It’s not unusual to read that the way we celebrate Christmas today is the way classic Victorian era author Charles Dickens invented it in his 1843 novella. A Christmas Carol. Close, absolutely, but not exactly true.
Through the power of his written word, Dickens re-invented Christmas. December 25th was already a day of celebration for those who could afford it. But it wasn’t until Dickens published his story of the moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption, that over the years, the holiday eventually developed into a day of celebration for everyone.
In the new comic drama, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is seen as a writer desperate for his next literary hit. Despite the enormous successes of both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, the books that followed in monthly serials were not as popular. Sales dropped for Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, readership faltered so much that Dickens found himself in a serious financial bind.
For the record, all of that is true. The new Bharat Nalluri directed film may be a somewhat fictional account of how Dickens wrote his famous novella, but while the focus of the film, the writing process, is presented as a writer’s imagination working overtime, the setup and the outcome are real. By having only six weeks to have the book written, illustrated, then published before Christmas, the film sets up a sense of urgency, a race against time. Dickens becomes an author with everything to lose.
Under pressure to deliver, the writer came up with a foundation for a short Christmas story. It wasn’t fully-baked – he didn’t know where it was going or how it would be told – but something came to him while wandering after dark through the busy streets of London. The author overhears remarks from those he passes that stirs inspiration, particularly from a dour gentleman who dismisses everything around him as “Humbug.” But when presenting his Christmas idea to his publishers in the hope of an advance, the men of business are less than enthusiastic. “Does anybody ever celebrate it anymore?” asks Chapman (Ian McNeice) of Chapman and Hall. After a falling out with his publishing partners, even Dickens’ best friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards) asked the writer, “Why throw it away for a minor holiday?” But Dickens was now inspired. The book had to be written, even if Dickens had to pay for the publication himself.
Historians and students of Dickens will tell you that the idea came to the man in one night; he had the whole thing mapped out from the beginning. All he had to do was get it on paper in time for John Leech (Simon Callow, himself a famous student of Dickens) to complete the illustrations. This turn of events would hardly make for an exciting tale of how the book was written, but by creating story-telling conflicts, moments of doubt and worry, and the will-he-or-won’t-he get it done on time sense of necessity, screenwriter Susan Coyne creates excitement. After all, if anyone knew how to spin a yarn it would be Dickens, why not spin one about Dickens. The author would be the first to appreciate a good tale.
The way the film frames events, Dickens didn’t so much write A Christmas Carol as take dictation. Characters turn up in Dickens’ writing room as living creatures of flesh and blood, talking to him, watching him work, while mouthing chunks of famous dialog that the author then feverishly commits to paper as they speak.
When Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) appears before Dickens expressing his dislike of Christmas, stating how every idiot who mutters, “Merry Christmas,” should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart, Dickens, without having to work for it, has his quote, fully formed. And with the book always in mind no matter where he goes, his cast follow in an ever increasing crowd of characters. When he looks out of the window and down into the streets, Dickens sees Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig standing on the corner, hanging out with Scrooge, waiting for the next stage of the story to be written. “You’d better come and see what just turned up,” states Scrooge to the author, acting as though he is now a permanent resident in the house. Dickens enters his writing room and is faced with the Ghost of Christmas Past floating above the floor, waiting to be included into the next phase of the story. It’s as if Dickens didn’t have to invent anything; it all fell into place before him.
Like many works of Dickens, students of the author will tell you how the inspiration for the man to write came from an exposure to many Victorian era social injustices. A Christmas Carol developed after Dickens became aware of the startling differences between the haves and the have nots, particularly at Christmas. Many families were either too poor or hungry to ever think of celebrating the 25th, while the privileged over-indulged in their merriment, rarely considering the plight of those below, oblivious to the differences. But while all of this is included in the film’s setup, it also draws an interesting comparison with Dickens’ own tormented childhood, suggesting that while Dickens wrote of things observed around him, his own background and relationship with his father, John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) was just as important in forming the backstory to Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sumptuously shot widescreen by cinematographer Ben Smithard, The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t simply set the scene for the origins of our secular celebration of the season, there’s the exploration of a brilliant writer’s imagination and the creativity behind it all to take into account, and that makes things all the more enjoyable. Dan Stevens is an unusually manic Dickens, but watching him pace the room as he tries to find the right way to conclude his story, knowing there’s more at stake then just missing a writer’s deadline, adds further to the fun.
When he pounds the floorboards, trying desperately to come up with the right sounding name for his lead character, he explores everything from Snitch, to Scratch, from Scringe to Scridge. For the record, in the days of Dickens, the word “scrooge” was British slang, meaning ‘to squeeze something out of someone.‘ With that in mind, it’s probable that before Dickens even knew where his story was going, he already had the name in mind without the need for fretting. But like much of the comic fantasy we witness during the writing process, it all adds to what leads to a hugely satisfying conclusion.
Today, when we read about how poor office-clerk Bob Cratchit had to request Christmas Day off from work, we tend to see Scrooge as something more than merely insensitive when he grudgingly grants Bob’s wish. Yet at that time in London, and around the world, December 25th was generally a work day. It was by no means considered a holiday. Even if you’ve never considered that the writing of a Victorian author could in any way be responsible for your enjoyment of Christmas, when you raise a glass and give thanks to the founder of the feast at the dinner table, add Dickens to the toast. As The Man Who Invented Christmas shows, if it wasn’t for the writer, there’s a chance you might not even be celebrating the day.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 104 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)