The Man Who Invented Christmas: Movie Review

Last weekend I went to see one of the more underplayed movies of the Christmas season, The Man Who Invented Christmas; which chronicles the inspiration and events surrounding Charles Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) as he attempted to overcome commercial failure and writer’s block to write the now acclaimed A Christmas Carol.

The movie begins with Dickens’ return from his journey to America to find himself nearing financial ruin with a failed book, bills to pay, and his wife pregnant with their fifth child. On top of all this a case of writer’s block prevents Dickens from coming up with a new work.

Inspired by overhearing his housemaid telling a ghost story to his children, Dickens rushes to the publisher to tell them about his idea for a new Christmas book, to which he is summarily rejected. Dickens then rounds on the publishers and decides to publish the book himself.

The rest of the movie is centered around the actual writing of A Christmas Carol and Dickens’ subsequent interactions with the characters who “come alive for him,” particularly Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Christopher Plummer). The climax of the movie comes as Dickens is stuck trying to end the story. Initially he has left Tiny Tim to die and for Scrooge to go to the grave having not learned anything, citing that “he is a miser, and can’t change his ways.” It is only at the behest of his housemaid (who does not want to see Tiny Tim die) and being forced to confront his own past and possible future that Dickens is able to create an ending with Scrooge—an ending that is not only fitting but one known to all.

As the title of the movie suggests, Dickens’ novella has fundamentally shaped the way the English-speaking peoples both think about and celebrate Christmas. There have been countless retellings since its first publication, and this should be counted as one of the finest. I am sure there will be some  new misers ready to cry “Humbug!” for the film being “historically inaccurate” or “overly sentimental;” but, just as we do not have to believe in ghosts to enjoy A Christmas Carol, we should not condemn this movie so as to have it teach us nothing about Christmas. One line that was particularly striking was when Dickens proposes his idea for a new book to the publishers he says that it’s a Christmas book, to which the publishers reply,

“Does anyone really celebrate it anymore, apart from our clerk—who never misses an opportunity to take a day off, with pay. More or less an opportunity for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December. What we mean to say is—there’s not much of a market for Christmas books.”

These infamous lines show that Christmas is always on the verge of losing its meaning, from Dickens’ time to ours. G.K. Chesterton, in his introduction to A Christmas Carol, noted that “tradition has often been in need of defence,” and that Dickens was able to save something which was still popular but verged on becoming prosaic. But what exactly is it that is in danger of losing at every passing Christmas that made Dickens’ achievement so affecting on the popular mind?

It is said that Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well and kept it all throughout the year. What he kept was the joy that comes from seeing life as a gift. When Scrooge wakes from his dream he seems like a madman, jumping around frantically shouting “Merry Christmas”. No longer is the world a series of consensual contracts, but rather, Scrooge found that “anything could yield him pleasure.” Anything could yield him pleasure because he was able to see everything in anything. He saw the joy and wonder of God’s creation in even the smallest little boy who happened to pass him by on the street. This is the Christmas spirit which fades from most of our hearts during the year; and yet, it is this story which each year challenges us anew to keep Christmas in our hearts, and it is for this reason that the story of Dickens writing A Christmas Carol deserved to be told.