As Alex wrote about in his contextual piece on Scrooged and A Christmas Carol, the popular Dickens’ novel has become one of the most adapted stories in film and stage. The mix of holiday, fantasy, and moral themes make for a strange artistic malleability that can be transported through time and tone. Because of that, the optimistic Christmas tale can work reasonably well as a dark comedy within the excesses of the 80s entertainment industry. Just as we may have been ready for another new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, director Bharat Nalluri decided to do something a little differently, while still trying to capture the spirit and messages of the beloved classic—taking of Les Standiford’s 2008 non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas.
Instead of another straightforward [or even slightly askew, a la Scrooged] version of A Christmas Carol, The Man Who Invented Christmas tells the story of how novelist Charles Dickens [portrayed by Dan Stevens] found the inspiration for his most popular story and basically single-handedly restored the spirit of the holiday as we know it today. As shown in the film, Dickens was an idealistic and witty man who cared more for the poor and friendless than the high society he was more closely connected with socially—I have no idea if this is what Dickens was actually like, but it is certainly how we’d like to think about Dickens through his work. After a string of unsuccessful novels that were rejected by his social circles because of their heavy-handed messages, Dickens decides to stick one to the old uncaring misers in the visage of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The various inspirations come in brief moments that are wrapped up with garish bows, hard to miss even with the slightest knowledge of the eventual story. Dickens sees a single old man grieving at a cemetary, who mumbles the famous “humbug” when he realizes he’s being watched; a young maid tells Dickens her family’s tale of dead relatives showing themselves on Christmas Eve; characters in his real life play analogs for Marley, Fezziwig, Tiny Tim etc.; flashbacks of his childhood own childhood provide even more insights to the characters and themes to come. Interestingly, another film this year, Goodbye Christopher Robin, used a very similar approach. Both films show how limited this narrative constructions can be, mistaking plainly obvious “easter eggs” for creativity.
About midway through, the film shifts to Dickens openly interacting with his creations to help build the narrative meat on the story concept’s bones. Most prominent, of course, is Scrooge, played by Christopher Plummer in a match so obvious the filmmakers didn’t need to cast Kevin Spacey first. The presence of the character is softened, though, through the construction. Scrooge is able to gruffly comment on Dickens’ work without being either the terrible man or reformed man at the beginning or end of his story.
The other angle to approach The Man Who Invented Christmas is purely as a Dickens biography in the new style of limited biopics. The Christmas Carol hook is definitely what sells the film, but there is a lot of ground given to the man’s life, as well, including his family life [a prominent dramatic subplot is the relationship with his father], his . Unfortunately, there is a reason the Christmas Carol hook is what sells the film—Dickens alone isn’t much of an interesting character. Dan Stevens gives an earnest performance, but I simply couldn’t connect to the emotional stakes of the character, partly because they aren’t greatly defined and partly because his struggle for finding an ending to A Christmas Carol obviously works itself out.
If you are a diehard A Christmas Carol fan, The Man Who Invented Christmas may be a treat as a different take on the story, but it likely wouldn’t provide enough emotional stakes aside from the many references for even these folks. Throughout the week we’ve had dissenting opinions on the value of Scrooged—rightfully, it is a divisive film. But unlike The Man Who Invented Christmas, it at least swings hard for a particular tone and voice. The Man Who Invented Christmas, even with the promise provided by its mix of biography and fantasy, plays it too safe.