Some stories linger in the cultural psyche for hundreds of years, repeatedly shaping and being shaped by the societies that encounter them. Ancient tales like Sisyphus, condemned to roll that rock up the hill forever, and Pandora’s Box continue to be shared generation after generation. We’ve got folklore, compiled by people like the brothers Grimm, which loom large in the education of children. Then there’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which continues to exert a strong influence on modern society. A Christmas Carol, though stands apart from many of these influential stories in that it’s tightly associated with a specific day. Year after year, as Christmas season rolls around, our cities sprout with dramatizations of the book. Every couple of years, someone makes a movie. As the big day draws near, it’s difficult to flip through our cable channels without running into one variation of the story or another. For a month out of every year, it’s impossible to avoid this story.
But the thing is, the story never stays the same. As we replay A Christmas Carol every year, changes start to creep in as they do with an oft recalled memory, and those changes give us a window into the concerns and preoccupations of the day. The more liberties the remake takes with the story, the easier it is to make these sorts of comparisons. That makes Scrooged, the 1988 Richard Donner film starring Bill Murray, particularly interesting. The film keeps the basic structure of the story, but adapts them in interesting ways that show that America in the late 1980s was preoccupied with new flavors of many of the same problems that Dickens was in mid-19th century England.
Anyone who’s read a Dickens novel knows that the man was preoccupied with the social issues of his time. A Christmas Carol is no exception. Dickens was immensely concerned with the laissez-faire capitalism of his day, and the way that it led to social stratification and misery for the poor. This should come as no surprise. He lived in an era where industrial capitalism was ascendant, pulling evermore people into the sooty factories cropping up in urban centers. Young and old alike were increasingly pulled into dangerous work conditions, while health and safety regulations lagged. Dickens literally wrote in the period where the word ‘capitalism’ was first used in English [In Thackeray’s 1854 novel The Newcomes].
In A Christmas Carol, the character of Scrooge and his deceased partner Marley serve as stand ins for what Dickens perceived as a class of wealthy businessmen who had lost their regard for other people in pursuit of money. Scrooge, in particular, is portrayed as having contempt for Christmas because it prevents him from working effectively as his clerk Bob Cratchit takes the day off to be with his family. He scoffs at people seeking donations for the poor and sees the good cheer on display as people using a holiday to be lazy. More generally, Scrooge, with his trademark “Bah! Humbug!” is perpetually in a bad mood that only seems to get worse when he sees other people enjoying the holidays. He’s not so much obsessed with family as he is isolating himself from the world through his obsession with work and a rigid belief in pure meritocracy.
It’s a remarkable testament to the durability of A Christmas Carol that many of its themes spoke as loudly in 1988, when Scrooged was released, and today as they did upon its initial publication in 1843. Ebenezer Scrooge, in the guise of Frank Cross [Bill Murray], is, at heart, just as much of a caricature of the modern business executive as he was of the businessman of the mid-Victorian era. Frank Cross, like Scrooge, prioritizes work over all else, treats his employees like garbage, and lives in a constant state of self-imposed misery as a result. In addition, for all the money that they both have, neither is ever shown enjoying his fortune. In both A Christmas Carol and Scrooged there is a recognition that the veneration of work and the imposition of it on others masks a deep unhappiness which is brought to the fore by the good cheer of Christmas. People like Scrooge and Cross, make their lives and the lives of those around them a living hell. In fact, Marley says as much when Scrooge asks him about the chains he’s dragging around. He says, “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” The imagery of driven, calculating people of business strangling the life from themselves is as relevant today as it was during Dickens’ time.
Despite their similarities, though, there’s one way in which these two characters differ substantially: their views on Christmas. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is openly hostile towards Christmas, saying things like “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” In contrast, Cross loves Christmas because it allows him to cynically exploit people for his own gain. Whereas Scrooge hates Christmas because he loses money as people celebrate, Cross loves it because he can make money by harnessing the holiday for his own ends. This difference likely reflects changes in the economy and the way they interact with changing perceptions of Christmas.
When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, England was an emerging industrial economy. At the same time, Christmas was just emerging as the holiday we know today, at least partially thanks to the publication of A Christmas Carol. Dickens, in step with his time, portrayed Christmas as a time of generosity and kindness to counterbalance the harsh realities of Victorian life. It certainly wasn’t the consumer holiday that it is today; at the time that A Christmas Carol was published, gift-giving was just beginning to be observed as a Christmas custom in England. That’s a stark contrast with modern Christmas where consumers buy billions of dollars of gifts. Businesses around the country, and increasingly around the world, use the Christmas spirit as a pretense to rack up more sales. In short, in the eyes of business, Christmas has morphed from a loss, on account of employees demanding the day off, to a gain as hoards of consumers open their wallets and spend on gifts. This change is clearly reflected in the different attitude towards Christmas evinced by Scrooge and Cross. In both cases, these businessmen care little for the spirit of Christmas. Both are simply trying to maximize their profits. In the case of Cross, though, the rational thing to do is to take advantage of the spirit of Christmas whereas for Scrooge, it is to try and destroy it.
The differences between Scrooged and A Christmas Carol show that people just don’t change. In every era, there are going to be people that make themselves and everyone around them miserable. Despite being made almost a century and a half apart, these two renditions of the same story reveal that the archetype of Scrooge is just as relevant today as it was during the Victorian era. At the same time, though, it’s clear that times have changed. Christmas, which was just undergoing a revival during the mid-19th century in England, is now an international consumer holiday. Where in Dickens’ time the holiday and many of its modern traditions were just being established, today Christmas is a major driver of our economy. In this way, the story of Scrooge and his three ghosts remains both timely and timeless. It shows that the more things change, the more Scrooge stays the same.