Did Charles Dickens really invent our modern observance of Christmas? Well… he certainly contributed to it, with his beloved 1843 novella A Christmas Carol bringing to it a spirit of family celebration and togetherness and moving the holiday away from its religious grounding to a more secular one focused on ecumenical kindness and generosity. But we also have Prince Albert to thank, for importing his German Yuletide customs — such as evergreens and Christmas trees — to England when he married Queen Victoria in 1840. In the US, Christmas had already gotten a festive boost thanks to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the night before Christmas,” etc).
But, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge and his odyssey with the Christmas ghosts and his redemption as a good man are today inextricable elements of the season. And The Man Who Invented Christmas does tell the tale of how Dickens crafted and published that story. The film is scattershot and its narrative seems at least half invented itself, but it’s a helluva lot less sappy than it probably has any right to be; Dickens’s work could be shockingly sentimental. It’s also pretty darn charming, an appealing ode to the oddness of being a creator of fiction and living with imaginary people in one’s head, as writers do.
I have not been the biggest fan of Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, since he made the transition to the big screen (Beauty and the Beast, Colossal), but here he finds an exactly right mix of intelligence, optimism, artistic goofiness, and irascibility as Dickens. In Invented, set in 1842–3, he is still young but already a mega celebrity, with a growing family but a faltering fame at the hands of a fickle book-reading public. His last three books have been “flops,” and he way overspent on a tour of America, where the adulation that had overwhelmed him has now morphed into disdain. (The US public failed to become enamored of his critiques of their society in his travelogue from that trip, American Notes, like they had for Oliver Twist.) It’s “damned expensive being a gentleman” in London, he notes, and that’s entirely apart from the fact that he is also lavishly redecorating his family’s home. (Parts of Invented almost enter that subgenre of domestic comedy about builders who are underfoot all the time and always presenting ever-escalating bills for their work.) He is so desperate for another hit book, and the script — the feature debut of Canadian TV writer and actor Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford — is so heavily focused on this motivation of Dickens’s that the movie might as well have been entitled The Man Who Saved His Career and His Financial Ass. There is truly some amusing stuff to be found in this aspect of the story, stuff that is also insightful of the creative mindset, such as Dickens’s repeated encounters with fellow author William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp: The Legend of Tarzan, The Brothers Grimsby), who insists on quoting Dickens’s bad to reviews back at him. It is historical true that Dickens needed another big payday soon. But it was far from Dickens’s only motivation, or even the primary one.
If Dickens were alive today, he’s be derided by some as a “social justice warrior” for the overt politicizing he engaged in with his fiction: he was very much concerned with advocating for the poor, and he was quite successful with that. He did change the minds of the public at the time, and — as an end card on Invented notes, though almost in passing — charitable giving to the poor in Britain immediately jumped after A Christmas Carol was an instant success in 1843. But too much of the movie is perhaps given over to the snippets of inspiration that Dickens gathers from his everyday life as a well-off man: He steals the name Marley from a doddering waiter in his private club, for instance, and the character of Marley — including the weight of chains forged in life, etc — from his own lawyer. By the time a small child appears and starts coughing, we’re like, “Yup, here’s Tiny Tim!” It’s a bit too pat, too inappropriately Wizard of Oz–ish, a reverse “You were there, and you…” A Christmas Carol was not, in fact, conceived whole cloth in the few brief weeks during which Dickens wrote it in October and November 1843, as Invented suggests; it was borne of what he originally intended to be a nonfiction essay about poverty and the working poor in England, based on extensive research he conducted himself in the early part of that year.
It’s not automatically a problem that a fictionalized work about real-life events is, you know, fictionalized. See also the recent Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, which takes liberties and makes guesses about the unusual origin story of a comic-book character. But its extrapolations deepen the important ideas it wants to explore, and delve into ones that will make some people uncomfortable. Invented does the opposite: it ignores important ideas that are factually historical and require no extrapolation at all, precisely, I suspect, because they’re uncomfortable. Ugh, who wants to think about poor people when we’re having fun at Christmas? That is, in fact, precisely the opposite message of A Christmas Carol.
Invented does not ignore Dickens’s own childhood of deprivation and poverty, when his father (Jonathan Pryce: Dough, The White King) was sent to prison and child Charles (Ely Solan in flashbacks) was forced to go to work to support his family. This is shown here to have been an inspiration for aspects of A Christmas Carol… but there’s something subtly disingenuous about that. Dickens escaped poverty, which would not have been a likely outcome for those Dickens had interviewed in his early-1843 research. (His coughing inspiration for Tiny Tim here is also not a child whose parents don’t have the resources necessary to get him whatever medical care he might need, unlike Carol’s Cratchits.) By all but erasing the genuinely impoverished, those with little hope of escaping that plight, from its depiction of Dickens’s inspiration, Invented plays right into the wails of anti-SJWs, who insist that politics and advocacy has no place in entertainment. But politics is baked into much of what we consider entertainment, and it was absolutely baked into A Christmas Carol. Invented would rather pretend, as much as possible, that that was not the case.
I do love the running motif of the film that sees Dickens living with the characters of A Christmas Carol as he writes the book. They literally crowd his study, offering commentary on where the story should go, most notably and amusingly Christopher Plummer (Danny Collins, Hector and the Search for Happiness) as “Scrooge,” based on a real person Dickens meets briefly. Director Bharat Nalluri (MI-5, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) beautifully matches the tone of Stevens’s performance, and a conceit that could have felt twee or cartoonish instead becomes a witty illumination of how writers work, how a writer can be simultaneously the author of a work yet also seemingly at the unwanted whim of his own inventions. How can your brain be creating something while it feels like it’s entirely out of your control? Invented gets this wonderful mystery with canny humor.
I wonder, though, whether the historical Dickens would be very pleased to be considered the inventor of Christmas as we celebrate it now. (What we think of as Christmas today didn’t really come into being until big corporations got in on the game: Our idea of Santa Claus or Father Christmas was the invention of The Coca-Cola Company in 1931. Really. ETA: Or maybe not. But my point that Dickens is not the sole inventor of modern Christmas stands.) Perhaps it’s a good thing that the film mostly ignores what Christmas was like before Dickens, and how Christmas changed as a result of his work. (The film’s seeming contradictions on Christmas are a bit of a problem, though: some characters insist that no one celebrates Christmas because it’s a minor holiday, yet others talk of things we’d consider emblematic, such as holly and plum pudding.) Dickens was horrified by the debt that unfairly chained so many poor people in his time, and in fact his father was sent to prison over an unpaid debt, something that Scrooge-in-his-head taunts him with. I think Dickens would be appalled to see what Christmas is now, with people spending money they don’t have in a race of rampant consumerism. That’s nothing like what Dickens’s conceived of Christmas as being. So if we’re to see The Man Who Invented Christmas in a seasonal spirit, it should be of one that chides us, as A Christmas Carol did in Dickens’s time, to find a kinder, better way to celebrate.