A dark take on Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

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Frank Cross (Bill Murray) reads about the elderly woman who died of a heart attack as a result of his TV promo.
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) reads about the elderly woman who died of a heart attack as a result of his TV promo.

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Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol” has been a part of the holiday celebration in one form or another for nearly 200 years now. It tells the story of stingy, old curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by spirits on Christmas Eve. They show him the error of his ways, and he wakes up on Christmas morning an all-around better man. We all know the story.

Like all stories worth telling, this one has been told and retold at least once for each new generation. “A Christmas Carol” has been in black and white, it has been a musical and it has been a cartoon. Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog have both had their turn as Bob Cratchit. They’re all good and they’re all heart-warming and they are all pretty much the same.

“Scrooged” at least tries to be something different. This particular film isn’t so much an adaptation of the classic Christmas story as it is a parody. “Scrooged” stars Bill Murray as Frank Cross, the president of major television network IBC. Cross lives up to his name. He is rude and angry as well as stingy.

Cross is spear-heading IBC’s live production of “A Christmas Carol” despite hating Christmas and everything it represents because it could be his key to a promotion and a raise. The film starts with his pitch for a new advertisement for the broadcast, hoping to scare viewers into watching their special. Cross’ advertisement threatens plane hijackings and nuclear holocaust. It is so violent and alarming that, in the movie, it scared an old woman to death. In real life, the entire violent promo was cut from the TV edit of the film after 9/11, according to IMDb.

Things like this promo are why “Scrooged” is so unique. The film sort of exists in a vacuum. The movie was made in 1988 and was able to get away with a lot of plot elements and jokes that a PG-13 movie would never be able to get away with now. In fact, I’m not sure it would have kept a PG-13 rating even five years after it was made.

There is an entire subplot of the film where a disgruntled former employee gets drunk and decides to bring a shotgun into the IBC building to kill Frank. The man never actually kills anyone but he marches through the building, firing the gun at random and threatening people. The sequence is played, at least in part, for laughs. Maybe this kind of over the top reaction was something people could laugh at in 1988 but it’s terrifying to watch now.

This sort of plotline would never appear in a PG-13 comedy in a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world. I watched “Scrooged” Friday night after hearing the news of the massacre in Paris. I was so anxious and so upset watching this part of the movie I almost had to turn it off. It was too real and too painful.

I have mixed feelings about “Scrooged.” Bill Murray is wonderful as usual, and Carol Kane is delightfully unhinged as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The film’s ‘80s-centric, entertainment industry, “greed is good” twist on the classic story makes for a hilarious time capsule, complete with Tab cocktails. But there’s something sort of twisted about taking such a beloved story with such a poignant message and making it so polarizing. “Scrooged” is definitely not a family film and that feels strange for Dickens and especially strange for a Christmas movie.

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