There have been numerous TV, film and stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” over the years. None have combined as much charm, warmth and holiday spirit as Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
OK. Before you start shouting “Bah, humbug,” this technically isn’t a direct adaptation of the well-known story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and those three ghosts that Dickens wrote in six weeks in 1843. This version has taken the novella and blended it with biographical material to look at the journey Dickens made from being mired in a writing funk after three flops to creating one of the greatest pieces of literature.
Dan Stevens, who has already showed a great acting range through his work in the live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” and the thought-provoking “The Ticket”, takes on the role of Dickens. It’s a demanding part as the character goes from an international celebrity to a man wrestling with soul-wrenching demons. The story suggests Dickens had such a vivid imagination that his characters would spring to life as soon as he found the proper name for them.
Stevens handles every challenge thrown at him, even when Dickens appears to be on the verge of madness as he allows himself to be judged by the characters that he’s fashioned in his mind. There’s an energy to the way Stevens plays the role that makes even the film’s darkest moment when Dickens faces his darkest fears feel alive.
His companion on the quest to finish the book is a manifestation of Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who serves as both a writing guide as Dickens finds his way through the novel and as a personification of all that Dickens sees wrong with the world and himself.
Plummer’s performance beautifully gets across the best and worst of Scrooge to make this one of the most entertaining versions of the character ever played. The actor has the great ability to be both a Scrooge with a black heart and one who, like Dickens, has finally faced his demons.
Much of the darkness in the writer’s life comes from his relationship with his scallywag of a father, John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce). Dickens is burdened by the natural need for a son to have his father’s approval while trying to keep his father out of sight and mind. This emotional battle is helping choke his creative drive.
Pryce turns in a compelling performance, finding the right amount of charm that makes his character believable as a man who has — as Dickens puts it — spent his life bobbing like a cork on the waters of life. He also handles the moments when John Dickens must show his true dark side such as when he gets caught rifling through his son’s trash to find papers that feature a signature that he can sell.
The screenplay for “The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Susan Coyne is based on the book by historian Les Standiford that dramatizes the period when Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol.” The combination of fact and fiction is structured to show a parallel of how while Scrooge was seeking salvation from his miserly ways, Dickens himself dealing with being shackled to dark chains created by his fears of failure, the pain of abandonment issues and concerns his writing abilities were about to wither away.
Overall, the script is solid. But there is one scene in which the imagery is far more heavy-handed than the rest. It’s a sequence that comes late where a raven that Dickens’ father has purchased as a gift for the children escapes out a window just as the author has exercised the dark parts of his life. In a film that has been presented with a subtler touch, the image of the dark bird leaving the house is too jarring. One such gaffe can be forgiven when the rest of the story has such a well-designed structure.
The majority of Nalluri’s recent work has been in television, and that helps, as he doesn’t try create a large and bustling London, but one that would fit in the confines of a TV format where there is more of a feeling of claustrophobia. He’s lined the streets with all social levels of people who are united by one thing: a passion for the writings of Dickens.
It’s become a tradition that some — or many — filmed versions of “A Christmas Carol” be shown on television during the holiday season. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” should be added to the annual mix because it not only offers a fresh look at the familiar ghost story, but it also has a lot to say about the good in humans if they will only stop trying to suppress it. God bless the filmmakers, one and all, for creating such a treat.