Considering that Christmas music, decorations, and music are everywhere from late November to the beginning of January, it might be hard to conceive of the fact that there was a time when the holiday wasn’t celebrated so festively and generously. If it hadn’t been for British author Charles Dickens and his best known book “A Christmas Carol,” it might have stayed that way.
Now, the new movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (opening Nov. 22) tells the largely unknown story of how the book came to be, all while exploring the rich, complex, and redemptive life of Dickens himself.
The success of “Oliver Twist” in 1838 brought Dickens fame and fortune both in England and the United States. This man from humble beginnings was well able to support his wife and children in a lavish London home. But when his next three books are “flops,” Dickens realizes he has over-extended himself financially and needs to write another best-seller.
Inspiration strikes when he hears his new Irish housemaid, Tara, telling a ghost story to his children. She says her grandmother used to say Christmas Eve was the only day of the year when the spirits of the afterlife could cross the threshold into our world.
He therefore decides to write a Christmas story, which doesn’t exactly please his publishers. “Does anyone really celebrate Christmas?” they ask, noting that it’s just an excuse to take a day off work.
Dickens perseveres, deciding to self-publish. And he continues picking up little inspirations for the story throughout his daily life, from a decrepit old waiter named Marley, to a miser’s burial in a dark graveyard, to a heartless high society member who rails against the poor as “surplus population.”
The latter comment especially affirms Dickens’ commitment to craft a story that serves as “a hammer blow to the heart of this smug, self-satisfied age.”
But everything doesn’t start coming together until Dickens formulates the name of his main character: Scrooge.
Not only does Scrooge come alive to the author, he comes alive in an exciting way to the film’s viewers as well because of director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne’s decision to take us into Dickens’ mind to witness the creative process at work. (Best line in this respect: “We must not disturb the poet when the divine frenzy is upon him!”)
Much like “Hidden Figures” made a story about math surprisingly exciting, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” does the same for the writing process. But at its heart, this is a tale of a good man struggling with his demons.
Though elements of “A Christmas Carol” stem from outside sources, there is a central conflict that flows from Dickens himself. He is generous to the poor and always willing to promote the good works of various charities, yet he holds a grudge against his own father for something that happened in the past. Hard as it is to believe, there is a level of Scrooge’s hard-heartedness in Dickens as well.
At first, he can’t conceive of Scrooge’s redemption because he believes that men don’t change. He even kills off Tiny Tim for good despite the protestations of friends who read his unfinished manuscript.
Confronting his past finally leads Dickens to discover and practice mercy and love, a gift he then extends to his family and his main character.
Dan Stevens brings complexity, humor, and vulnerability to his role as Dickens, while Christopher Plummer’s charismatic turn as Scrooge conveys curmudgeonliness, cruelty, and ultimately, warmth and hope.
In the end, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” presents a charming and hopeful exploration of the second-greatest Christmas story ever told. And like Dickens reminds us in the movie, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.”