“THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS”
Christmas movies thrive on the sense that we’re all in this together, “fellow passengers to the grave,” as Charles Dickens put it. That sense was common in the 1940s and ’50s, an era that produced some of our best Christmas movies. That’s in stark contrast to today, an era so steeped in self-glorification that the most popular genre is the superhero movie, which is all about expressing the self at all costs, even if it means the routine destruction of entire city blocks.
So, coming when it does, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is not just a good movie, but a welcome relief. If you’re waiting for that nice Christmas feeling, this movie brings it on. It tells the story of Charles Dickens’ creation of “A Christmas Carol,” which becomes a way for us to experience that classic once again, but from a different angle. We’re transported back to the early Victorian period and get to see the various key moments from that story play out as if in Dickens’ imagination.
The movie is based on the nonfiction book by Les Standiford, which deals with the creation of “A Christmas Carol” and with its importance in Christmas iconography. That novella, which Dickens wrote quickly in the fall of 1843, defined the holiday forever as the calendar’s biggest celebration. It also defined the way we think of Christmas. If you’ve ever dreamed of how nice it might be to visit London during Christmas week, you’re probably responding to “A Christmas Carol.”
Apparently, when Dickens wrote the novella, he was coming off of two flops and was in danger of being regarded as a flash in the pan. He was 31 and didn’t start writing until October, for a book that needed to be in the stores by Christmas week. Actually, if you go back and read “A Christmas Carol,” you can tell it was written quickly. The writing is much more expansive in the beginning, and the last chapter is remarkably condensed.
Dan Stevens plays Dickens as a big personality, someone exhausting to live with, whose wife complains that she has to walk on eggshells, never knowing what mood he might be in. He’s an emotional man but a man of compassion, with a tortured history, and he’s facing pressure from all sides — financial pressure, pressure from the characters in his head wanting to come out and pressure to produce and live up to his already exalted reputation.
Screenwriter Susan Coyne takes Standiford’s nonfiction book and layers it with appealing fictional conceits. (Coyne is best known as one of the creators of the TV series “Slings and Arrows,” a Canadian show about life inside a Shakespearean theater, in which Coyne also played the office manager.) Here Ebenezer Scrooge is called forth into Dickens’ writing room as soon as Dickens finds the perfect name for him. For most of what follows, Dickens and Scrooge, who is played with sneering relish by Christopher Plummer, argue about where to take the story.
Coyne also has fun putting lines from “A Christmas Carol” into the mouths of various characters, as Dickens takes inspiration from the life around him.
Rarely has a movie ever captured the importance of a writer’s having unbroken concentration in order to work. On repeated occasions in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” Dickens is interrupted by his family while he is in midst of conversation with his various characters, and this produces an effect of impatience within the audience. We want him to work — nothing seems more important.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” ends up hitting most of the notes Dickens sounded so memorably in his classic: forgiveness, forbearance, generosity, charity, family feeling. Just as we worry, in “A Christmas Carol,” over the health of Tiny Tim, the movie makes us worry over Dickens’ decision as to Tiny Tim’s fate — even though we know already what it will be. Like the Victorians, we need to believe that gentleness and goodness can survive in our world, and movies like this help.