“Why throw everything away for a minor holiday?”
We’ve seen countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol over the years. It’s one of the most timeless holiday stories, of kindness and joy and generosity and togetherness and the capacity of even the iciest heart to thaw. It’s become so ingrained in our culture that it’s become the domain of Muppets and Blackadders and TARDISes and Bill Murray alike. Few movies, though, have focused on the story behind the writing of A Christmas Carol, until now, that is. Director Bharat Nalluri, working off a script from Susan Coyne adapting Les Standiford’s book. The film seeks to give the Christmas classic the Shakespeare in Love treatment, exploring the experience of Dickens’ mounting of the tale in just under six weeks, desperate to find a literary hit after a string of disappointments.
Reeling from the discovery that he’s becoming irrelevant, Dickens (Dan Stevens) finds himself suffering from mighty writer’s block as he looks for inspiration to break his cold streak. He cobbles together the idea of the familiar story via a series of interactions and stories, pitching the basic outline of A Christmas Carol to his publishers who reject it outright because Christmas simply isn’t marketable. Undeterred, and determined to Make Christmas Great Again (my apologies), Dickens decides to fund the publishing of the book himself with a tidy six weeks left in the calendar to release it by the 25th. As he writes the story, the characters come to life in his mind, and Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) follows him around from place to place alongside a gaggle of characters from the book. To complicate matters, his father, John (Jonathan Pryce) and mother (Ger Ryan) have arrived in London to leech off their successful son, bringing up all sorts of nascent emotions that come from John’s failures as a father. These problems aside, Charles is committed to completing his book on time and redefining the importance of Christmas for a new generation.
The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rather direct film. Its name certainly points to that, setting up Dickens as the father of modern Christmas celebration, implying the holiday would be naught but a blip on the calendar if he hadn’t written his book. And regardless of the amount of truth to that, it looks pretty silly in the way it plays out here. It’s tough to stifle a laugh when Dicks comes upon a miserly old man in a cemetery who mutters a grumpy “humbug” to him as he passes, especially as Stevens’ eyes widen in an exaggerated “Eureka!” sort of way, running to his home so he can get it all on paper before the inspiration dries up. Everything he sees correlates directly with A Christmas Carol, be it the heavy chains covering a safe in a banker’s office or Charles’ disabled nephew hobbling around on a crutch. All of these events are written and directed with a knowing wink that begins to wear out its welcome the first time it happens, and that isn’t improved by the next dozen time they pull that rabbit out of the hat. It’s got the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head, making it as clear as possible where these ideas came from.
It would be okay if The Man Who Invented Christmas was completely in on the joke, but there’s a bit too much pathos in the script to allow it to play fast and loose with the potential humor of it all. Much of the second half of the film turns Charles into a bit of a jerk as the pressure of completing his book on time gets to him and he lashes out against his family, friends and servants. It’s all pretty clearly designed to parallel him to Scrooge, forcing him to change his ways just like his protagonist must. The entire movie is a pretty clear one to one comparison to A Christmas Carol, and the choice to do that ends up undercutting things more than a little bit. It requires Stevens to ham it up for much of the movie, wide-eyed and full of wonder as he sees possibility in everything, and that makes his sharp turn into anger not really gel with the rest of the film. It’s a case of letting the structure of the screenplay get in the way of the quality of the screenplay.
It’s difficult to be so hard on a movie that is so achingly, overwhelmingly genuine. And watching Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Pryce do their thing is rarely a disappointment. But The Man Who Invented Christmas feels so uninspired, so supremely satisfied with itself and how clever it is that it never succeeds in generating any real human emotion. It’s only a few notches above a Saturday Night Live sketch, with all of these bald coincidences giving Dickens all the inspiration he could ever need to the point of absurdity. As a back door retelling of A Christmas Carol, it feels off kilter, and as a biopic about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol, it doesn’t give all that much insight. Those looking for a light-hearted bit of Christmas cheer could do worse, but they could easily do better too.