In the opening scene of The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is at the height of his fame following the critical acclaim and record sales of his novel, “Oliver Twist”. He tours America to celebrate the book and is treated like a rock star! Sixteen months later, he finds himself at an all-time low and hemorrhaging money after his next three novels flop miserably. His manager, John Forster (Justin Edwards), lies about him having a new book in the works to get him an advance, despite the fact that the author is in the midst of a writer’s block. Dickens needs an idea and fast.
After hearing the new nanny (Anna Murphy) tell his children an amusing Christmas-themed tale of spirits entering the world on Christmas Eve, Dickens pitches his own Christmas ghost story to the publishers… and they just don’t get it. They don’t believe there’s a market for such a story since Christmas is (or was at the time) a “minor holiday.”
So, Charles Dickens returns their advance and decides to spend his remaining funds to self-publish the book. Just two problems: he doesn’t have the book written yet, and in order to get it on the shelves by Christmas he’ll have to complete the entire book in a mere 6 weeks!
The rest, as they say, is history. As the film unfolds, we witness the bits and pieces of the world around Dickens that he’ll use to breathe life into the now-beloved novel, “A Christmas Carol.” This includes the various characters in the story, ideas on how the book should end, and even struggling to come up with the name of the infamous miser Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
Along with Dickens’ literary process, The Man Who Invented Christmas gives us the story of the writer’s relationship with his shyster father (Jonathan Pryce), his outlandish behavior that his dear wife (Morfydd Clark) has to put up with along the way, and his own horrid childhood in a workshop for orphan boys.
Screenwriter Susan Coyne proves that she can tell a feature-length story after a little more than a decade of television writing. The pacing is, for the most part, rapid-fire and to the point. However, I read the screenplay before seeing the film, and felt the pacing slowed down a bit from script to screen. When I read the script, I felt like there was something missing… but couldn’t quite put my finger on what. After seeing the film, I now know what that something is: heart.
Anyone who’s read “A Christmas Carol” knows that the story is filled with heart-warming pleasures of the change a person can go through upon being granted a little perspective (or a night of terror by 3 ghosts who show you what you’re doing wrong with your life). Because of this, one would think that a film about the creation of such a heart-felt story would have just as many warm and fuzzies. But it just… doesn’t!
The Man Who Invented Christmas isn’t the first of its kind. It’s become a trend, in recent years, to make films about how authors created the story they’re famous for. There’s Finding Neverland about J.M. Barrie writing “Peter Pan & Wendy” for a couple children he becomes acquainted with. Earlier this year we had Goodbye Christopher Robin, where A.A. Milne invented “Winnie The Pooh” for his son. We’re getting it again next year when Road to Oz shows how L. Frank Baum wrote “The Wizard of Oz.”
While I can’t speak of the upcoming Oz film, I can say Neverland and Christopher Robin have the heart that The Man Who Invented Christmas is missing dearly. In both those stories, the authors wrote their books for the children in their lives to help them through the emotions they were struggling with due to unfortunate circumstances. But in this film, we see Charles Dickens write a book for the simple reason that he needs money! There’s a poor attempt to make us feel for him as we see how good he is in the two scenes we see him interact with his handful of little ones… but let’s be honest, he wrote the book for himself (and his pocketbook).
So while seeing his writing process was interesting (and made me want to rush home to work on my newest screenplay), there was nothing to make me connect emotionally and feel invested in his task of writing the story. There was, as I put more simply already, no heart.
To give credit where it’s due, the film was acted wonderfully and I always felt in the moment with the characters as they portrayed their roles well. There was humor in parts (though the man sitting behind me with his two daughters was far more amused than I was), and there were even parts that felt a little creepy. The cinematography was adequate (there were moments, though, where I thought I was watching a PBS special) and the soundtrack fit perfectly in such a way that you almost didn’t even notice it, as it synced with the story so well.
But for all its strong points, The Man Who Invented Christmas left me feeling a bit lackluster and unfulfilled. It missed that one element that’s crucial in any drama, but especially in a history lesson about an artist performing their craft… heart.