Tis the season! With A Very Merry-Go-Round, we’ll be offering the hottest holiday takes in town.
How do you retell a story that’s been told so many times? The smart thing is probably not to, but if that doesn’t stop you, then you’ve got a difficult road ahead of you. Some stories are so entrenched in our cultural conscious that the default answer is to retell them with little change because it already has an audience built in, but that only results in a lot of interchangeable remakes with little point to them. If you decide to make massive changes to the source material, people’s attachment to the original will make it harder to implement them. Remember Ridley Scott’s ROBIN HOOD? No one does, but it actually went through a lot of rewrites. Originally nicknamed “CSI Nottingham,” the original script had the Sheriff of Nottingham as the protagonist investigating a series of crimes and murders that he believes were committed by a mysterious outlaw called Robin Hood. What a cool, fresh idea! Too bad you can’t find any trace of it in the final film.
It’s one of the reasons I have affection for SCROOGED, the 1988 remake of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. A timeless story about a rich, stingy curmudgeon being shown the error of his ways through time travel, it’s been retold over and over again, and its DNA can even be found in other Christmas classics like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Any remake of A CHRISTMAS CAROL thus has to find some way to stand out, either by using Muppets, motion-capture animation that we can all agree was horrifying in hindsight, or making a romantic comedy where the Ghosts are the lead’s ex-girlfriends. Many will point to SCROOGED’s dark, macabre tone as its most distinguishing factor, but I would like to draw attention to two other things: the expansion of the romance subplot and the slight tweaks made to the story’s final moral.
As you roll your eyes over my suggestion that a remake’s romance is what makes it special, let me explain. Most remake’s romantic subplots are bad because they feel tacked on, lacking any grounding in the original material, resembling fan-fiction as a result. However, SCROOGED does a good job of expanding what was hinted at within the original novella. Belle, Scrooge’s old girlfriend, is shown to us within the Ghost of Christmas Past’s visit over about five pages and is never brought up again, becoming a singular plot point in explaining why Scrooge became such a cold-hearted dick. It works in a short story, but it leaves a lot of room for what lead to her throwing him aside because he worships “a golden idol” and she has seen his “nobler aspirations fall off one by one.”
I knew keeping this would come in handy!
SCROOGED seizes on this last line and uses it as the base for Claire, the movie’s version of Belle. It reframes their breakup from a single outpouring of rage on Belle’s part to a series of gradual decisions that added up over time. Bill Murray’s Frank Cross, aka Scrooge, spends a night working late at the TV station rather than hanging out with Claire, then another, then another, until she can’t take it anymore. It makes Cross’s backstory more tragic because it becomes more evident that he never saw his romance slipping out of his fingertips and didn’t want it to happen, and it makes their relationship more relatable because, much like a lot of our social ties in real life, it ends with a series of seemingly insignificant, zero-sum choices that we don’t even realize we’re making.
This expansion of the romance subplot also feeds into the final journey with the Ghost of Christmas Future, the most haunting part of the original, because it feeds into our collective uneasiness over our legacy. Scrooge seeing his own gravestone and lamenting if he can change the future or if it is set in stone is one of the most powerful, iconic scenes in literature, and perfectly sets up the moral of the story: if you continue to be a selfish douche, no one will care when you are gone. It’s one thing to introduce new characters, chop out or add scenes, but it’s another to alter the original’s message, yet SCROOGED uses Claire to make the original’s message even more poignant.
More terrifying than when the Ark got opened
See, Claire works at a homeless shelter during Christmas, and Frank shows up to try and make amends. However, he can’t contain his narcissism and disgust at charity, and leaves after chastising her for caring about others. His hallucination of the future with the Ghost of Christmas Future pays this off when he sees Claire in an outfit that resembles Tim Burton in Janelle Monáe cosplay, drinking tea with other rich, stuck-up ladies while telling some homeless children off. It would be goofy and ridiculous if it weren’t so chilling, especially when future Claire thanks Frank for teaching her to stop caring about others and to only think for herself. In this moment, the original’s messages is changed: it’s not that you will have no impact on others when you die, it’s that your impact will be for the worse, because the only people lamenting you will be those you made more callous, selfish, and cold.
By fleshing out the romance and giving Claire more of an arc, SCROOGED stands on its own, and serves as a good paragon for how a remake can expand on elements of the original to create something new that stays faithful to the original. So this Christmas, enjoy this surreal, dark, occasionally uncomfortable comedy, and take these lessons to heart in honor of its risks that paid off: don’t make choices, even little ones, without realizing the opportunity cost, don’t let those you care about make you a worse person, and most of all, don’t let those relationships that you treasure fade because of innocent neglect.