s death were hardly an excuse for the man to be slacking off like this.
Scrooge’s scrooginess can be almost laughable, depending on how the character is approached by the filmmakers — whether they let the cliché the character has become do the work for them — but Stewart never lets Scrooge get funny. That’s not to say that this Carol doesn’t have a sense of humor. The scene in which two charity solicitors, unaware of Scrooge’s reputation, try to hit him up for a donation for the poor on that fateful Christmas Eve works just as it should: The chuckles spring not from the knowledge of the Scrooge character that we bring to the movie but from the knowledge of two witnesses to the scene, Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred (Dominic West: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Their exchanged glance of “uh-oh” is funny because they’re both very recent victims of Scrooge’s meanness.
Throughout the film, Stewart makes the viewer see past the cliché of Scrooge to a real and believable man underneath. His face frozen in a near-perpetual grimace, his movements deliberately stiff and rigid, his Scrooge still manages to elicit sympathy: hunched over a bowl of gruel in front of the fire in his bedroom, he’s more pathetic than anything else. And so he is again when the Ghost of Christmas Past (Joel Grey) takes him back to revisit a Christmas party with his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig (Ian McNeice: Horatio Hornblower: The Fire Ship, A Life Less Ordinary). When Scrooge’s slipper-clad foot, almost of its own accord, starts tapping out the beat of the merry music playing, we see a hint of who this miserable man might have been, had only he heeded Fezziwig’s advice: “When happiness shows up, always give it a comfortable seat.”
The passage of years between Marley’s death and Scrooge’s Christmas odyssey is marked by the rusting of the “Scrooge & Marley” sign that hangs outside Scrooge’s office. Scrooge himself is like a man whose humanity has rusted away from lack of use. When he finally — after his journeys with the three spirits — decides to throw off the “chains of remorse” Marley’s ghost warned him about, Stewart’s Scrooge gurgles up a laugh like he hasn’t used those pipes and muscles in years. It’s like when you turn on a faucet that hasn’t been open in a while: it sputters and shakes and spits but at last turns on full blast.
And so it is with Stewart’s Scrooge: he’s so used to his tight, selfish ways that even when the tap of his compassion is turned on, it takes a bit of time to get going. But it eventually bursts joyously forth, just in time for Christmas.
Alastair Sim’s Ebenezer Scrooge is a very different fellow, actively distraught by a world he sees as out of step with himself. When Fred (Brian Worth) asks his uncle to spend Christmas with him and his wife, Sim’s Scrooge is visibly shaken and upset by the invitation, where Stewart’s Scrooge was merely dismissive of the idea. And the different characterization doesn’t just come in the performances of the lead actors: Sim’s Carol takes some liberties with Dickens’s story, adding to what we see of Scrooge’s past in an effort to make the hard man he becomes all the more fathomable.
This version of A Christmas Carol is, in some ways, a morality tale of the Industrial Revolution, thanks to Scrooge’s extended backstory. From Fezziwig’s old-fashioned shop, young Scrooge is hired away by a new company that’s replacing human workers with machines, and turning a big profit in doing so. Whereas Dickens (and Stewart’s Carol) didn’t feel the necessity to explain how Scrooge got so scroogy, Sim’s Carol shows us the gradual process by which a man who once said that “money [isn’t] everything” turns into an industrialist who can use a scandal to his benefit and who can take over a rival’s business and tell an employee he can stay on only at a reduced salary. The machines here aren’t just pushing people out of jobs; they’re pushing the humanity of out people.
This Scrooge isn’t terribly self-aware, though. When he tells his fiancee, Alice (Rona Anderson), that the “world is becoming a very hard and cruel place,” he doesn’t seem to recognize that he’s becoming hard and cruel along with it. But even more telling, however, is the scene in which Alice releases him from his promise of marriage, given when they were youngsters and both poor. Now, Scrooge is growing rich, and Alice is no longer a “proper” match for him. When she asks whether he’d woo her again today, he assures her, without a moment’s hesitation, that he would. (Contrast that with Stewart’s Scrooge: When his Alice says “there’d be no profit” in marrying her, he doesn’t disagree.)
Sim’s Scrooge is practically bipolar compared with Stewart’s rather stoic version. Swinging from his grim, self-centered frugality, Sim’s Scrooge nearly collapses from remorse before the Ghost Christmas Present — not remorse so much at what he has done (or hasn’t done) but at his belief that he can’t change, that it’s too late for him. Of course, it isn’t too late, and when he awakens on Christmas morning to discover that he hasn’t missed the day after all, he goes a bit, well, wonky, terrifying his housekeeping with his maniacal singing and dancing, and, even worse, his sudden generosity in giving her a huge raise.
Both versions of A Christmas Carol are worth watching, and watching together. From a film lover’s point of view, seeing how different actors interpret the same role is fascinating. And lovers of Dickens and of Christmas will enjoy both classic and soon-to-be classic versions of one of the most beloved holiday stories.
A Christmas Carol (Alistair Sim)
viewed at home on a small screen