Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is my favourite story in all of fiction. Honestly. For all the hundreds of movies or TV shows I have seen, or books I have read, it always comes back to Dickens’ story of cold-hearted London businessman Ebernezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve haunting by the three spirits who show him the error of his ways, and teach him to be as good a man as the good old world had ever seen. It’s a timeless, beautifully structured, gloriously heartfelt narrative which doesn’t just imbue the meaning of Christmas—a time we all take a breath and enjoy the people in our lives—but what it means to be a good human. With any great piece of fiction, an innumerable amount of takes and reinventions are destined to lie in its future – which leads us right to Scrooged.
Richard Donner’s comedic take on the Dickens legend feels particularly apposite in terms of the age it was written. Scrooged is post-Wall Street, the epitome of Reagan’s corporate America, hence why the choice is made to reinvent the character of Scrooge for a new age in Bill Murray’s vicious, irascible Frank Cross and make him a powerful TV executive. Everything about Frank’s life speaks to the consumerist, vacuous nature of entertainment the 1980’s truly gave birth to – he is a Scrooge for the MTV generation, appropriately. Donner’s film therefore provides a new way into Dickens’ story, which traditionally is adapted as either a straight TV or cinematic version of the 19th century parable, or a modern, updated take on the character of Scrooge.
The difference with Scrooged is that Dickens’ story is a construct within Frank’s existence itself; he may be presented as a modern Scrooge, and experience the same essential journey and epiphany as the character of Scrooge does, but the ‘meta’ approach to Scrooged sees an adaptation of A Christmas Carol as part of the story itself, with Buddy Hackett no less as an improbably accented Ebernezer. This creative choice makes Scrooged read as a satire on Christmas entertainment, as well as Dickens himself, while also playing out the same redemptive beat for the character of Frank. Everything about the film is done with a knowing wink of the eye and tongue very much in cheek. Even the title suggests Dickens is being *done* to our main character.
This feels appropriate for the late 1980’s given the position at this point of American comedy. The Naked Gun was also released in 1988, adapted from the early 1980’s TV series Police Squad!, and though many times funnier and more successful a comedy as Scrooged, they both share a level of anarchic self-awareness, as did many pictures around this age which had taken the baton thrown down by Airplane! and ran with a level of zany, spoof buffoonery. The Naked Gun is far more of a fourth-wall breaking, direct lampoon than Scrooged, but in many respects they exist in a similar wheelhouse – Scrooged’s target is Dickens and by default, Christmas.
Bear in mind how it approaches Christmas entertainment. Frank wants to create a version of Scrooge which is powerfully violent and nihilistic, filled with guns and ammo, and fires his executive Eliot (Bobcat Goldthwait being, typically, Bobcat Goldthwait) for disagreeing with his caustic approach. Frank is convinced, despite the tone of the season, his in-your-face, unconventional approach to Dickens will get them what they want most of all: ratings. Scrooged very much taps into the new drive amongst American corporations – not just money but success, at the expense of a more liberal mindset. It makes sense, actually, to frame a remake of A Christmas Carol in this context when it comes to entertainment.
We sometimes forget, after all, that movies and TV are a business at the end of the day. Executives like Frank aren’t interested in creating great art or culture – they just want to make green. Scrooge, in the source material, is happy to see Bob Cratchit struggle at Christmas in order to make money and its the exact same principle, simply updated for a modern aesthetic which is still relevant today. Scrooged doesn’t really wear its polemic on its sleeve, however, as it plays out the Dickens story beats – Donner’s film is routinely more concerned with propping up star Bill Murray and providing him with plenty of material to play with.
Scrooged feels like two opposite forces when it comes to star and director. While it fits Murray’s loud, arrogant yet ultimate loveable goofball schtick perfectly, Donner almost feels like an odd choice to sit at the helm for this one. Remember, this is the guy who first gave us The Omen, the chilling original, before moving on to the first two—beloved—Superman movie adaptations, and finally cementing his cinematic legacy in the late 80’s with the Lethal Weapon franchise. Tonally, those are three extremely different projects, yet all were made a success by Donner’s approach – wholesome, familial, yet edged and barbed. Even Superman, especially the sequel.
Murray, famously, didn’t get on with Donner and the director has admitted they had difficulty while making Scrooged. Perhaps this could be thanks to jarring cinematic aesthetics that don’t gel. Donner’s camera never feels truly comfortable throughout the picture, like Donner is trying to figure out the tone he wants the movie to have – is it satirical? Playful? Nasty? Darkly comedic? In many respects its all of them without settling on a satisfying, consistent tone. Murray holds the centre with his performance, believably taking Frank from cold hearted executive to an open, kindly broadcaster, but the film flip flops between anarchic comedy and vicious bite. It doesn’t rest.
Ultimately, Scrooged may well end up being more fondly remembered as a Christmas movie than, in all honesty, it really deserves. While it approaches Charles Dickens’ seminal piece of literature from a fun, intentionally tacky, corporate consumerist angle, it lacks the warmth of Dickens’ tale to truly sell the transformation of Frank, our modern Scrooge, as a journey you would consistently want to revisit. Many no doubt will enjoy Murray’s particularly ebullient comedic performance, and the satirical bite at the heart of the script, but despite being wrapped around the single most heartfelt Christmas story in fiction, Scrooged often lacks a surprising amount of heart.
It is also, in many respects, as much wish fulfilment as it is a Christmas movie; that the unfeeling TV or movie executive in a suit will have an epiphany about his own self-absorbed rejection of artistic freedom and creative liberalism. Sorry Scrooged, but even Dickens wouldn’t be able to make that come true.