Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a well-loved story that has had various screen and stage versions and has become as much a part of Christmas as a crèche. The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story behind the story. It is a combination of a look at Dickens, his creative process, and enough of the retelling of the story that we feel we’ve heard it yet again.
In 1843, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is struggling to make ends meet. He has had enormous success as a writer, even touring the U.S., but his last few books have been flops. His family has acquired a lavish lifestyle. He and his wife (Morfydd Clark) spend money as fast as Charles can borrow it. When he goes to pitch a Christmas book he has yet to even conceive, his publisher is uninterested. After all, hardly anyone still celebrated Christmas at that time. He vows to publish it himself and have it ready for Christmas. A pretty bold plan for a man with writers’ block.
At the same time, Dickens’s father John (Jonathan Pryce) comes to visit. The elder Dickens has been a bit of a scoundrel throughout Charles’s life. When John was taken to debtor’s prison, Charles had to work in a work house (cf., Oliver Twist). He has affection for his flamboyant father, but is also ashamed of him.
As he struggles to write the book, he conceives of Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who comes to life for him, and the two have discussions about the “humbug” of Christmas. Scrooge, you’ll remember is a miserly, self-contained misanthrope. He is not at all like Dickens, which make the two of them struggle over the meaning of the book, and hence Christmas. Many of the things that end up in the book have a genesis in Charles’s day to day life. As such, all of the main beats of A Christmas Carol show up as lines or images at some point in the film so that we come away feeling as if we’ve experienced the story in a new way.
The structure of A Christmas Carol is built around a series of visits from ghosts that show the past, present, and future. As Dickens develops the story around those points of time, the story we watch takes us back to Dickens’s past, the troubles of his present, and the unknown possibilities that rely on the success of this book.
The Man Who Invented Christmas also carries the same message as A Christmas Carol: that the message of Christmas is about loving and sharing with others. For Scrooge, that discovery comes with an understanding of mortality. He becomes aware that all his wealth will mean nothing in the grave. He lives a miserable life when all he cares about is money, but is reborn when he learns to share what he has. Likewise, Dickens must learn that his fame is just as empty as Scrooge’s miserliness. His past—especially in regard to his father—has hardened him within his own family. He must escape the resentments that have consumed his life if he is to find the joy of Christmas that he has been writing about.
Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street