In 1988, four years removed from his greatest failure (an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”), comedy giant Bill Murray brought Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” kicking and screaming into the modern era with “Scrooged.” But in the 30-plus years since, why have there been so few other contemporary adaptations of this classic tale?
Outside of 2000’s “A Diva’s Christmas Carol,” an unsung (and nowhere to be found on streaming) VH1 original film featuring Vanessa L. Williams as Ebony Scrooge, a selfish pop singer, there are few notable takes on the well-worn material that don’t hide behind the tattered comforts of period piece aesthetic distance. If you’ve seen promotional images for Apple TV+’s dreadful-looking “Spirited,” you would be forgiven for assuming it was just a pricey ad for star Ryan Reynolds’ cell carrier of choice, Mint Mobile. It’s actually a modern musical take on Scrooge that was released to the platform last week. With Reynolds and co-star Will Ferrell draped in dueling red and green costumery, it follows the Hallmark Channel Christmas flick color scheme perfectly, and, true to form, tells us absolutely nothing about the movie. It appears to take place in the present day, leaving the myth buried under many layers of metatextual framing.
Modern retellings of “A Christmas Carol” — and another public domain, anticapitalist classic, “Robin Hood,” — shy away from tackling what selfish hoarding and toxic greed look like in today’s world, not some exaggerated and far away past. But “Scrooged,” directed by Richard Donner from a script by “SNL” veterans Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donaghue, tackles that reality head-on, albeit with its own stylistic embellishments and tonal liberties.
In the film, Murray plays Frank Cross, an out-of-touch and grossly rakish network executive who would be right at home having lunch with “American Psycho”’s Patrick Bateman and “Wall Street”’s Gordon Gekko.
As with those iconic ’80s-era corporate villains, Frank seems an irredeemable product of his environment, a man who has burned every bridge to make it to the top of IBC, the television network he now runs. IBC is preparing to debut a live staging of “A Christmas Carol” to air on Christmas Eve, about as grotesque and exploitative a ploy for TV ratings as one can imagine. But like Scrooge, he’s visited by a Jacob Marley of his own, a former mentor played by John Forsythe who warns him of the three ghosts to come.
Those specters, Christmas Past (David Johannson from The New York Dolls), Christmas Present (Carol Kane) and Christmas Future (…a giant skeleton in a cloak), show us that Frank wasn’t always so heartless. We learn that, bit by bit, his humanity was stripped away by a lonely childhood, climbing the ladder at the network, and, finally, losing the love of his life, Claire (Karen Allen).
Viewed today, “Scrooged” is a messy and strange film. Donner isn’t afraid to tap into the story’s horror elements, blending tragedy and genuine scares, especially in the film’s visions of the future. But it was, at the time, Murray’s big comedy comeback picture, so a lot of his improvisational comic energy permeates even the most sobering and emotional beats of the story. It also paints such a specific and craven image of New York City that it rivals Paul Verhoeven’s work on “Robocop” for memorable urban decay.
As a child, “Scrooged” was one of my absolute favorite Christmas movies, alongside its slightly superior antecedent “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” a 1962 animated film that still brings me to tears. But it’s not Murray’s work that stuck with me at that age. It was Alfre Woodard.
Woodard plays Grace, Frank’s Bob Cratchett stand-in executive assistant. A working single mother and long-suffering prop in Frank’s absurd lifestyle, Woodard grounds Grace with a tangible sense of frustration, exhaustion, and perseverance. There’s a notable sequence where Christmas Present shows Frank what Grace’s home life looks like. She has to support a large family on her own, including Regina King’s younger sister Reina as eldest daughter Lanell, and Calvin, this story’s Tiny Tim, who hasn’t spoken a word since he witnessed his father’s murder. In a particular moment of absolute tragicomedy, Grace has to drop everything while trying to make dinner to stop her children from wrapping Calvin up in Christmas lights, the silent boy stoically accepting being reduced to the tree they cannot afford.
The scenes with Grace and her family don’t take up much of the film’s runtime. Still, this scene and Woodard’s performance always reminded me of my mother, who always brought so much light into my world around the holidays, no matter our financial circumstances. She would wrap gifts for me and address them from my favorite fictional characters (even a Game Boy game sent from Wolverine of the X-Men himself!), making it impossible for me to ponder much else in the way of strife.
But perhaps the most enduring moment from “Scrooged” lies in Murray’s eventual rebirth as a Christmas truther, a man finally ready to let the world back into his heart and to participate in the social contract again to get his soul’s account out of arrears. Frank crashes the live telecast, talking directly to the viewers at home, his rejected friends and family among them. In summarizing the true spirit of Christmas, he rightly nails what makes it so unique. The holidays can be stressful, and it’s cliche to remind people that it’s not just about buying gifts or pumping Mariah Carey’s Billboard stats. Instead, “For a few hours of the whole year,” Frank proclaims, “we are the people we always hoped we would be.”
“Scrooged” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.