One of the more difficult things to manifest on screen is the artistic mind. While it may be somewhat interesting to watch a painter or sculptor ply their trade over the course of a well-edited couple of hours, far more difficult is diving into the mind of a writer and somehow visualizing what exactly is going through his/her head as they type and write out words.
Based on the apparently well-researched book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas manages to express the creation of one of the most-read novels of all time, A Christmas Carol by author Charles Dickens, who was in the grip of writer’s block and borderline poverty when he set himself the task of writing and self publishing the holiday classic in a matter of weeks.
Screenwriter Susan Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Crow: Salvation) have devised a fairly effective way of getting into Dickens’ frenzied and overworked mind as he wrote the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly visitors. Once Dickens comes up with a character, they seem to follow him around, badgering him to finish what he started and getting him to the difficult-to-grasp ending. Easier said than done, as he races around London attempting to get the pieces in place to have illustrations made by a noted artist (Simon Callow) and deliver the whole thing to the printer in time for a Christmas publication (circa 1843, in case you were wondering). The story reminds us that Christmas was considered a lesser holiday at the time and that this book reminded a nation, and eventually the world, of the true spirit of the holiday.
According to the film, Dickens (played by “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens) was fond of having his recently hired Irish maid read his new pages, since she had a fascination with fables like this. He liked bouncing ideas off of her at all hours, which seems harmless enough until you remember that Dickens was a philanderer in real life. The long-suffering Mrs. Dickens is played quite adeptly by Morfydd Clark, whose primary tasks are to anticipate Dickens’ ever-changing moods about his writing, when he might want to eat, or whether his rule about not being disturbed while in his office extends to her or their children. Her patience is taxed still further when Dickens’ freeloading parents (Jonathan Pryce and Ger Ryan) arrive unexpectedly to likely fleece their son.
The film’s greatest achievement is attempting to show us how something comes from nothing. Watching Dickens obsess about a character’s name is fascinating, as he works out what first and last-name combo best describe the newbie. One of the first characters to be established is Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), the lynchpin of the tale. As Dickens crafts the miser’s backstory and just how awful a human being he is, he borrows snippets of conversations he hears among the rich about the poor and puts them in Scrooge’s mouth. Director Nalluri may be oversimplifying the writing process, but the result is often quite fascinating. He also paints a portrait of Dickens at a down point in his life, having had some degree of fame and success but currently living on credit after a succession of flops.
The way that The Man Who Invented Christmas ties the presence of Dickens’ father to the ghosts that haunt Scrooge and eventually lead to his spiritual awakening is refreshing and thought provoking. For those who actually saw Goodbye Christopher Robin recently (about the man who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh books), there are definitely some connections in the way the two filmmakers present inspiration and literary creation, but this film seems to have more fun with it, especially since Plummer plays this well-known monster so convincingly.
Still, the idea that Dickens simply stole/borrowed all of his ideas from the world around him doesn’t do him justice as a writer either, and it slightly cheapens the integrity of the movie. I think it’s a forgivable, acceptable amount, and that ultimately The Man Who Invented Christmas is a whirlwind tour of a beloved writer during one of the most stressful, agonizing times in his life. The fact that he was able to pull this story from his head under these conditions might be the greatest Christmas miracle of all.e