Believe it or not, Charles Dickens was a literary rock star during his lifetime. In his twenties, he became the most popular English novelist, publishing groundbreaking classics such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, both of which were applauded by critics for their realistic and sympathetic depictions of the working class. However, the Victorian author, besides changing the literary landscape forever, revitalized and redefined Christmas for future generations, according to Les Standiford’s book, The Man Who Invented Christmas.
With a mutual admiration for Dickens, director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and Susan Coyne (Mozart in the Jungle) have ingeniously adapted Standiford’s non-fiction book to screen while simultaneously reinventing Dickens’ timeless holiday story. With an all-star cast that features Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast, FX’s Legion) as Dickens, Christopher Plummer (who recently replaced Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean series, Brazil) as Dickens’ father, The Man Who Invented Christmas follows Dickens as he struggles to write his world-changing novella.
“We often think of A Christmas Carol as always being here,” said Coyne, “but Dickens wrote it in six weeks, and the way we think about Christmas completely changed after it was published. He went in to pitch this idea to his publishers, and they asked, ‘Could it not be about Christmas?’” As depicted in the film, Christmas, in 1843, was not yet the beloved holiday (and multi-billion-dollar industry) it is nowadays. “[Dickens] was ultimately right, however.”
Coyne’s background in theater lends the film a frenetic, theatrical quality, as if the audience has front row seats to Stevens and Plummer performing at the top of their game. “We didn’t go full CGI. A lot of it is smoke and mirrors,” said Nalluri. “I wanted to envision a world where we’re inside Dickens’ imagination.”
The film, although partly a reimagining of A Christmas Carol, explores lesser known facets of Dickens’ life. “This isn’t a biopic,” said Nalluri. “It’s about a moment in Dickens’ life. It’s about the artistic process, more than anything else. Dan and I wanted to capture this other Dickens nobody has really shown. In his younger days, he was a firebrand, a man about town. He was a bit of rock star, really. Dan gave that energy, and we just followed him with the camera.”
However, Dickens’ cocksure attitude (captured perfectly by Stevens, I might add) is shadowed by intense woe: his last three novels have failed, he’s quickly running out of money, and his relationship with his father is strained. Like the ghosts who visit Scrooge, Dickens’ demons are always lurking nearby.
“Dickens had this one dark, shameful childhood experience,” said Coyne, “where he was sent to work in this blacking factory – where they would make shoe polish. He never told anybody except for his friend Forster [portrayed in the film by Justin Edwards]. In writing A Christmas Carol, for the first time, he got closer to putting autobiographical elements in his writing.”
And that’s what The Man Who Invented Christmas sets out to do: to marry the factual with the fantastic, to allow Dickens to verbally spar with his creation, Scrooge. Plummer, as usual, fails to disappoint in the iconic role. “Mr. Plummer has made a few movies in his time – he knows what he’s doing,” said Nalluri. “As a director, what we can never ever gauge is chemistry. It’s a magical, illusory quality that you try to grab out of the air, but in the end, it’s a roll of the dice.” Thankfully, the dice rolled in Nalluri’s favor, and the film’s performances are magnetic.
The Man Who Invented Christmas rings in the holiday season on November 22.
Watch the trailer below: