If there was a perfect time to resurrect Ebenezer Scrooge, it was the 1980s. The ’80s – generally speaking – were a largely fallow and uncultivated time in American culture, with yuppies standing astride the landscape like coked-up, greedy colossi. This was the age of Reagan, the age of Wall Street, an age where money was the only thing that was more important than the white male ego, but not by much. Greed and self-interest dominated much of the American ethos of the 1980s, and the over-commercialization of entertainment its lasting legacy.
As such, Richard Donner’s Scrooged might be the most important modern adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Not only does Scrooged seamlessly update Ebenezer Scrooge into the modern era – transforming him from a crotchety miser into an ego-driven uncaring yuppie money maniac – but also addresses how Christmas entertainment – and A Christmas Carol in particular – has become so overplayed as to invite cynicism. This is a Christmas Carol story that takes place in a world where Dickens has already influenced the culture for almost 150 years, people have grown complacent, and the messages in Dickens’ classic have long since stopped receiving their due respect. Scrooged came at a time when A Christmas Carol had lost its heartwarming power to the cold yuppie Scrooges of the world, and its lessons of redemption began to read as quotidian bromides. Scrooged aims to redeem it. Its success in this regard is a wonder to behold.
The Ebenezer Scrooge character is Frank X. Cross, a Donald Trump type who lives in a tall tower, takes a great deal of pleasure in firing people, and who keeps a mirror in his desk drawer just to give himself small mainline hits of egotistic vanity throughout the day. Frank is a TV exec who wants to air Christmas specials that glorify violence and increase panic. Frank’s underlings are squashed for disagreeing. Frank is played by Bill Murray, who is playing against type. Murray was always expert in playing flip slobs and sarcastic charmers, but it was rare that he skewed his flipness into villainy. Casting Murray was a wise choice. Had one cast an actual yuppie villain in the role – say, Michael Douglas – then we would have no natural sympathy for Frank, and we would have no reason to root for his redemption. Murray, while playing sarcastic and terrible person, has an undercurrent of silly likability that drives us toward liking Frank just enough. But not so much that we can’t also take pleasure in watching him getting the shit beaten out of him by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane).
The other re-imaginings are clever and effective. The ghost of Marley (the legendary John Forsythe) is a mummy-like zombie who shambles into Frank’s office leaving dust and bits of flesh as he goes. The Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) is a hard-smoking, sarcastic New York cabbie who likes to verbally abuse Frank. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a small, gentle fairy who likes to, as I said, beat Frank about the head and neck. The Ghost of Christmas Future is little more than a nine-foot death specter. The Cratchit character (Bob Goldthwait) is a twitchy, mentally unstable office wonk whose firing inspires more than pity and self-loathing. He eventually goes into a homicidal rage.
This is also one of the few iterations of A Christmas Carol wherein the Belle character – that is, Scrooge’s poor neglected fiancée – is given more chemistry with Scrooge. She’s played by Karen Allen, and she seems to have more of a dramatic character than in previous adaptations. Belle is usually treated, in many adaptations, as a metaphor; a mere point of regret for Scrooge, only existing to show what he once gave up. With a more dynamic Belle, we can see how Frank/Scrooge was once romantic enough and human enough to have a real human relationship, but also how his coldness took over.
Frank’s own Scrooge story – and he constantly comments on how like Dickens it is – is set against the backdrop of his own live production of A Christmas Carol, currently being rehearsed in his tower’s TV studio. Frank cares not for Dickens, and is only concerned about capturing a market, and solving problems easily. Just staple the antlers to the mouse and move on, will ya? Frank’s own dismissal of A Christmas Carol could be the 1988 audience’s own. Dickens is so often repeated, and so often filmed, and so often aired, that yet another production, no matter how lavish, will have nothing new to add to the discourse. It’s just a cheap product that Christmas audiences expect. It’s telling that the TV production and Frank’s own Scrooge-like journey would eventually bleed into one another; he mistakes the on-set Ghost of Christmas Future with the real one he’s expecting. And, yes, as Scrooge must be redeemed, so too is Frank. And live on the air, no less. A “real life” Scrooge story reminds us that this tale still, despite all the cynicism of the 1980s, could indeed have an impact.
Scrooged, however, is more than just a media-based quest to redeem the positivity of Dickens. It’s also a dark, deathly satire of modern life very much in the vein of Dickens. Dickens often wrote about the dregs of society. The overlooked. The severely impoverished. The lives of people who lives in destitution. While Dickens most often write optimistic stories of redemption, his tales often had a tone of abject misery. Dickens’ villains, while often exaggerated and sporting comically obvious names, were all too real in their greed and willingness to commit villainy. Scrooged, to match that, is very dark. Its score, by Danny Elfman, sounds like that of a horror movie. The Marley ghost is downright terrifying. Scrooged takes place is a dank, scary world where innocents are overlooked and homeless people die in sewers. It’s not as filthy as your average Dickens novel, but does find a good modern update to that filth; desperation is universal.
Indeed, early conversations about Scrooged from the filmmakers reveal that it was originally meant to be more horrific than it turned out. Donner and the filmmakers shifted Scrooged‘s tone during production, turning it from a horror movie into a dark comedy. This was the right choice, I think. A horror movie version of A Christmas Carol may have been fascinating, but it would have kept the audience at arm’s length, reveling perhaps too much in the misery and death of the world; there’s surely an ironic updating of A Christmas Carol waiting to be produced wherein Scrooge is not redeemed. By making their modern Christmas Carol into a bizarre comedy, the redemption is allowed in the back door. Is the final redemption scene corny? Of course. And this is the time to have some corn. It’s what the body needs at Christmastime.
Over the years, Scrooged has accumulated a cult following, and is often listed alongside the early works of Tim Burton and many other Goth fantasies as one of the reasons the decade was good for mainstream films. I would argue that Scrooged was a satire of many of those mainstream films. It was a commercial studio product, yes, but it’s messages are solidly anti-corporate. It’s a subversive classic. And its reputation is well-earned.
Is there a further update of A Christmas Carol in the vein of Scrooged waiting in the future? Most assuredly, but the film’s depiction of corporate greed reveals that much hasn’t changed in the age of late 2017. So Scrooged also remains timely. And, as it eternally argues, redemption is always possible.