Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell attempts to name, once and for all time, the best Ebenezer Scrooge.
In the winter of 2020, I discovered my new favorite Christmas tradition. It came as I did a deep dive into the foundational ghost stories that gave birth to modern paranormal cinema. In my research, I came across an author I knew by name alone: M.R. James. He wrote 33 ghost stories that he recited to friends and colleagues every Christmas Eve. I was suddenly aware of an age-old tradition that reaches back into the Victorian era: Christmas ghost stories.
That’s not to say these ghost stories are explicitly about, or even set on, Christmas. Rather, they are haunting yarns made to chill the bones, like a winter’s wind on a cold December night. James’ stories, in particular, went to extremes in the early 1900s. His tales of terror feature vengeful spirits, tentacular creatures, and demonic medieval paintings, to name a few. In the 1970s, his stories were adapted into a BBC TV series by Lawrence Gordon Clark called A Ghost Story for Christmas. The series was later revived in 2005 before Jamesian mega fan Mark Gattis took over the tradition in 2013.
“How is this the first time I’m hearing about Christmas ghost stories?” I thought to myself. And then it dawned on me. I’ve been told a Christmas ghost story my entire life, and it’s been sitting right under my nose the whole time: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
This fact eluded me because Dickens’ novella of flint-skinned miser Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t play out like a stereotypical ghost story. Yes, he’s visited by four ghosts over the course of Christmas eve. But they aren’t the vengeful spirits back to enact their revenge like M.R. James was apt to write. These spirits are more interested in changing Scrooge rather than merely haunting him.
First, it’s his long-dead partner Jacob Marley who heralds the arrival of three more spirits. Over one night, Scrooge sees past, present, and future iterations of his life. The ghosts want Scrooge to see what fate has in store if he continues his life as an unfeeling wretch. Ultimately, Dickens’ story is one of redemption and second chances. It aims to fill us with a sense of goodwill and warmth that we all deserve to experience on Christmas.
While A Christmas Carol became a holiday staple well before the advent of movies, it has remained a timeless classic thanks to the stage, film, and television adaptations we’ve seen over the last century. And none of these adaptations would work if it didn’t have an effective actor bringing one of Dickens’ most complex and fascinating characters to life.
But which actor played Scrooge most faithfully to Dickens’s original story? And who was able to discover new, unexplored layers to this classic character?
To answer those subjective questions, I’ll examine Dickens’ original text to surface the qualities actors must utilize to embody this timelessly mean rich man.
How Did Charles Dickens Describe Scrooge?
In the first stave of A Christmas Carol, Dickens doesn’t mince words in how he introduces his dastardly lead, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, […] secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”
This description gives us an idea as to the physical characteristics of Scrooge. The portrait Dickens paints is of a man who seems like a ghost himself, unattached from the vibrancy of the world around him. This is something Dickens alludes to in the closing section of Scrooge’s introduction, “But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.”
What Qualities Go Into an Effective Scrooge Performance?
Actors that bring Scrooge to life must be able to effectively convey the overt cynicism Dickens describes. This quality is paramount to the performance. However, it must find balance with another quality that’s just as important: Scrooge’s inner vulnerability.
Despite his tough exterior, Scrooge is a deeply resentful and lonely man. While the story introduces Scrooge as a quasi-antagonist, we quickly understand that he’s more sad than spiteful. A great Scrooge performance works because we can come to pity him. Not only for what has happened in his life but the role he inadvertently played in wrecking it. As hateful as Scrooge must be, the character’s eventual transformation only works if our hearts can bleed for him too.
Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly bastard into a kind, generous person is one of the most important aspects of A Christmas Carol. Effectively playing this switch is vital for portraying a convincing Scrooge. Not only should we see the change of heart he has, but we must also be able to believe it as well. This is a quality that many of the lesser-loved Scrooges fail to capture. If we don’t think he has actually reformed, or if his joy feels unearned, then Scrooge’s redemption falls flat.
What Actors Best Embodied These Qualities?
Perhaps the most beloved Scrooge performance is by Alastair Sim in the 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Sim’s performance in Scrooge is widely considered to be one of the best. He perfectly captures the pessimism, vulnerability, and reformation of Scrooge that is both convincing and earnest. He even looks remarkably similar to the illustrations of the character included in the first publications of the story.
Sim is the best example of an actor perfectly conveying the essence of how Dickens described Scrooge. But there is another actor who I find not only captures the spirit of Scrooge, but brings more depth and nuance to the character than Sim, or even Dickens himself, may have considered.
George C. Scott portrayed Scrooge in a 1984 made-for-television adaptation of A Christmas Carol. By the nature of being a George C. Scott performance, his version of Scrooge has a different brand of intensity. However, he also subverts some of the classic qualities that we come to expect from a Scrooge performance.
Scott’s Scrooge isn’t a man who is brazenly hateful but merely set in his ways until he’s forced to consider his ways need to change. He’s shrewd and curt, but Scott’s Scrooge doesn’t labor through life with a chip on his shoulder. His Scrooge is less awful and more world-weary. Scott’s Scrooge has no time for the frivolities of life. It reminds him too much of everything he has lost. Scott plays Scrooge as a man who has come to terms with his lot in life. That understanding fuels the profound sense of melancholy Scott conveys as Scrooge.
This fuels another aspect of Scott’s performance that is unique to his Scrooge. He seems to be the only iteration of the character to agree – however begrudgingly – with the way others view him. As Mrs. Cratchit, or Fred and his family, deride his stone-hearted ways, Scott’s Scrooge gives the impression that he doesn’t think they are being unfair in their descriptions. That level of self-awareness adds fresh dimensions to the character because, from the start, he’s not wholly blind to how his behavior affects others.
And once he returns home after his ghostly visitations, Scott’s joy doesn’t come across as overwrought or cloying either. He keeps his character grounded, simply conveying his joy through a beaming smile and a sense of lightness. He doesn’t have to dance through the streets to show his change: Scott just easily radiates positive energy.
That extends to the apologies Scott’s Scrooge gives to his nephew, his employees, and those around him. He exchanges groveling mea culpas for a straightforward sense of duty that he must right his life’s wrongs. There’s no maudlin sentimentality in his performance, which makes Scott’s Scrooge feel more like a real person, and not an archetypal character.
Who Was the Best Scrooge?
Ultimately, the answer to that question lies within our own subjective hearts. Beyond the actors I’ve mentioned, Michael Caine is a fan favorite for his performance as the character in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Patrick Stewart also delivered a solid version of Scrooge for a TV movie adaptation in the late 90s. If you are a fan of 70s movie musicals, your heart likely was stolen by Albert Finney’s garishly strange portrayal of the character in Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge.
Personally, I gravitate toward George C. Scott’s performance. Sure, he’s an American starring in a famously British story. But he perfectly toes the line between the mean miser Dickens described and a more modern interpretation of Scrooge. He carries an admirable sense of self, though he has many flaws. Scott doesn’t allow the character’s emotional baggage to weigh him down. Rather it grounds his interpretation in a believable reality, even as countless ghosts come haunting Scrooge’s home.
Alistair Sim may be the best representation of Ebenezer Scrooge as Dickens described, but Scott is the actor who was able to unearth layers to the character that still are rarely explored in adaptations of A Christmas Carol today.