2018 Film Essays

‘Scrooged’ Is Still the Most Modern ‘Christmas Carol’

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Scrooged is one of the most disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time. It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger.”

— Roger Ebert, Scrooged Review, November 23rd, 1988

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, has grown through the centuries to become a seasonal tradition. Akin to putting up lights and a tree, the plight of lonely miser Ebenezer Scrooge and the words of Tiny Tim can be counted on to be seen, heard and read dozens of places every December. The novella has entered culture to the degree that nearly everyone is familiar with the story despite perhaps never having read it, or even seen an adaptation. How they’d avoid that is a feat in itself, considering the number of times it’s been adapted for radio, stage and screen, with over a dozen “official” versions alone. The tale has gone past direct adaptation to become a story structure all its own, with films and television episodes adopting the “character visited by three spirits or visions in order to help them change their ways” numerous times. Dickens, when developing his story, was interested in writing a work celebrating the Christmas season, since Christmas traditions were starting to make a comeback during the Victorian era. It’s only fitting, then, that his novella would become a tradition itself. However, like all traditions, A Christmas Carol went through a process of dilution while being absorbed into the culture at large. It’s seen as an “all ages” story, with an emphasis on being geared toward children. As a result, most adaptations tend to be staid and lighthearted, almost whimsical. They usually omit the full title of Dickens’ work, which hints at its deeper dramatic power: “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being A Ghost Story Of Christmas.”

It’s in the spirit of that full title that writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, along with director Richard Donner and star Bill Murray, unleashed their version of A Christmas CarolScrooged, into theaters 30 years ago. As evident from the Roger Ebert review quoted above, it didn’t exactly go over well, at least at first. It was a modest hit at the box office, eventually earning $60 million with a $32 million budget, though the pre-release hype promised far larger. Murray hadn’t been on cinema screens (save a memorable cameo in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors) since 1984’s Ghostbusters, and director Donner had one of the biggest hits of his career the previous year with 1987’s Christmas-set buddy cop noir Lethal Weapon (which, like Scrooged, contains a clip of 1951’s A Christmas Carol, often seen as the definitive adaptation of Dickens’ story). Murray tussling with comedy ghosts, helmed by a powerhouse Hollywood director, promised to be a juggernaut, and the fact that it wasn’t is due to the challenging tone of the film that Ebert hinted at. Behind the scenes woes added to the narrative, as well — apparently, Donner and Murray were at odds the entire shoot, with large swathes of dialogue rewritten and improvised on the spot (a technique which would soon come to dominate big budget comedy films a decade later). All of this gave Scrooged a reputation of being a curio, an anomaly amongst a sea of more traditional adaptations of a classic work. 

However, over the last 30 years, the film’s reputation has grown, transforming from a late-80s footnote to a Christmas season must-watch for many people (including this writer). A large part of its lasting (and growing) popularity is the fact that while the movie is a faithful-in-spirit adaptation of Dickens, it’s also heavily satiric. The set up almost reads like a pitch for a sketch comedy version of “Christmas Carol” (fitting, since writer Glazer worked with Murray on Saturday Night Live): lonely, bitter, Christmas-hating television network president Frank Cross (Murray) is annoyed and beleaguered by underlings, well-meaning do-gooders and a whacked-out boss while attempting to produce a live Christmas Eve telecast of a “Christmas Carol” adaptation (deliberately mis-titled “Scrooge” here), when he’s visited by three spirits who point out how awful a human being Frank has become, and how it effects the people around him, including his old flame Claire (Karen Allen). Every character from Dickens’ novella has an analog here, with Frank and Claire being Scrooge and his lost love Belle, Frank’s secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) being Bob Cratchit (with her mute son Calvin being Tiny Tim), his brother James (played by Murray’s real life brother John) being Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and so on. With Dickens’ structure firmly in place, Glazer, O’Donaghue and Murray color wildly inside (and a little outside) the lines, as the Ghost Of Christmas Past (David Johansen) becomes a raucous New York cabbie, the Ghost Of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) becomes a demented Nutcracker fairy, Frank goes on wild rants at the drop of a hat (or, more to the point, hammer), and the film’s meta TV adaptation of “Scrooge” comments on Frank’s parallel journey every step of the way. The film’s jabs, like any good satire, are aggressively pointed and far from subtle. Frank is relentlessly awful to every person he comes across (save Claire, who he’s awful to in a more insidious way), a stand-in for the yuppie, New Money corporate assholes of the 1980s, epitomizing the worst version of a New Yorker along the way. The film’s IBC network emphasizes the worst tendencies of Hollywood and show business, with commercialization of Christmas rampant (and violent, resulting in the fictional Lee Majors-starring bullet flick The Night The Reindeer Died), and any publicity being good publicity (including an ad campaign that literally kills people). Donner, whose career started during the golden age of television, gets his jabs in too, chronicling how the network went from being a place that had an inclusive, swinging party to a cold, imposing boardroom featuring an Orwellian wall of television screens.

Adding to the film’s brutally satiric world is its use of horror tropes, emphasizing the scary element of Dickens’ story that’s usually glossed over in other adaptations. The movie’s Jacob Marley, executive Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), isn’t a specter bogged down with chains, but instead is a ghastly zombie with sunken eyes and several rats living inside him. At an executive lunch just before the first ghost arrives, Frank has a series of increasingly disturbing visions: an eyeball at the bottom of a glass (a pun on his boss ordering a highball), followed by a waiter catching fire (foreshadowing Frank’s eventual — possible — fate). At one moment, Frank is trapped underground with the frozen corpse of a homeless man he had earlier failed to help. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Future are mischievous imps in the vein of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice (from the film of the same name, from the same year), but the final ghost, Christmas Future (traditionally treated as the scariest ghost in “Christmas Carol” adaptations), is where the production pulls out all the horror stops. A hulking, Death shroud figure, Christmas Future isn’t the typical skeletal creature seen in most iterations of the story, but is instead a version of Frank himself. Inside the ghost’s shroud is both a secondary creature that looks like it escaped from a Hieronymus Bosch painting (hinting at where Frank is currently headed), and a television monitor head, alternating images between a skull and Frank’s face, showing how the man who dedicated his life and soul to television has now become one. Frank is sent to a number of possible horrific futures staged surreally by Donner, culminating in Frank not seeing his own grave as in the novella, but instead undergoing his own cremation. All of these moments and scenes must have contributed to the “pain and anger” that Ebert felt when he saw the movie, and indeed, the film intends those emotions to be there. But it’s all in service of the cumulative effect it has on the ending, resulting in Murray’s sprawling, freewheel, exuberant monologue that famously ends the picture. With a man as nasty as Frank Cross, it would indeed take a hurricane of hurt to get him to see the error of his ways, and Murray brilliantly plays his change of heart with a mixture of anxious relief.

What’s perhaps most remarkable 30 years on is how Scrooged remains relevant and modern. With the exception of a high-concept film or TV episode or two that plays with Dickens’ structure yet leaves behind almost everything else (hello, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), there hasn’t been a modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol since Scrooged, perhaps in part because so many of the film’s satiric targets are still with us. Crass commercialism, media manipulation, rampant arrogance and individualism — there’s even an argument to be made that  late 80s corporate culture is still around in 2018, given who the American president is. Scrooged’s depiction of Frank being so television saturated that he can’t even distinguish his own childhood memories from what he grew up watching on TV can be applied to just about everyone growing up in America now, where screens are the thing we live nearly our entire lives for and through. The general attitude of people blowing up their sense of self-importance so as to willfully ignore those in need (whatever form that need is in, financially, emotionally or otherwise) is still prevalent in any given business today, including show business. These social concerns aren’t all that different than those Dickens himself was commenting on, and the film acknowledges their importance by having Frank deliver a filibuster on charity for a good 10 minutes. 

All of these heavy themes and elements may make Scrooged sound like a dire drama to those who haven’t seen it, but that’s forgetting the first and most important element of satire: humor. Scrooged is a damn funny film, with Murray landing joke after joke when he’s not going toe-to-toe with other comedic greats like Carol Kane. The themes and elements that the film is satirizing are serious, and the story of getting an odious man to change his fate by showing him his own death shouldn’t be a mindless romp, but that’s not to say it can’t still be funny, and even fun. Dickens, as in the quote from A Christmas Carol above, knew that laughter is contagious, and if his themes of selflessness were to carry on, they needed to be tied to material that would be highly enjoyable. Scrooged carries on Dickens’ themes and message in a way that speaks the most directly and urgently to its audience, teaching that “the miracle” of giving can happen to all of us, at any time. Provided, of course, we can turn off the TV for just long enough.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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