Of all the works of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol may have acquired the most settled place in the popular imagination. It is one of a very few books which one need not even have read to recognize a character from a picture or a well-worn quotation. It is also the simplest major work composed by Dickens, an artist whose plot lines most often take the form of the most bewildering and convoluted arabesques. But the reformation of Scrooge is accomplished with scarcely any more complications than those of Zaccheus or the Prodigal Son. Whether or not A Christmas Carol is one of Dickens’ better books, it is undeniably one of the most iconic.
The 1938 film version (starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge) is as literal an adaptation as the difference between mediums permits. This quality of almost religious fidelity it shares with most cinematic rewarmings of Dickens. There is something about the man’s canon that discourages those alterations of time, tone and setting which have become virtually the rule in Shakespeare revivals. An audience, it seems, can accept Romeo and Juliet transposed to Venice Beach, Viola and Orsino to a contemporary high school or Hamlet to a postmodern Manhattan penthouse, but not so with the greatest of the great Victorians. There is something slightly impious in the idea of divesting Scrooge of his nightcap, Mme. DeFarge of her needlework or Mr. Gradgrind of his square forehead. Without these, the Dickens effect is utterly spoiled, or at least is translated into something entirely distinct. Therefore, a given adaptation of Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickelby is bound to be less of a new reading and more of a new return. This Christmas Carol conforms to the rule with filial obedience.
The unevolving nostalgia that governs the film’s relationship to its source is not without its negative effects, particularly on the actors, all of whom, it would seem, have been asked to perform without being invited to interpret. For the broader of the story’s characters, this is not really a problem; the Ghost of Christmas Present, traditionally a cross between John Falstaff and your favorite uncle, is properly all sanguine joviality. But the rest of the cast struggles in the attempt to pose as so many well-known and well-beloved literary figures where less predictability might have pleased. The method being what it is, Scrooge must scowl perpetually, Tiny Tim must appear insipid as well as innocent, and the festivities of the Crachitt household must border on something very like clinical hysteria. That Dickens himself was frequently tempted to lay the paint on too thickly provides no plausible reason for his modern interpreters to go and do likewise.
The picture’s visuals and set decoration are models for a period piece. The backlot construction of London circa 1840 looks something a good deal more credible than so much cardboard on the verge of collapse, a shortcoming which diminishes so many otherwise great films of the same era (if you have ever seen The Petrified Forest then you know exactly what may be lost). The film also demonstrates a wonderful economy in the progression of its scenes (it clocks in at a mere 69 minutes) without feeling that any essential material from the book has been neglected. It represents in microcosm the conventional studio approach to Dickens taken over the past 70+ years, one which strangely has not much developed.