The Man Who Invented Christmas

There were fifteen or so people in the row behind me in the theater at The Man Who Invented Christmas. They were one long party of popcorn-gnashing, phone-tapping, and feet-kicking, the kind of people who take their living room couch with them in spirit wherever they go. Could there be a better sort of people to demonstrate the endurance of Mr. Dickens? He wrote to the people with fistfuls of candy and open mouths, the sooty street people, clothed in workaday baggage and London fog and nose piercings and incivility. He aspired to tell them how he thinks other people should think of them; there should be penitent old men handing out packages at the theater exits. If his works were songs they would be like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – hummable, unforgettable, and immediately prophetic to any semi-intelligent being who hears them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is about such a story, but it is not itself such a story. If it aspires to be something in relation to A Christmas Carol it is most like the cardboard marquees that bookstores set out to lure window shoppers. It merely advertises Mr. Dickens’ work; it doesn’t explain or justify it. The irony is that the book challenges the reader’s generosity, while the marquee is simply an inoffensive icon of it. Such a scheme, more advertising than art, may not even require that you read the book. I wonder if first-time screenwriter Susan Coyne tested that theory here (for instance, the Dickens in this film mistakes the Ghost of Christmas Past most prevalent in movie adaptations for the one he wrote about, which in reality was much different, and Scrooge remarks early in the film that someone was dead as a doornail, where a true Dickensian must surely have written “coffin-nail”).

Inaccuracies don’t create a movie’s low quality but they can signal it. In the case of The Man Who Invented Christmas they are signposts to its most heinous problem: an abuse of iconography. A Christmas Carol is such a tired tale by now that the first task of this new film should have been to make old hat seem tailored for the first time. But as Dickens picks up well-known artifices of his story off the street, you become infected by that terribly un-jolly feeling that this is one of those movies – one in which random people will speak full Dickensian quotes for the good author to overhear and jot down, in which everyone he meets has a name that will go into one of his stories. The biopic defeats itself when even real events become too self-important to believe. It has the curious effect of making a book written by Dickens in a furious six weeks of artist’s angst and social rage seem perfunctory. A grizzled banker in a top-hat accosts Dickens on the street with that line about being boiled in your own pudding, spoken verbatim, as though this congratulatory account of an influential man aims to suggest that he created nothing of what has made him so famous. Attenborough’s Chaplin did this when the young Charlie met a serendipitous blind flower girl on the streets of his childhood. My reaction was to cringe, and not just because my seat was getting kicked again.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is full of revelatory moments that defy revelation, of Dickens raising his eyebrows at the thought of another little thing he just “invented,” after seeing an old waiter named Marley, for instance, or overhearing the sprightly commotion between people named Fezziwig. I’m shocked no one was self-flagellating with a stake of holly but there was a small boy on crutches. And yes, he did god bless us every one. All the literary images in the film could be gathered from the story’s reputation alone. The sights are all baubles and fluff, referents to a story not so glitzy or shorthanded as this one – this is A Christmas Carol-themed Christmas tree, or perhaps, a man’s life in memes.

The one fascinating aspect might have been Dickens’ relationship with his imaginary Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). This relationship forms two points of a triangle ending in Dickens’ own spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce), whose imprisonment in a debtor’s house forced young Charles into labor (he strikes me as someone who was never, not even in infancy, mistaken for someone named "Charlie”). He worked in a shoe-blacking warehouse from which, I assume, he gathered all the social venom and forced generosity that his stories force on others in return. As Scrooge is a man with a king's budget who lives in squalor, Dickens is contrarily a man who spends extravagantly though he constantly stresses over money (he will shell out fortunes for chandeliers but scolds his wife for discarding candle nubs). Both are afraid of becoming the other. But while fear humanizes Scrooge, this film’s version of Dickens remains oddly distant and glamorous, particularly in a film that takes place mostly inside his head. How could we not come out of it more knowledgeable about this man? The Man Who Invented Christmas feels like a house tour that only shows the parlor and one bathroom.

I have some idea of how Mr. Dickens is supposed to have invented Christmas, but the film isn’t about that. The people in the row behind me left the film without any insight into how this man coordinated the most famous season of the year, despite the allure that reached across time to bring them there. The most accurate title for this film would be, “The Man Who Invented A Christmas Carol,” as its sole obsession is with the familiar symbols of the novella. That is the house director Bharat Nalluri has built, whose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a joyous comeback for antique sass as much as his Dickens movie is a defiance of it.

Dan Stevens of Downtown Abbey overexerts as the man himself, acting every bit like a spoiled thespian who would not be writing this if it was not necessary. He is one of those angry movie creators (usually a scientist) whose work always costs them their self-image: Dr. Frankenstein codified his creation anxiety into a monster wary to be alive, and this Dickens seems to create Scrooge for a similar purpose. Nalluri makes the creation so personal in The Man Who Invented Christmas that it loses its social and political power: it is self-harm mythologized into a bedtime story. Is it enough that Christmas seems to have been invented by a schizophrenic, as presented here, that we should not also have to endure his Freudian nightmare reasons for doing so?

Yet if even that darkness had truly come out, the movie might have worked. Its obligation to be like the saccharine ABC Family holiday trash it is destined to play between is only more disingenuous taking place in a time before it existed, in the guise of a simple, effective tale of a man redeeming himself through guilt. Dickens was a man of such permeating influence in his own time that I heard one of those people behind me say, “I didn’t know Dickens was a real person.” They were thinking of The Muppet Christmas Carol, no doubt, in which Gonzo plays someone important and mysteriously called "Charles Dickens." He has endured as a storyteller and mythmaker even more than as an author. To place him at the mercy of his creations is to rob him of his special allure, which stirred millions at public readings and at newsstands as folks hung on his ear for the next chapter of the ongoing story. It may be poetically fitting for Frankenstein to be undone by his own monster. But it doesn’t put a smile on my face.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Bharat Nalluri

Susan Coyne

Les Standiford (book)

 

Charles Dickens Dan Stevens
Ebenezer Scrooge Christopher Plummer
John Dickens Jonathan Pryce
John Leech Simon Callow
Jacob Marley Donald Sumpter
Kate Dickens Morfydd Clark
Mrs. Fisk Miriam Margolyes

Official Trailer

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