Ms. Scrooge (1997)

Ms. Scrooge was a made-for-TV Hallmark movie from the late 90s that attempted to update Dickens' classic while modernizing the setting and casting Scrooge as a black woman. To be clear, though, this isn't a case where the underlying situation and character are different: the main character is Ebenita Scrooge, and - while her backstory is a little different - the plot and most of the side characters are the same. This is still an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, rather than an homage or pastiche.

I want to start out stating the obvious: this isn't at all good as a movie. But if you're approaching a Hallmark TV-movie from 1997 expecting cinematic excellence, you're going to be disappointed. This was never going to have the production values, time, or vision needed to turn it into something worthwhile. The effects are cheap and gaudy (though, for what it's worth, they're better than those in the 1999 TV adaptation with Patrick Stewart).

That said, I think some aspects of the premise have merit. In particular, I like the idea of reimagining Scrooge in order to open the role to actors who'd never have an opportunity to play the part in a "traditional" production. There's nothing intrinsic to Scrooge that should require the character be male or white for the story to work.

The title character is played by Cicely Tyson, who does a decent job, all things considered. Her performance isn't as consistent as I'd like, but I don't think it's a stretch to chalk that up to a rushed production and poor editing. She doesn't manage to salvage this mess, but she's not at all bad. I found myself wishing she'd been cast in a version with the budget, time, and resources to pull this off.

Which, again, was not this version. The pacing drags, the sets fail to convey time jumps, and the writing is weak. This just isn't good.

Let's jump into the story, or at least the elements that differ from the original. Ebenita owns a bank she inherited from Maude Marley (also gender-flipped), her partner who passed away a decade earlier (no clue why they rounded up to 10 years, rather than 7, but whatever). Along with Bob Cratchit, she has a couple other employees, and Ebenita is cruel to them all. And, of course, to everyone else, including her nephew, now reimagined as a preacher worried for her soul.

When we get to the visitation from Marley, things take a brief turn for the better, or at least a turn for the more interesting. The character is played by Katherine Helmond, and she's much more farcical than usual. She's also looking for redemption, which she'll achieve if and only if Ebenita changes her ways (I'll skip over the thematic issues with this and just focus on the fact they never actually get around to resolving this at the end). Of course, Ebenita will be visited by three ghosts at 12 AM, 1 AM, and 2AM (reminder for those of you who aren't mainlining this stuff: the original has the spirits appear at 1 AM, 1 AM (again), then 12 AM the following day... not that many adaptations try and match that timeline).

When the first ghost appears, we really start changing up the story. Ebenita's past is quite a bit more complicated than that in Dickens' novel. Her father was a veteran who dreamed of opening a store, but bad luck and possibly a bit of racism kept standing in his way. I should note the racism in question seemed limited to the vague "people being mean to him" variety, as opposed to the systemic obstacles primarily responsible for economic inequality. I bring this up, because the movie implies he's able to get a GI loan for this business, which - while possible - ignores how money was overwhelmingly directed towards white recipients. It's easy to agree that open bigotry is wrong; it's harder to acknowledge how the underlying foundations of generational wealth contribute to white supremacy.

Moving on. Ebenita's father dies in a fire, and she understandably internalizes the lesson that poverty is a dangerous state to live in (she's not wrong). She then lives her life according to that principle, eventually landing a job with Marley's bank where she quickly climbs the ranks. She also falls in love with a lawyer interested in social justice, but they break up when she refuses to move back to the south with him and fight for change.

Somewhat strangely, this isn't at all limited to the holidays. The time jumps just kind of take her through a "this is your life" look at her past. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it kind of misses the point of the whole "ghost of Christmas Past" concept.

Present isn't all that altered, relatively speaking. There's a bit of time spent on a family Ebenita threw out of their home at the start, and the movie instills the notion of communal support by showing how other characters are pitching in. But at the end of the day, we spend some time with Tiny Tim, here diagnosed with a tumor slowly killing him because his parents lack health insurance.

Things get a bit weird when we jump to the future. This is the only version I can think of where - at least for a while - Scrooge is still alive. Ebenita is actually meaner than ever. She's fired Cratchit for missing work to spend time with his dying son, and she's entirely dismissive of her nephew's pleas. Then she dies, and the IRS takes all her money for reasons that make absolutely no sense. The big revelation hinges on the idea all her money is gone following her death, so it was all for nothing. Then she suddenly starts caring about others. Like Past, her visions aren't limited to the holidays.

The resolution then swerves back towards the book. We do the whole, "What day is it?" sequence, along with sending a kid to buy a turkey and deliver it to the Cratchits. Ebenita then makes amends to minor characters she's wronged. She spoon-feeds a homeless woman, drops in on the Cratchits to double his salary, promote him to VP, and promise to pay Tim's medical expenses. Finally, she goes to her nephew's church service.

There's a lot to discuss here, and I'm not sure I want to go through all of it. One very unfortunate element worth talking about is the casting of the ghosts. Specifically, all three are white men, which means the movie is largely about a black woman who overcame adversity and racism being lectured by three white guys angry that she's not kind enough.

Yeah. Not great. This would have read very different if the spirits had been more diverse, but - again - they went with white guys.

It doesn't help the movie expands Ebenita's background and provides justifiable reasons for her to have developed a philosophy centered around the connection between money and security and the lack of faith in others' goodwill. Even in the watered-down narrative, some of those reasons connect to racial inequalities, so the optics of white men educating her on the error of her ways is in extremely poor taste. The movie tries to circumnavigate these issues by having her turn cartoonishly evil in the tangent timeline, but that doesn't fix the problem. Kind of makes it worse, actually.

I assume it goes without saying at this point, but I'm fairly certain the writer and director of this were both white men. I'm not going to comment on whether it was appropriate to hire them for this project, but I will say that the end product feels like it's lacking perspective.

Overall, this had a few interesting ideas, mainly around the decision to expand the range of who could be Scrooge. And for all this thing's many, many failures, I think it succeeds as a sort of thesis statement to that effect. Tyson's Scrooge works as an updated take on the original. I'd be interested to see other films take a similar approach to the source material, perhaps shifting the story to other places or times.

I just hope future versions have the resources to pull it off and the wisdom to take the time and make sure the new story works better than this.