“Scrooged” and Other Adaptations of “A Christmas Carol”

Ebenezer Scrooge.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you know the name.

And you know what he represents.  Goodness, kindness, philanthropy, human companionship, great employer, and fantastic all-round human being.

What’s that?  I’m wrong?  Did you actually make it to the end of the story or did you just nod off midways through the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Present?

OK, so Scrooge WAS a skinflint at the beginning of the story.  As his author so eloquently described him:

“He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

When Ebenezer Scrooge first appeared on the literary landscape in December of 1843, he was just another character from the imagination of Charles Dickens.  But over the past almost one and 3/4 centuries, he has become synonymous with the greed and avarice of his pre-ghostly visitations.   Call someone a “Scrooge” and both you and he/she are likely to get the meaning outright.

Down through the years countless adaptations (and various pastiches and parodies on the theme) of A Christmas Carol have been presented to the public. Endless stage productions, a variety of radio programs, a smattering of new, modernized takes on the old theme, and a good many TV comedy and drama shows down through the years have taken Dickens’ theme and put it to good use.

Among the best versions of the original story is a made-for-TV version which starred, remarkably, George C. Scott as Scrooge.  Scott was, as near as I can tell, the only American actor in this otherwise British and British Commonwealth cast.  Yet Scott does an admirable job in his role. The saving grace here is he doesn’t try to affect a British accent, which definitely would have distracted me while I kept trying to catch anything that wasn’t said in the “fake” accent.

In the role of Bob Cratchit was David WarnerEdward Woodward, who was, at that time, the star of his own American TV show, The Equalizer, appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Susannah York appeared as Mrs. Cratchit.  Angela Pleasence (Donald Pleasence‘s daughter) was the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Other familiar names included Roger Rees, Joanne Whalley, Nigel Davenport, and Michael Gough.  (I noted many similarities in the way the performers here were similar to their counterparts in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol).

Scrooge has been portrayed by many other nationalities.  He has been portrayed by a duck (Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck’s uncle, was named after Scrooge and in 1983 got his chance to play his namesake).  The character has been genderswapped and played by women (among others, Susan Lucci, the Queen of Mean on the soap opera All My Children did a turn as Elizabeth “Ebbie” Scrooge).

Scrooge has even been played by The Fonz.  Well, sort of.  In 1979 Henry Winkler, the actor best known at the time as  Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli  on the television show Happy Days, was  cast as Benedict Slade, a Depression era miser in the New England area of the United States, in the film An American Christmas Carol.  Slade was a carbon copy of the Scrooge character, and the story, adapted for the film with some significant changes, still follows the same blueprint.  One significant change is that each of the three spirits looks exactly like someone from whom Slade had, the previous day, Christmas Eve, repossessed items from, so he has trouble believing initially they are, in fact, spirits. The fun part of this film, at least at the time, was getting to see a familiar actor in makeup that did a real fine job of making him look like a septuagenarian.

The Scrooge story was even adapted as a musical.  Albert Finney and Alec Guinness starred in the 1970 film Scrooge, which featured the story told in the classic musical form.  I saw this once on TV as a young lad, and even today, some 45 years later, I can still vividly recall some of the grandeur and spectacle in some of the scenes, and even can hum one of the tunes (“Thank You Very Much”), despite it being the only time I saw the film.

Many TV shows that had a cranky older character has made use of the theme in its own way.  One I remember fondly, in particular, was in an episode of Sanford and Son Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson), playing all three ghosts in one fell swoop, led Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) through his life in order to show him the error of his ways.  As usual, Fred was back to his old self on the next episode, but for one brief shining moment, the theme of Christmas even changed him.

Among the many parodies and pastiches of the Scrooge theme, in 1988, Richard Donner, famous for having directed the first Christopher Reeve Superman film, and fresh off of the first  Lethal Weapon, teamed up with Bill Murray to turn the Scrooge theme on its ear with Scrooged.

Scrooged (1988)

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a self-obsessed, egomaniacal TV executive.  He belittles everyone below him, including his put-upon secretary, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard),  and is an obsequious twit to his boss,  Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum).  At the beginning of the film, a staff meeting watches a promo for a Christmas Eve schedule — including a Lee Majors action show (in which Santa’s workshop is invaded by terrorists), and a promo for a planned live television broadcast of A Christmas Carol.

Frank objects to the Carol promo created by his execs and proposes his own which terrorizes the execs.  (One that includes bombs, terrorists, etc., all of which “may happen” if you miss the live-action show).  Elliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) expresses an objection to the violence and gets fired on Christmas Eve.  Frank is just about due for a visit from some ghosts, don’t ya think?

Frank’s old boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe),  looking a little worse for wear, makes an appearance and tells him he will be haunted by three spirits.

Of course, instead of showing up in his apartment, these spirits have an uncanny knack for just showing up whenever and wherever they feel like it.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by David Johansen, whom you may recognize as either the lounge singer Buster “Hot, Hot, Hot” Poindexter, or if you are much older, as the leader of the 70’s punk band the New York Dolls.

Frank and the Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past in this case is a brash New York cabbie.  He drives like a bat out of hell, scaring the bejesus out of Frank before showing him his childhood, and then a few brief glimpses into his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen).  Of course Frank always was his egotistic self even back then, but he manages to hold on to Claire for a time.  Until, that is, his penchant for self-promotion and schmoozing to get to the top conflict with his private life.

Back in the present, Frank is still trying to get the horrendous Christmas special on the roll.  He seeks out Claire, who now works at a homeless shelter, and disses her by saying that her homeless people she helps are just leeches and she should just “scrape them off.” He also manages to insult Grace’s mute son.  The kid hasn’t spoken since the death of his father a few years previously… The Ghost of Christmas Present, in the persona of a flighty and, really, very annoying Carol Kane, makes her presence known.

Frank with the Ghost of Christmas Present

The Ghost of Christmas Present has one good quality, however; she realizes that Frank needs a conk on the head now and then to get his attention.  She shows Frank how nearly everyone around him has a normal life that is not governed by greed, and they are much happier without it.  Once again, back in the present, Frank is accosted by and threatened by a drunk and vengeance-seeking Elliot, who armed with a shotgun chases him around the control room.

Fortunately (or maybe not), Frank is rescued by the Ghost of Christmas Future who, although mute, shows Frank a future, which of course since this is a pastiche of the original story, includes his death.

How the story ends, typical of the theme, but atypical since Bill Murray is involved, is well worth the viewing.  And a pretty decent song to follow as the credits roll (the Jackie DeShannon song “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” sung in a duet by Annie Lennox and Al Green).

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

Do you have a favorite TV or movie version of A Christmas Carol? If so, tell us what it is in the comments!