It was in the 19th century that Christmas became a new holiday. Before that, it was not a particularly popular holiday outside of a few places like Germany — it had even been banned briefly in a few places in the US and UK. I think that the first time I heard of Charles Dickens was as a kid, but my first exposure was a terrible episode of the terrible show Mr. Belvedere in which the titular butler experiences the whole “A Christmas Carol” story himself.
The story is perhaps one of the most adapted stories of all time, over 400 times. Last year an amazing supercut by Heath Waterman was released that I highly recommend, but this may be the first time the story behind the story was the story.
The Man Who Invented Christmas comes from director Bharat Nalluri and is based on the book of the same name by Les Standiford. The film starts off shortly after Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has written his extremely popular book “Oliver Twist”, but his follow-ups are complete flops. Charles is being pushed by his publishers to write a new book, as well as his good friend John Forster (Justin Edwards), but he is stymied.
At home, he is concerned about money, still having spent a great deal anticipating his books’ success. His wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) is supportive, although she doesn’t have much to do to help him. A new Irish maid, Tara, has also been hired (Anna Murphy), and her new faerie stories are a hit with the large brood of Dickens children. On top of all that, Charles is still dealing with his frustrating father John (Jonathan Pryce), who is always asking to borrow more money.
Much of the inner turmoil in the movie comes from Charles’ history at a workhouse after his father was arrested for not paying his debts. Charles finally gets inspiration after chasing after a child wrangler. In a graveyard, he spots an old man (Christopher Plummer) and the pieces begin falling into place.
The movie then becomes his struggle to craft the perfect villain, the perfect plot, the perfect ending, and the perfect everything. Because nobody cares about Christmas, his publishers aren’t interested and Dickens decides to publish it himself. Which is quite expensive in the days before digital media.
He gets inspiration from various sources, and begins to interact with his vision of Scrooge (also Plummer) and other characters from the story. The movie shows pieces of the story as we go, sort of telling the same story about Dickens himself as he struggles to become less of a Scrooge with those around him.
The movie is charming in a lot of ways, and boasts some exceptional actors and clever, immersive effects. Dan Stevens acquits himself well against such luminaries as Plummer and Pryce, even if sometimes he is asked to act a bit histrionically. Sometimes the character moments don’t ring true, and the balance between overwhelming Dickens hagiography and attempting to make him “complicated” is not always perfect.
But overall, this is a decent family film that deserves a place in the canon of good “Christmas Carol” adaptations, even if it can’t touch the Muppet one, which is still the gold standard, and if it doesn’t make you cry, you are made of stone. Unfortunately the story of the story just cannot hold up to the greatness of the actual story, but it’s still quite a fun movie.
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The Man Who Invented Christmas has a run time of 1 hour 44 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.