In the first minutes of “Scrooged,” Bill Murray as ruthless TV executive Frank Cross is going over the line-up of Christmas shows with his network toadies. The line-up preview climaxes with the announcer introducing a live version of “Charles Dickens’ immortal classic . . . ‘Scrooge.’ ”
Since this is Cross’ project, we figure that he doesn’t know any better. After all, this faux pas is like dramatizing “Great Expectations” and titling it “Pip.” And with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold Dancers boogying through the streets of London--well, this is TV, isn’t it? And we know what TV does to the classics.
But what the movies do to the classics, especially to Dickens, is hardly an improvement. “Scrooged” screenwriters and “Saturday Night Live” alumni Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue want to satirize television’s unscrupulous ways, but they end up with just another fast-food version that their ruthless TV executive Frank Cross would love.
In the current waves of releases based on Dickens’ novels--"Scrooged,” Disney’s “Oliver & Company” from “Oliver Twist” and “Little Dorrit"--only the last has any ambitions for being a genuine adaptation. Dickens’ fate these days is a strange one: to be simultaneously adapted and forgotten and to make money (“Scrooged” pulled in a whopping $18.6 million at the box-office over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend). Why this wave is hitting us now, during the holidays, says much about our collective memory of Dickens, childhood and where we first encounter what passes for literature (Hint: It’s not in the library).
Murray’s character of Cross probably had the 1971 Albert Finney movie musical, “Scrooge,” in mind when he mistitled his live TV extravaganza. Likewise, the real source behind “Oliver & Company” isn’t any novel, either, but other Disney movies, loosely-- very loosely--adapted from the whole span of children’s literature.
This syndrome of movies that are only about other movies (such as “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) is carried on here by a new generation at Disney, but without the guile that permeates “Scrooged.” Yet, just as “Alice In Wonderland” and “The Jungle Book” and other Disney features did to their sources, so “Oliver & Company” uses “Oliver Twist” as so much fossil fuel to be extracted and burned up as quickly as possible. A cute waif of a puppy with an upturned nose only looks more innocent than Bill Murray and Bobcat Goldthwaite having it out with a rifle.
“Oliver Twist” marked a stunning point of departure for the British novel, in its elaborate expose of London’s horrific social conditions, the exploitation of children for labor and thievery, and the adults who controlled it all. To this point (1837), Dickens had written wonderful entertainments like “The Pickwick Papers.” And though “Oliver Twist,” his first novel, emerged in Dickens’ usual format--the monthly magazine serial--with the standard cliffhanging climaxes and melodrama to keep the readers coming back, he intended it to be a work for an audience and for social good. Good triumphed, but not without running the gauntlet of misery.
It is not a novel for children. At 13, when I first read it, it was a mountain to climb. But I was eternally grateful that I reached the top before seeing “Oliver!” the movie musical (the other source for “Oliver & Company”). Any resemblance between movie and book, as they say, was strictly coincidental.
A gripping social critique and dramatic yarn had become a feel-good Currier and Ives scene come to life. “Oliver!” wasn’t fun--not for a kid who had just inhabited the world, in all its ugliness and beauty, that Dickens had conjured. Faintly, I felt a violation had taken place.
Some lovers of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22" feel the same way about Mike Nichols’ film version. Those of us who think that both are masterpieces of their forms argue with the Heller fans until we agree to disagree.
The great difference between the “Catch-22" problem and the McDickens phenomenon is that the former is for adults who might be coming to the movie from the book. Children, on the other hand, are fed the fast-food version long before they’re ready for full-course Dickens.
The result is a truly perverse, almost surreal, pattern that underlies “Oliver & Company” and “Scrooged.” While the movie for children is based on a book for mature readers, the movie for mature viewers is based on a story that is perfect for a family fireside read. They’re the by-product of Hollywood’s high-concept thinking, which says that what has always been played as a romance should now be turned into an alien thriller.
This deliberate warping explains why “Scrooged,” after nearly two hours of Murray muggings and double-fisted wallops of New York cynicism, looks like a man in a straitjacket as it tries to wriggle out and declare that we are all brothers and sisters. Seldom has a last-ditch effort of being faithful to the original source appeared so painful.
The closest “Oliver & Company” comes to Dickens’ social view is the animators’ attempt at gritty urban scenes in the manner of Ralph Bakshi. But, like “Oliver!,” Fagin is transformed from a wily yet vulnerable manipulator of boys into a loveable down-and-out guy with a heart of gold. Worse, Fagin’s gang member Bill Sikes becomes a corporate mobster with unclear motives. “Oliver Twist” is so wildly altered that the only survivors are the characters’ names.
Why, then, even keep the names? Why not make it an original story, a sister film, say, to “Lady and The Tramp”? The problem is the popular attachment of Dickens to the Christmas spirit of good cheer, the legacy of countless McDickens-sized “Christmas Carols.” The makers of “Oliver & Company” and “Scrooged” are only exhibiting the results of that legacy, in which a childhood remembrance confuses entertaining morality tales full of complications and deeply human observations with a one-dimensional parade of happy faces and/or special effects.
It isn’t Scrooge-like to claim that what this amounts to is sheer expropriation of works that have no chance of fighting back against a machine that puts out easy-to-swallow product. Perhaps, as Times film critic Sheila Benson suggested last week in these pages, the six-hour film adaptation of Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” is an antidote. Better yet might be Dickens in serialized form on the radio.
Better yet: Go to the source. It’s longer, but what a meal.