While it’s safe to say that the justly-celebrated British novelist Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) did not, in fact, invent Christmas – that honour belongs, I think we can safely say to one Jesus Christ – he was very much its saviour when it came to rescue the holiday from looming social oblivion.
At the time of the release of A Christmas Carol in 1843, which introduced us to the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, his much put-upon employee Bob Cratchit and a host of supernatural visitors, all of whom play a part in a Christmas miracle of sorts, Christmas was seen as a socially-irrelevant holiday.
While Queen Victoria had begun popularising some of the more Germanic aspects of the holiday such as the tannenbaum (Christmas tree) through her marriage to her beloved Prince Albert, Christmas was seen as nothing particularly remarkable, an attitude that Dickens encountered head-on when he pitched A Christmas Carol to his publishers in mid-October 1843.
Desperate for a hit after some flops including Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty and The Old Curiosity Shop following the immense success of Oliver Twist – which was a massive hit in the United States where Dickens toured extensively – Dickens persevered with his idea, publishing the novel at his own cost after his publishers expressed doubt that he could write the novel and get its published and into stores in just six weeks.
Drawing on some of the manic energy that the Bharat Nullari-directed The Man Who Invented Christmas uses to brilliant effect throughout the film, Dickens plunged into the writing of what became his most loved and popular work, uses myriad influences to shape the characters, plot and themes.
A social progressive whose own life had been blighted by misfortune – with his father and family in the poorhouse, 11-year-old Dickens was consigned to work in a dark, dank factory making black shoe polish under considerably less than ideal conditions – Dickens was reputedly inspired to write A Christmas Carol by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, an institution caring for London’s destitute and deprived street children.
In the interests of narrative efficiency, the film shrinks Dickens’ inspiration down to a few key moments, such as his encounter with a Scrooge-like figure (Christopher Plummer) in a back lane burial ground one night, a man so dark and unloved that he is the lone “mourner” at his business partner’s funeral.
Dickens also drew from the supernaturally-laced Irish folktales of his maid Tara (Anna Murphy) which talked about the way the barriers between the physical and spirituals became permeable on Christmas Eve, a potent source of material given the intense supernatural influences in the narrative of A Christmas Carol.
Quite how these influences and a host of others actually influenced Dickens is a matter of considerable academic musing and conjecture, but suffice to say that The Man Who Invented Christmas makes merry with these and a slew of other ideas such as the Marley-ness of Dickens’ lawyer and the author’s reported propensity to keep a notebook full of possible names.
It is in fact when Dickens, having reached a writing roadblock, is playing around with a possible name for Scrooge that the film introduces one of its most captivating and amusing narrative conceits – the maddening life of a writer in search of the next big idea, veering between creative elation and searing despondency.
As Dickens loudly and eccentrically walks back and forth in his large study, pressed by his significant debt and looming deadline to flesh out A Christmas Carol in record time, you witness him throwing all kinds of names back and forth, forth and back, in a bid to meet his character.
As soon as he settles on the name Scrooge during one of many fevered sessions, which his wife Kate (Morffyd Clark) and close friend John Forster (Justin Edwards) bear with mostly good grace (and some exasperation), the character springs to life, as do many others over the course of the novel’s creation, vividly and winningly bringing to life the way many writers interact with the people who populate their works.
Ask any writer and they will tell you that their characters become real people to them, coming alive and talking to them in ways so real and material that it’s like they are flesh and blood entities, who often take control of their own character’s trajectory and thus, quite often, the narrative itself.
This dynamic serves as a highly effective way of illustrating the writing process, accurate to the way it happens for many writers, but also an immensely visual way of demonstrating how Dickens possibly went about writing A Christmas Carol.
Let’s be honest, sitting there watching him scratch at some paper with quill and ink would not have been all that exciting, and so combining these characters sprung to life with Dickens’ volubly idiosyncratic writing life is a masterstroke, injecting The Man Who Invented Christmas, based on a book of the same name by Les Standiford, with a vivacity and witty life force it might otherwise have lacked.
Screenplay writer Susan Coyne also draws rich and highly instructive parallels between Dickens’ own life and that of his characters, with the idea that both his own unwillingness to forgive his father (Jonathan Pryce) and his eventual reconciliation with his upbringing played a pivotal role in both the before and after Scrooges.
Typical of many writers, Dickens would have drawn on his own life experiences to inform his works and so the idea that his father and people he knew were a fecund source of inspiration makes perfect sense, even if some poetic license has clearly been taken with the way the book came to be.
While the film is remarkably careful to stick to many known facts, such as Dickens’ key role in popularising many modern aspects of Christmas such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink and generosity of spirit, it also bring a great deal of imaginative flair to proceedings such as situating Dickens great epiphany that A Christmas Carol should have a redemptive ending, in the blackened depths of his old work factory.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is richly-written, imaginatively directed and beautifully plotted film that brings the writing of A Christmas Carol gorgeously and wittily alive, taking care to pull back the curtain on both Dickens life and the writing process, giving us in the process a perfectly-articulated companion to the many, many immersive iterations of his timeless and uplifting tale.