A Christmas Carol is one of the most compelling festive stories ever told, so it’s no wonder that the Charles Dickens novella has been adapted hundreds of times since it was first published in 1843. In fact, there’s a whole Wikipedia page that lists the many times the story of Ebenezer Scrooge has been performed on stage, screen, and radio, not to mention the countless graphic novels, comic strips, and other literary works that have been produced in its name.
As a cinephile, film is the medium through which I’ve seen A Christmas Carol retold the most frequently, and the offerings have been up and down over the years, but there is one, in my mind at least, that stands out from the rest. And that’s Scrooged.
I didn’t see this film upon its initial release in 1988; I was actually born the same year as the movie, so that would have been a struggle. But as my father was a massive Bill Murray fan, it became a tradition in our family to watch it every Christmas ever since.
Richard Donner was the director behind this contemporary retelling, while Murray took on the role of the meanest guy in the world, Frank Cross, the president of a TV network who only sees the commercial benefits of the festive period and not the communal. In a nice bit of intertextuality, Cross is overseeing a TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and everyone who works for him hates him because they are working through the holiday to make it. The night before the show is to air, his old mentor Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) warns him of the arrival of three very distinct ghosts, who each visit him throughout the night to try and scare the Scrooge out of him.
Forsythe isn’t the only example of great casting in the movie, as it’s filled with stellar supporting performances from Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, Alfre Woodard, and David Johansen in particular, not to mention a little cameo from Robert Mitchum too. Each actor brings a distinct edge to these much-played roles, especially Johansen and Kane. They inject a satirical ferocity to the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, that doesn’t allow Murray’s Cross to get away with every scene.
His character wasn’t much of a challenge for the actor to play; Murray has made a career out of playing sarcastic and egotistical everymen who will never not deliver a wisecrack when the moment calls for it, and thankfully that didn’t change in this movie.
There are too many hilarious lines to mention them all, from the putting antlers on mice scene (“Did you try staples?”) to Cross reminiscing about the Christmas gift he gave to Claire ("I never liked a girl well enough to get her 12 sharp knives"), but together they add a brilliantly comic dimension that stops it from being just another run-of-the-mill adaptation.
Murray worked with the screenwriters Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue, who he had previously collaborated with during their Saturday Night Live days, and what they ended up with is a hilariously vitriolic but ultimately heartwarming story of redemption more suited to a modern-day audience.
Scrooged created a realistic and relatable Scrooge for the 20th century, one that Charles Dickens might well have written himself if he happened to be born a hundred years later. We’ve seen the miserly old man Ebenezer several times before, not to mention several times after this film was released, but Frank Cross is the type of morally questionable dude who could easily appear in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
There's a reason why people love American Psycho and its film adaptation, as well as films like As Good As It Gets or TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Each one offers up a cynical protagonist who in some way or another, for bad or for even worse, we can absolutely relate to. Frank Cross is part of this fraternity. While we might not agree with his total bitter attitude toward the people around him, we get how easy it is to get there and maybe, just maybe, sometimes agree with him.
That's probably why Roger Ebert once said the movie was one of the most “disquieting, unsettling films to come along in quite some time,” because it was too real, some of the circumstances too relatable as it tapped into the darkest parts of contemporary society compared to the somewhat distant circumstances of the 19th century. Thirty years on, Scrooged still manages to be relevant not only for its basic, timeless message of being kind, but for how it tackles the issues of exploitative working conditions, TV marketing, capitalism, white male privilege, and poverty that are just as prevalent today.
The jokes still bang, too.