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In an exchange some scholars now believe may never have happened, the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky described meeting the great British novelist Charles Dickens. As the story goes, Dickens told Dostoevsky that he based the pure, good-hearted characters in his novels on what he wished to be, while his selfish, cruel villains sprang from the tendencies he actually found within himself. And yet there is one character—arguably Dickens’ most iconic—who embodies both the “clutching, covetous, old sinner” and the man “as good … as the good old city ever knew.”
Starring Dan Stevens in the kind of role in which Downton Abbey fans like him best—with a plummy British accent in plummy period dress—The Man Who Invented Christmas traces the origins of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The film’s lighthearted tone imagines the author as a sort of literary Forrest Gump, lucking his way into overhearing brilliant dialogue and accidentally crossing paths with people who inspire his most beloved work. No doubt, much of this is more fantasy than biography, but the broad strokes of truth are there. Dickens was, by his own admission, a keen observer of the teeming masses that crowded Victorian London, and he borrowed from them freely. In the film, as Dickens picks up a line here and a glowering expression there, the character of Scrooge takes shape in his mind—and on the screen in the inimitable form of Christopher Plummer.
From there on out, Plummer-as-Scrooge hounds and harasses his creator so hilariously, audiences will likely leave clamoring for Plummer to star in a proper remake of the classic tale next Christmas.
But the movie isn’t all twinkles and snowflakes. It also explores the inner wounds and personal failings that Dickens likely drew on in his work. For a time, hung up by writer’s block, he falls prey to more palatable versions of the sins that plague his character, treasuring up resentments the way Scrooge treasures coins and being as miserly with his time as the old moneylender is with his coal. If he hopes to write a satisfying ending, he has to confront his own need to give and receive forgiveness.
There’s little in the PG-rated Man Who Invented Christmas to keep anyone away besides a few instances of minor, mostly British-specific foul language. Some viewers might be a little bothered by what isn’t there—that is, much mention of the Savior whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
While Christ doesn’t feature heavily in this story, the true, the good, and the noble shine through brilliantly. Watching Dickens’ and Scrooge’s arc, I was reminded again of how much A Christmas Carol reflects the story of Zacchaeus. We know next to nothing about the dinner our Lord had at the taxman’s house or what they said to one another, but we see the transformation. The cheat, born again, gives away half his wealth. Old Scrooge awakes distributing raises and prize turkeys, whooping hilariously, and saying, “I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.” A fairly obvious allusion to Scrooge, too, being born again.
So while Dickens may not have invented Christmas, we can’t deny that through the phenomenal talent with which God gifted him, he’s been challenging audiences for nearly 200 years to manifest the qualities Christ and His birth symbolize—hope, mercy, and a chance to become a new creation. In its own cheerful way, The Man Who Invented Christmas does the same. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable film in theaters this Christmas season.