Of all the books Charles Dickens wrote, none has been more often adapted for the screen than “A Christmas Carol,” drawing under its spell stars as diverse as Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, Mickey Mouse and the Muppets. Rather than retelling the classic once again, fresh take “The Man Who Invented Christmas” focuses on Dickens himself, revealing the equivalently satisfying story of how the English author conceived his beloved yuletide novella — while offering a chance for a splendidly cast Christopher Plummer to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the process.
Satisfying as it is to see a late-career Plummer tackle the iconic role, the subject of this particular film remains Scrooge’s creator, who may have had more in common with the old miser than audiences realize. The year was 1843, by which time Dickens (played here by “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens) had already tasted success, only to lose his publishers’ confidence after a series of “flops” (although the colorful term wouldn’t be coined for another 50 years). Not only did Dickens desperately need a hit, but if the movie’s rather fanciful title is to be trusted, Christmas itself was in similarly dire straits, being little more than a pitiful excuse for devout souls to take a day off work. (This was right around the time Brits started to embrace the German tannenbaum, following Queen Victoria’s lead, and long before Coca-Cola’s clever ad team reimagined Santa Claus as a jolly fat man sporting the company’s red-and-white colors — not that the movie has much to say about the true history of the holiday.)
Steering by Les Standiford’s well-researched book, screenwriter Susan Coyne seizes the opportunity to reveal interesting details about the celebrated author’s life via the process by which he brought “A Christmas Carol” to life. In the final manuscript, Scrooge is visited by three spirits — a device which nicely aligns with the way Dickens himself claims to have experienced inspiration: Once he’d identified his characters, they would haunt his waking hours, popping up in the strangest of places and effectively telling him what to write.
That makes for a naturally cinematic way of depicting Dickens’ creative process (far more engaging than the standard cliché of a frustrated writer, scribbling away at false starts, only to wad up and discard the inadequate pages as he goes), though much of his time here is spent juggling demands from his family and immediate social circle. There’s his overwhelmed yet ever-smiling wife Catherine (Morfydd Clark), pregnant with their fifth child; his financially irresponsible father John (Jonathan Pryce), whose recklessness holds the key to Charles’ greatest childhood trauma; and newly arrived Irish housemaid Tara (Anna Murphy), a chaste muse whose colorful bedtime stories supply the seemingly crazy idea of writing a Christmas story when the holiday itself is only weeks away.
Director Bharat Nalluri depicts each of these figures — and many more — as if they were characters in one of Dickens’ novels, and soon they will be (Dickens fans may also recognize their imprint on other works still to come, especially as regards the author’s crusade on behalf of children’s rights). But the movie strikes an odd tone en route to Dickens’ career-saving triumph, as the author himself is hyper-animated, a somewhat fatigue-inducing force of nature who pinwheels from one end of London to another outfitted like Willy Wonka (the Gene Wilder version), even as we’re told he’s crippled by writer’s block. These two paradoxical states combine in Mychael Danna’s manic score, which embodies the sporadic march of stop-start inspiration, while contributing to the film’s rather dizzying sensibility overall.
One moment we’re told Dickens never felt more sure of a project, while the next, he’s tearing apart his study in search of that elusive ending. Still, it’s silly to pretend that he might not finish a book that director Nalluri clearly assumes his audience knows by heart — or at least well enough that he needn’t bother to retell “A Christmas Carol” as Dickens discovers the familiar cast of his novella, who are played here (like the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”) by people in the author’s real-life orbit. Applying the spirit of the finished work to the act of its creation, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” feels perfectly consistent with such literary biopics as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which trade on a preexisting familiarity with the oeuvre in question.
In addition to being a rather fine addition to the Christmas-movie canon, the film marks a useful teaching tool — a better option for classroom screenings than any of the previous “Carol” adaptations, once students have finished reading the novella. Still, while it’s instructive to discover (or at least to speculate) how details from the story corresponded with aspects of Dickens’ private life, this strategy has a tendency to undermine the author’s enormous talent. The movie risks suggesting that Dickens wasn’t a great writer so much as a professional magpie, stealing names, characters, dialogue and ideas from the world around him, while leaving little room for that most precious of creative tools: the author’s imagination.
On one hand, it’s reasonable to imagine that the film’s director might be unfamiliar with the writing process, but surely Coyne (who penned the script) knows it doesn’t work as depicted. The film unfolds as a series of “Eureka!” moments — although here, the operative word is “Humbug!” first overheard emanating from the lips of a grumpy old tightwad (also played by Plummer). Dickens may have imagined a character ripe for enlightenment, but it’s a wild fantasy to suggest that writing “Carol” redeemed the author in the same way — as Ralph Fiennes reminded us in his superior turn as the philandering literary genius in “The Invisible Woman.” Likewise, though Dickens clearly championed goodwill and charity around the holiday, audiences have seen the confused Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and he should hardly be blamed for inventing it.