Christmastime is upon us once again and that can mean only one thing: the return of holiday-themed media. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a great and glorious thing. I personally believe that if it were socially acceptable to blast Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories year-round, the world would be a much better place.
Seriously, “An Angel Returned” is the auditory equivalent of being bitch-slapped by the spirit of Christmas.
However, there is one piece of Christmas-themed pop culture I think we need to re-think, one whose ubiquity at this time of year is third only to the nativity story and the myth of Santa Claus. I am of course speaking of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol is possibly one of the most adapted books of all time. Who among us hasn’t sung along with Kermit in The Muppet’s Christmas Carol or been more than a little chilled by Patrick Stewart in his turn in the starring role. Heck, shortly before sitting down to write this article, I was slightly crestfallen to discover that, here in Chicago, all the remaining performances of A Klingon Christmas Carol at the Atheneaum Theatre are sold out. But one version of this tale has been a long-time favorite of mine and, in this day and age, I would argue, a better story than the original. That version is the 1988 comedy Scrooged, starring Bill Murray.
Shockingly, there’s not a single Ghostbusters reference in the entire 101-minute runtime.
But how can that be? How can the third most successful ghost-themed Bill Murray movie of the ‘80s be better than a best-selling novella by one the English language’s most notable authors? Well I will tell you, rhetorical device. Here are three reasons why, for a modern audience, Scrooged is the superior version of the tale:
Scrooge is not our 1%, Bill Murray is
Make no mistake; Dickens was a very political writer who was heavily concerned with class. If it isn’t clear from his fiction, look up some of his nonfiction. He produced a great many tracts on the conditions of London’s poor. Likewise, A Christmas Carol has some things to say about the responsibility of the rich towards society. The problem is, to us today, a lot of things about Scrooge do not jibe with our image of the worst among our 1%.
At the beginning of the book, Scrooge is defined by two things: his miserliness and his hatred for Christmas. Scrooge has a dragon-like obsession with hoarding money without actually doing anything with it. He lives in a sparsely furnished house, his office is shabby and understaffed, and he won’t even spare a couple of bucks for charity, the bastard.
Who does this remind you of? No, seriously, when you think of those Wall Street types that are always convincing Congress to make the worst possible decisions for humanity at large, do you picture bare, rickety townhouses? No, you picture luxurious mansions, penthouses, and summer homes in places with the words “Vineyard” and “Cape” in them. In the 21st century, our millionaires don’t hoard their money; they blow it on extravagant, unnecessary things while those much poorer struggle just eek out an existence.
They are, in other words, a lot like Bill Murray’s character in Scrooged. Frank Cross is the very model of the modern millionaire. His office is sleek and modern. He drinks expensive booze and wears expensive suits. Unlike Scrooge, he does give to charity, but it is purely for the sake of appearances and if he could get away with not doing it, he would. He behaves, in short, exactly the way we’d expect a rich jerk to behave.
He also embodies a more realistic negative relationship to the holiday spirit. He does not openly hate Christmas, because, seriously, who has that kind of vitriol towards something for as little reason as Scrooge does? That kind of hatred needs some serious trauma to initiate it. Instead, as the president of a television network, Frank views it as an opportunity for sales, marketing, and greed instead of a celebration and a time to appreciate the good things in our life. He is the thing that so many of us dislike about the way the holiday season has come to exist because of our capitalist society.
Frank isn’t just trying to save his own ass
In A Christmas Carol, the main source of Scrooge’s change is the opportunity given by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to see his own funeral and hear how poorly he will be remembered after he is dead. Sure, prior to this he is moved by the news of Tiny Tim’s premature death, but it is clear that seeing his own name upon the grave of the man that is so derided by the town is what cements his decision to change. It’s an easily thing to gloss over, but it kind of kills Dickens’s point. A change of heart that is motivated by fear of bad things happening to you, personally is not really altruism, it’s just a prettier form of selfishness.
The equivalent to the funeral scene happens in Scrooged as well, though it’s really just a way to bookend to the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence. The truly effective scene comes right before it when Frank sees his love interest and “one-that-got-away” Claire, who in the present runs a homeless shelter. In this vision of the future, she has listened to the advice he has given her and gone into the corporate world, completely giving up on her charitable pursuits and become a miserable, money-grubber much like . The scene is perfectly composed and illustrates very poignantly that, unlike Scrooge, Frank has always known deep down that his actions were selfish and amoral, but he could live with his own bad choices. However, he always felt that Claire was better than that, and to have lead her down his path is what makes him feel truly wretched.
It’s the only example I can think of where adding a love interest has actually improved an adaptation.
Like I said: the only example.
Frank risks everything to be a better person
It’s kind of common sense that self-improvement is a painful and difficult process. If it weren’t, we would all be multilingual Mother Theresas with six-pack abs. However, discounting the monetary loss that comes with being a decent human being, what does Scrooge risk by changing? It’s heavily implied that his business is successful enough that he can afford to actually heat his office and maybe close for holidays and/or hire some more clerks so that Bob Cratchit can take a day off every once and awhile. In short, being a good person comes with virtually no major drawbacks for Scrooge.
Frank, on the other hand, risks EVERYTHING to change his ways. Throughout the entire movie, he is overseeing the production of his network’s attempt at a big holiday ratings grab: a multi-million dollar, international, live Christmas Eve broadcast of, appropriately enough, A Christmas Carol. His boss, the owner of the network, is constantly breathing down his neck and trying to micromanage the whole project. There is no doubt in Frank or the audience’s mind that this is a make or break moment for him.
And [SPOILER ALERT!] he completely blows it. His big public change of heart involves him interrupting the live broadcast to share his realizations with the audience, culminating in leading the entire cast in a rendition of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (it was the ‘80s, after all) before sending them all home to be with their families on Christmas Eve. He knowingly risks everything on which he’s focused his life up to this point in order to change his path.
From a story standpoint, this completely legitimizes his transformation. The old Frank would never have done anything to risk the special failing, the kind of life/work priority-skewing we see people commit every day. The old Scrooge, however, doesn’t have a logical priority taking precedent over his capacity to care. He’s just a jackass who has chosen to completely eliminate all things in his life aside from a bizarre fixation on monetary gain for its own sake. Frank has a full life, the priorities of which require an adjustment. And who among us can say we haven’t felt the same at one point or another?
So next week, as you take some much needed time off from work, hopefully in the company of family or other loved ones, instead of the Muppets, why not pull this one up on Netflix for an adaptation that has modernized the source material in the best sense of the word.
And then maybe afterwards you can watch the Muppets version again, because, seriously, how great is that music?