Despite our current obsession with the holiday, Christmas wasn’t always extravagantly celebrated. In fact, when Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) decided to write a book focusing on it, his publishers couldn’t understand why. But his originality is what made him The Man Who Invented Christmas.
The movie kicks off with Dickens on a tour of the United States to promote Oliver Twist. The book was wildly successful, which makes his subsequent failures even more gutting. Within minutes, the viewers learn that he is drowning in debt. Undoubtedly, this is largely due to his nouveau riche mentality; his home is under lavish reconstruction, including extravagant fixtures and imported materials. To make his monetary situation more stressful, Mrs. Dickens (Morfydd Clark) is pregnant (again) and Dickens gives his parents a monthly allowance. Naturally, his wife is completely in the dark about their financial strife.
Basically, Dickens is under no pressure at all to create another masterpiece.
These elements could easily result in an overly dramatic film that’s painful to watch. However, The Man Who Invented Christmas manages to remain lighthearted, even when discussing difficult topics. As some viewers may know, Dickens’s writing was heavily influenced by his impoverished childhood. The facts of his upbringing are well incorporated into the film, including his father being thrown into debtors’ prison and Dickens’s own quasi-imprisonment as a factory worker. The movie continually transitions between flashbacks, including Dickens’ conflicts with his father. Regardless, it’s good that the movie doesn’t gloss over the gritty details of Dickens’s past. It really allows the viewer to visualize the struggles that created such a prodigious author.
The lighter, more jovial elements are the interactions between Dickens and his characters, especially Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Many authors claim that their characters come to life, but for Dickens, this is not an exaggeration. As soon as he’s named in the movie, Scrooge appears and gives Dickens his snarky, bitter perspective on Dickens’s own ideas. The audience watches them struggle for dominance, and each interaction is incredibly authentic to Scrooge’s personality. This relationship makes it feel as though A Christmas Carol wrote itself. Considering that Dickens completed it within six weeks, it very well might have.
(Yes, in case any aspiring writers want to feel inadequate, Dickens hand-wrote a novel and had its illustrations commissioned in six weeks.)
It helps that Dickens sees inspiration everywhere. Whether it’s the name of his waiter at a restaurant, his newest maid’s bedtime stories, or stumbling onto a funeral, everything finds its way into his book. Sometimes this feels like an endearing coincidence, other times it downplays Dickens’s own creativity. Instead of a prolific author, he could simply be an observer who bumbled his way into a best-selling novel.
Far from bumbling, Stevens does a great job portraying all of the nuances of such a complicated character. His performance is authentic, even in the more heavy-handed parts of the film. That being said, it’s really Plummer as Scrooge who steals the show. He wears a permanent scowl and takes such schadenfreude pleasure in Dickens’s struggles that the audience can’t help but laugh along. It will almost rid you of your own feelings of great literary inadequacy. Almost. Either way, it’s a pleasure every time Plummer’s on screen.
Whether you’ve read A Christmas Carol or seen it as a play or in one of its many movie adaptations, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a holiday must-see.