The Man Who Invented Christmas

A fresh take on a still-relevant tale

In December 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, a novella that forever changed the way people think about and celebrate Christmas (introducing, for example, the concepts of linking family gatherings and special meals to the Christmas season). Most importantly to me, A Christmas Carol made Christmas a time to remember those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s a call to fight against the poverty created by our collective greed and to give generously of our time and money to assure that everyone can have a “Merry Christmas” (the popularization of this term is another contribution of the novella).

The depressing irony that surrounds Christmas is that the very season which is intended to prompt us to think of others has become the cornerstone of our consumerist society and the greed associated with it.

While The Man Who Invented Christmas draws attention to Dickens’s contribution to our celebration of Christmas, it primarily purports to tell us how Dickens came to write his novella and where the ideas in the novella originated. Directed by Bharat Nalluri and written by Susan Coyne (the screenplay is based on the novel by Les Standiford), The Man Who Invented Christmas is not, however, meant to be an accurate account of either process. It is a work of fiction, albeit one based on true events in Dickens’s life.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a lot of fun to watch, and you can tell the actors had fun making the film. Dan Stevens plays Dickens, Christopher Plummer is Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce is Dickens’s father, John, Morfydd Clark is Dickens’s wife, Kate, and Justin Edwards is his close friend and agent, Forster. There are shorter appearances by veteran actors like Simon Callow and Donald Sumpter as men involved in Dickens’s attempt to publish the novella himself (his publishers aren’t willing to trust Dickens after a couple of unsuccessful projects).

While all the acting is solid, I’m not sure Stevens was the right choice to play Dickens. Either his performance or the writing produced a character I didn’t always find convincing, especially in the latter half of the film. To be specific, Dickens is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with an impulsive, self-absorbed personality that is sometimes kind and friendly and other times dark and angry. Perhaps this describes the real Dickens, but I found some of his words and actions inconsistent with the man the film showed Dickens to be.

Scrooge is one of the film’s major characters (Plummer is perfect in the role), and you may be wondering how that is possible in a film about Dickens. The answer lies in what was, for me, the film’s greatest strength, namely the brilliant way The Man Who Invented Christmas portrays Dickens’s writing process as a dialogue between him and the novella’s characters. As soon as Dickens comes up with the name Scrooge, Scrooge appears in front of him and joins Dickens in his deliberations about how the novella should proceed. As other characters are identified, they also become discussion partners. Dickens needs all the advice he can get, because he struggles mightily with each chapter and especially with how to end his tale. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this process, especially Dickens’s conversations with Scrooge, which were the highlight of the film for me.

When you add in the fact that The Man Who Invented Christmas is a beautiful film with an excellent score, it is easy to see how entertaining the film is. Unfortunately, the film’s depiction of Dickens is not its only flaw. For example, the film’s chaotic structure occasionally creates the impression that one is watching a silly farce or at least a lightweight holiday film of no particular merit. Much worse, for me, is the idea, mentioned above, that Dickens couldn’t figure out how to end his novel, a quandary which is then used to explore Dickens’s own Scrooge-like faults and how they were grounded in his difficult childhood. I am personally convinced that Dickens knew the ending of his story before he even started writing. By combining this obvious inaccuracy with what might have been a fascinating exploration of Dickens’s childhood, the film fails to do justice to either piece of the story.

Nevertheless, I suggest you could do far worse than watch The Man Who Invented Christmas this Christmas season. Besides offering an excuse to revisit, in an original way, what is perhaps the best story ever written, it also provides a reminder of what Christmas is really about (and what it isn’t about). The depressing irony that surrounds Christmas is that the very season which is intended to prompt us to think of others has become the cornerstone of our consumerist society and the greed associated with it. How is it possible that 174 years of reading (and watching) one of the most popular stories ever written has made so little difference; that we live in a world still plagued by poverty, with a growing rift between the rich Scrooges and the poor Cratchits of our time?

Of course, at this time of year we celebrate the birth of a man whose bestselling words about love, compassion, and peace have been with us for two thousand years. To say his (and Dickens’s) words are as relevant today as they were so long ago is surely a sad indictment of humanity. And yet there are always signs of hope that the words are being heard (for example, in the steady decline of extreme poverty, the leadership of Pope Francis, the #metoo campaign). May we all learn to keep Christmas as well as Scrooge and may, “as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

 

The Man Who Invented Christmas is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild language.

 

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.

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