How the spirit(s) of the season helped Dickens write his Christmas opus
The Man Who Invented Christmas
Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer & Jonathan Pryce
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
You might not think of Christmas as an “invention,” but before Charles Dickens wrote his story about it, it wasn’t much of a holiday—at least not as we know it today.
That’s the idea of The Man Who Invented Christmas, a magical, whimsical journey into the story behind the story of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ classic holiday tale about
Tiny Tim, Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come.
Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast fame, plays Dickens at the youthful age of 31, after becoming an international sensation for Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers. But the author was in financial straits after writing three duds in a row. When he proposes a Christmas yarn, his publishers balk. Why would he want to write about such a “minor holiday”? Dickens decides to sever his ties with his print benefactors and publish the book himself.
Director Bharat Nalluri, who has mostly worked in television, creates a thriving scene of London in the early 1840s, where the upper classes often had to rub coattails with the city’s poor. In an inventive twist, we meet characters in Dickens’ real life who spark his imagination for his book as he struggles to find creative inspiration and wrestle with his own past.
A chance encounter with a miserly old man in a cemetery provides the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), and another provides his signature catchphrase, “Humbug!” The fantastical bedtime stories the Dickens’ new Irish housemaid (Anna Murphy) tells to their children gives Charles the idea for his story’s supernatural framework of ghosts.
Dickens’ flashbacks to his troubled, poverty-stricken childhood, and his negligent father (Jonathan Pryce), add more creative fuel to the fire. His time in the “poor house” left him with a lifelong feeling of charity. His crippled young nephew clearly becomes the inspiration for Tiny Tim.
The heart of the movie is the prickly relationship between Dickens and Scrooge, as the writer retreats to his upstairs study and “conjures” Scrooge to help him create the tale. (A psychologist might watch this and see a textbook case of mental illness, but more artistic types will just chalk it all up to the immortal muse of creativity.) As Scrooge comes for his nightly visits, he’s eventually joined by a host of other characters—Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present—and he takes Dickens on the journey, both physical and spiritual, that becomes the narrative thread of A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’ patient—and pregnant—wife (Morfydd Clark) waits, and listens, downstairs to the commotion above her. She’s one of the gallery of supporting players, all of whom add even more color and texture to the tale. Dickens and his best friend John Forester (Justin Lynch) have some playful moments in the shops and on the streets of London, and crank out some of the film’s best chuckles. Simon Callow plays the haughty illustrator Dickens hires to draw the sketches for his story—on an impossible deadline.
And Pryce, as Dickens’ father, and Plummer, as the king of humbug, practically walk away with every moment they’re onscreen. The two veteran actors provide solid, stately grounding to this holiday tale like a pair of Christmas bookends.
When Dickens’ book was finished and published, it was a smashing success. The movie suggests that it turned the tide of the world toward more spiritual introspection at Christmas, and integrated its ideas about charitable giving and blessings for “everyone” into popular culture.
“Mr. Scrooge, you and I are going to do wonderful things together,” Dickens tells his muse during one of their story sessions. Indeed they were. And this enchanting, heartwarming movie, filled with the goodness of the holidays, fancifully fills in the backstory of a tale that continues to lift the spirits of the season.
In theaters Nov. 22, 2017