Scrooge (1951) [Revisited]

I reviewed this once before, way back in 2011 (a.k.a.: year two of the blog). I didn't have much to say then, mainly because I hadn't seen all that many adaptations of A Christmas Carol at the time (nor was I all that familiar with the era). This was still in the "we'll be wacky and watch a bunch of Christmas stuff for no reason" phase of the blog. 

At the time, I basically summed it up as fine for what it was, but still kind of boring to sit through. After watching the 1935 version with Seymour Hicks, I wanted to give this another viewing to see what I'd missed. Turns out, there was quite a bit. 

I've seen this version called the best adaptation out there, a claim that.... Look, I want to be fair here, and - to the extent possible - objective. As a straight adaptation, I think there's a case to be made. This version is faithful to the source material, deviating only to expand the story.

I want to take a moment and focus on something that differs between adaptations and may shed some light on Christmas movies as a whole. The 1935 movie strips down the "Christmas Past" section, while this expands it significantly. While not everything added revolves around themes of lost family and nostalgia for Christmases of the past, some aspects certainly do. The 1935 version removes Scrooge's memories of his sister, opting for a backstory without any positive memories of the holidays. In contrast, a large aspect of the 1951 story is re-centered around Scrooge's sister and his nephew, making their reconnection at the end more meaningful - in a sense, Scrooge is coming home for Christmas when he attends his nephew's party. This was, of course, a prevailing theme in Christmas media during and after World War II that sort of stuck. In a real sense, the history of Christmas movies hinges on this change, and I'm not sure I've seen it illustrated more clearly than by comparing these two versions.

And I think the additions here are generally good: Scrooge's backstory is richer than in the original, and it all feels organic. If I were judging by script alone, I'd hold this above the 1935 film, no question.

But movies are more than stories and a lot more than scripts. The writing is great, but by most other metrics, this pales in comparison.

Note I said most metrics, not every metric. Visual effects improved considerably between the two adaptations, and it shows. The ghost and spirit effects used here are simplistic compared to modern movies, but this clearly had more lavish effects (though honestly I prefer the expressionism of the 1935 version). Likewise, this movie features improved costumes and a more modern soundtrack.

But the direction, cinematography, and acting just can't compete with the Hicks version. I don't believe this is for lack of skill, so much as intent. The 1935 movie uses expressionism, horror, and nuanced characters to transform the film into more than a rote adaptation. I think this version wants to be simple.

Specifically, I think it wants to be a family movie. Sim's performance shifts around from section to section, often playing Scrooge as a sort of comically exaggerated caricature. I think that's a logical approach - after all, he more or less comes across that way in the book - but it doesn't make for a particularly compelling film. That said, he's fantastic in other parts of the film. I absolutely love him at the very end, and when the character is first confronted with Marley, he's wonderfully conflicted. But overall when it's a choice of translating the page versus doing what's right for the movie, this version's more likely to side with the book.

Keep in mind the book was written almost a century before this came out, and we're three-quarters of another century removed now. If your goal is to create an adaptation that mimics the experience of reading the book NOW, this version might be perfect. But I think the 1935 Scrooge does a better job capturing what it must have felt like to read it in 1843. A Christmas Carol was a ghost story before it was classic literature: it's supposed to be weird and a little scary. And to be fair, parts are. But too much is "safe" in a way the earlier version wasn't. There are a couple eerie moments at the end of the Present section when the Spirit Yet to Come is introduced, but even these feel tame compared to most of the 1935 film. There's just not as much style here.

That's not to say there's nothing in that regard. The design of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is great - the other two are good, as well, but he's the standout. The set design is also good, though the lack of stylization in direction and cinematography undercuts it.

My larger issue is this really doesn't make full use of the medium. Books, by their nature, leave readers with room to fill in gaps in the descriptions. You can read Bob Cratchit's dialogue in whatever way you want, adding any emotion or insinuation that doesn't contradict the text. Film is much more locked down in that respect. The creative aspects of reading are lost, but you do get something in exchange: interpretation and analysis. You're not as free to invent the world of a movie, but you have much more leeway to explore what's on screen. But if you're not presented with something layered and complex, there's less to sink your teeth into. That's the issue here: it's more a book on screen than real storytelling.

To be clear, I think this version is a fine adaptation, and certainly an improvement on the 1938 MGM movie, and it probably remains one of the top five or so adaptations. This offers a well-made version that serves as a sort of cinematic Cliffs Notes to the book. It's unlikely to scare kids, and it's certainly easy to understand: if that's what you're looking for, this is the version for you. And, for what it's worth, I think Sim does some great work here (though I don't think he can hold a candle to Hicks).

But aside from great moments from Sim, there's very little art here, and even less that invites serious reflection. This is fine for what it is, but it's just not as interesting as it could be.