Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is easily a contender for one of the most adapted stories in cinematic history (so much so that all of you reading this know the plot to the story even if you’ve never read the book) and naturally, it’s something of a challenge to produce an adaptation of Dickens’s beloved work that is both faithful and yet different enough so that it stands out from the slew of other adaptations that have and continue to saturate the theatres and airwaves. Richard Donner makes just such an attempt with his 1988 adaptation, ‘Scrooged’ (1988), which renames the infamous miser Frank Cross (Bill Murray) and updates his occupation from that of a money-lender to a television executive.
The film’s opening scene sets up the tone and style of the film remarkably well: In the North Pole, Santa Clause and his merry band of elves are preparing for Christmas Eve when, suddenly, a band of terrorists lay siege to Santa’s workshop, prompting Santa, his elves, and snowmobile riding Lee Majors to respond in kind with M-16s and a Gatling gun. Eventually, this madness is revealed to be the product of Frank Cross, a cynical and misanthropic television executive known for producing bloody, violent and depraved programing.
In addition to producing works of wholesale violence and sex, Cross also fires his yes-man underling Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) on Christmas Eve, forces his assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard, standing in for Bob Cratchit) to work long hours despite her need to get home to take care of her mute son Calvin (Nicholas Phillips, standing in for Tiny Tim), and harbors little to no love for his brother, James (John Murray).
But, just like Scrooge himself, Cross is visited by the spirit (or rather, the decomposing corpse) of his late friend and mentor, who warns him that he will be visited by three ghosts who will attempt to show him the error of his ways and change him for the better.
A dark and somewhat edgy take on Dickens’s sentimental tale, Donner’s work, though not perfect, has a lot more going for it than against it. Murray, who had yet to make the transition from pure-comedy films to the indie-dramadies he is now so well-known for, is at his manic best, his portrayal of the bitter, hateful, and cynical Frank Cross a perfect contemporary portray of the more famous anti-Christmas curmudgeon.
Though occasionally guilty of overacting at times and becoming more distracting than entertaining, Murray’s performance hits more marks than it misses, and his sardonic delivery and sadistic glee are both entertaining and in keeping with the spirit of the character Scrooge.
The supporting cast, by contrast, is a mixed-bag of good-bad performances, with Goldthwait’s turn as the timid (and then later, murderous) Loudermilk quite excellent, while Carol Kane, portraying the Ghost of Christmas Present, is either really funny or really annoying depending upon whose opinion you ask (in truth, it might be a little of both). However, it’s difficult for any of the other cast members to really shine, owning to Murray’s presence and acting either outshining or, in some unfortunate cases, diverting the audience’s attention from his cast-mates work.
Another notable flaw with Donner’s adaptation is that, despite his best efforts to avoid overt sentimentality, the film eventually plows head-on into a “mountain of syrup” – it’s ending so sappy and hokey that even Dickens himself would probably just snort and shake his head incredulously after seeing it.
But while it might be a far cry from being a perfect film, Donner’s “Scrooged” stills gets more things right than it does wrong, its tightly-written screenplay, dark humor and star Bill Murray all helping to set “Scrooged” apart from the countless other adaptations currently playing, and providing audiences with a well-made and innovative take on an old, beloved Christmas classic.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.