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24 December 2015

A Christmas Carol contest: who was the best Scrooge on screen?

Many actors have played Ebenezer Scrooge, but who was best? There’s only one way to find out.

By James Cooray Smith

For many, Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge remains definitive. But the 1951 film, in which he appears, while admired, has a screenplay that makes odd use of Dickens, adding scenes and characters, even as it dispenses with many of Dickens’ own. It also makes Scrooge’s business dealings explicitly dishonest, rather than simply rapacious, and uses less of Dickens’ dialogue than any other major adaptation. This makes comparison with other actors’ interpretations harder.

The nature of that film points to a larger truth: when a book is constantly re-adapted, it’s worth going back to the text itself. Later screen versions often derive as much from earlier adaptations as from the book (e.g. the 2011 version of The Mirror Cracked From Side To Side borrows things from the 1980 film version that appear nowhere in Agatha Christie’s novel).

Dickens has been credited with/accused of the secularisation of Christmas, but this ignores the overtly Christian content of his book, and probably because it’s so often left out of adaptations. We are five paragraphs into Dickens’ book when its omniscient narrator calls Scrooge “a covetous old sinner”, and not long after that tells us Scrooge could “No more go to sleep than he could go to heaven”, for it is Scrooge’s life after death that we are to be concerned with. (After all, Marley’s Ghost is buffeted by infernal “Hot vapour from an oven”.)

Later, Bob Crachit weeps when reporting Tiny Tim hopes “the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” Elsewhere, Scrooge’s nephew Fred says, in comments always excised from films, “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that –as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time”. 

Dickens’ Christianity was not straightforward, and its expression in this story is even less so, but it’s crucial.  Much of the time he’s working over and applying 1 Corinthians 13:

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“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is…”   

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Well, it depends on the translation. The King James uses “Charity” most others, earlier and later, use “Love”. The earliest extant text is Greek and uses “ἀγάπη“. It can mean either, and in Dickens’ novel, the two are equated. Marley’s Ghost explains he walks abroad after death, because it did not do so in life.  He talks of “Christian spirit” and wishing in life he’d seen “The Blessed Star [and the] poor homes to which its light would have conducted me”.

Dickens twice mentions Scrooge as “sole mourner” at Marley’s funeral and then, in case we mistake this for an official role, adds “sole friend”. It is for friendship’s sake that Marley’s Ghost visits, Scrooge, now friendless. A visit he says gives Scrooge “chance and hope” of Marley’s own “procuring”.

Scrooge’s failure to be charitably Christian marks him out as a failed human being. When asked for a charitable donation he announces “It’s enough for a man to know his own business and not occupy himself with other people’s” as he refuses to give them a penny, even in the face of their statement that “thousands are without necessities. Hundreds of thousands are without common comforts”. When told they will die without help he says that they “better do it and decrease the surplus population”. 

This is not a joke. It’s a sincere suggestion. One made a man who has no idea how monstrous it is. Besides, Scrooge couldn’t do a joke if he tried.

This something missed by adaptations.  The novel’s narrator gets in some good jokes at the expense its characters. (My favourite is his speculation that groups of condemned ghosts chained together “might be guilty governments”.) Screenwriters often cannot resist putting them into Scrooge’s mouth, resulting in a wittier, more self-aware Scrooge than on the page. But Scrooge isn’t funny intentionally (and the sheer inadequacy of Scrooge’s attempt at a joke about there being “more of gravy than of grave” about Marley’s ghost must underline the point).

Albert’s Finney’s Scrooge (1970) is funny, and also vicious and smug. He enjoys his cruelty. Yet the novel’s Scrooge doesn’t enjoy anything. He’s incapable of it. He doesn’t even, as the squalid nature of his home makes clear, enjoy his carefully acquired wealth.

Michael Hordern’s Scrooge (1977) is harrassed, fussy and sad, and barely engaged with the world. Hordern’s delivery of Scrooge’s announcement that “Any fool who goes around with a Merry Christmas on his list should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a sprig of holly through his heart” is oddly abstracted. It’s the barely conscious rumblings of a disordered mind. Finney makes it not merely a quip, but also a weapon, and his intent is to kill.  Michael Caine’s Scrooge (1992) turns it into something said to make the person trying to engage him in conversation, his nephew Fred, just go away.

Caine’s Scrooge is completely emotionally shut off.  He delivers Scrooge’s response to Bob Cratchit’s request for Christmas holiday pay, “That’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty fifth of December” as someone in no doubt as to who is the injured party. A sad-eyed and self-pitying man, immune to anyone’s pain but his own, Caine’s Scrooge isn’t evil. He’s broken.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his own past pain at school, indulging his self-pity, then reawakens his capacity for joy by reminding him of earlier love and friendship. He then brings them into sharp relief by reminding Scrooge how he lost them.  It is Scrooge’s remembered affection for his old employer Fezziwig which prompts him to wish he had been less cruel to Cratchit, his current employee. He is empathising at last.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him other people’s happiness, that of the family he has rejected as well as of the employee he’s abused, and when Scrooge enquires if Tiny Tim will die Scrooge’s sour comment that the poor should die and “decrease the surplus population” is repeated back to him. Various actors’ responses to having this line relayed back to them are instructive. Sim does a virtual double take, he knows he is being reprimanded and deserves it. Hordern exhibits a kind of grand moral anguish. Caine simply tries not to burst into tears. He is feeling someone else’s pain at last.

Caine brings out Scrooge’s contained emotional dysfunction beautifully early on, and allows his performance to get bigger as the film progresses. As Scrooge’s emotional life expands, so does his vocal range and even the scale of his gestures.  Unlike Finney’s Scrooge (they both feature in musicals) he doesn’t get a song until after his emotions wake up. This works beautifully with his chosen characterisation.  Although he is helped by a script that uses as many of Dickens’ words as it can, it’s further tribute to Caine that he manages this while being constantly surrounded by singing foam and rubber.

Because almost all the other characters he encounters are played by Muppets.

As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come tour the day after Scrooge’s death, Dickens puns on the word “touch”, using it both in the sense of a “emotionally affected by” and in the sense of a con or bargain. With Scrooge having touched no one in his life, various parties get a “touch” by stealing from him as his unmourned body as he lies dead. The Muppet film preserves this scene, almost always left out and makes one of the thieves a genuinely disturbing spider creature.

There’s a reason why the first thing Scrooge does after waking up on Christmas morning is to find the men who asked him for a charitable donation and offer them “A great many back-payments”. He saves himself not by fear of punishment, not by fear of death, but because he sees the need to touch others’ lives at long last, sees the link between himself and other people, between feeling and action, between love and charity. He isn’t a man reformed; he’s a man who understands

The Muppet Christmas Carol ends with Dickens (who is played by the Great Gonzo and addressing his remarks to a Rat, because this is a Muppets film) telling the audience that if they enjoyed his story, they should read the book. This isn’t just a bid for respectability by a family musical, it’s a pointed drawing to our attention just how carefully those involved in making the film did.