There have been dozens of film versions produced over the years of Charles Dickens’ 1843 story A Christmas Carol, from faithful translations such as the 1999 Patrick Stewart and Richard E. Grant movie, to the wonderful fuzzy liberties taken by Brian Henson in 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. But what every successful retelling of the story has in common is that the production lends it a lot of heart. So it is with Scrooged: Mitch Glazer, Michael O’Donoghue and Richard Donner’s dark, comedic, and slightly sentimental re-imagining of the tale, set in a New York world of yuppies, yes-men, and TV execs, where excess is the norm and you might not at first notice if you actually met a ghost.
Scrooged sticks to the main plot points of A Christmas Carol, with a visitation from a dead colleague, three ghosts, and a change of heart and actions following these encounters. But where it really differs is in the love story between Frank Cross (Bill Murray) and Claire Phillips (Karen Allen). Whereas Scrooge’s ghost-driven encounters with his past love end with her being happily married to someone else, Claire is still single, and – believing in the best in everyone – welcomes Frank back into her life.
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Whether or not his encounters with the ghosts are real, Claire might actually be Frank’s conscience, and seeing a potential future vision of her, changed beyond recognition by his own words, goes a long way towards breaking Frank and making him rethink his beliefs. One might wonder what the kind-hearted, sweet-faced Claire continues to see in Frank, but Bill Murray, as ever, plays up the wit and charm, and even evokes pity in the fierce cluelessness (knives!) with which he loves her. Their story, more than anything else, is the driving force within the film, and their happy ending one of the reasons for its enduring popularity.
A Christmas Carol has many humorous moments in its telling, but Scrooged goes full out on the comedy, and much of what makes it memorable is the glorious un/subtlety of Bill Murray’s performance as Frank Cross, reacting to the bizarre events he is caught up in. It also contains a surprising amount of dark elements, with certain aspects verging on horror, from Lew Hayward’s (John Forsythe) decaying and vermin-ridden talking corpse, to the newly frozen-to-death Herman (Michael J. Pollard), to the fear-inducing puppet-y Ghost of Christmas Future.
Credit where it’s due too, to David Johansen as the cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, and Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who both turn in performances as brilliant and as memorable as Murray’s. What works for Scrooged, in the characterisation as well as the direction and script, is the sense that things are a little bit off kilter, manic, disturbed, and this sits well with the story of a man who has turned his lack of childhood love and respect into workaholism, and may be on the verge of a breakdown.
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Murray’s Frank Cross is not precisely Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge hoards his wealth, living as cheaply as possible, whereas Frank seems happy to spend his money, but only on himself. What Frank despises is skewed more towards those of a lower status, rather than actual poverty. And whilst Scrooge just wants to be left alone, Frank wants to be seen as a humanitarian, a giver, even though he is not.
Some elements of Scrooged have aged in a surprising way, and will likely come off very differently for first-time rather than repeat viewers. In 1988, Frank Cross’ proposed ad for a live televised version of ‘Scrooge’ was shocking and laughable. Thirty years on, however, we may have to concede that he had a point. How scared do we have to be before we decide to mend our ways? And Preston Rhinelander’s (Robert Mitchum) eye-rollingly ridiculous idea of making television for cats and dogs has now manifested on Youtube as bird and squirrel videos to entertain pets.
Scrooged‘s slightly whacky take on A Christmas Carol, with its meta-commentary on watching TV at Christmas, its elision of the fictional and the real, its breaking of the fourth wall, and its joyous soundtrack, has ensured its place as a modern Christmas classic. Maybe you’ll watch it on TV this year. Maybe you’ll see it at one of the indie cinemas that are screening it, and delight in the gloriousness of the 1980s on the big screen. Or maybe you’ll have a little viewing party with a select group of friends or family, and you’ll laugh at all the same moments that you always do, and get a little emotional, and hug one another and then someone will get out their phone and surreptitiously make a donation to a homelessness charity whilst feeling a little guilty that it took a Christmas movie to spur them into action. Thirty years on, however you view it, Scrooged, with its darkness, humour, and heart, remains a festive must-watch. Yule love it!