Strictly speaking, Christmas is an origin story. The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is not about the kid with superpowers who was born in a barn (apologies to my theology professors) but about the creation of the holiday’s other much beloved story. The film recounts how a young Charles Dickens came to write The Christmas Carol out of desperation more than anything else. The movie is humorous on occasion and sometimes clever in its conceit – his characters follow the writer’s maxim and try to take charge of their own story – but it’s also nowhere near as engaging as even the more tortured adaptations of the popular book.
Dan Stevens plays the author with a slight manic twist. He’s a man whose fevered imagination produces great literary work but that sometimes gets the better of him. After a few failures, he’s in need of a quick hit, something to pay for his pricy home remodel and his three or four kids, with another on the way. He proposes a Christmas story, perhaps Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, a real “hammer-blow to the heart” kind of tale. His publishers are skeptical, not only because Christmas is less than two months away but also because it was still a minor holiday at the time, nothing like the capitalist spectacle it is today.
He forges ahead anyway and cobbles together bits of the London life around him. A wealthy businessman’s unattended funeral forms the story’s backbone while a creaky waiter named Marley finds his way into the plot. Even the trials of Dickens’s own friends and family shape the narrative in the form of an ill-fated engagement and a sickly child. The author gets an assist from his new Irish maid (Anna Murphy) as well, inspiring him with homespun ghost stories and tales from Varney the Vampire.
As the deadline draws closer, Dickens grows more agitated. His characters come alive only to lounge around in his study and peer over his drafts, offering unsolicited advice every now and again. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) proves particularly troublesome. In typical Scrooge fashion, he grumbles at his portrayal and taunts his creator. It’s not just the imaginary that takes ahold of Dickens though. His spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) appears unannounced, stirring up childhood memories of a boot blackening factory where he worked after the elder Dickens was taken to debtors’ prison.
I understand the appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at A Christmas Carol. Not content to simply enjoy the story, we often want the “making of” special and feature commentary as well. Sometimes the work is enough though, especially when there are hundreds of iterations to choose from. This film never comes close to the drama and emotion of the original story, and it does a better job explaining how the book transformed the holiday than it does inspiring actual feelings of generosity and compassion. It’s a waste of Stevens and Plummer’s talents; Plummer in particular can play this part in his sleep. Though there are some exceptional personalities – Miles Jupp as Dickens’s vexing rival is my favorite – I much prefer going back to the old standbys when the holidays roll around.
Prod: Robert Mickelson, Ian Sharples, Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Vadim Jean
Dir: Bahrat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Anna Murphy
Time: 104 min