Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens Changed the Way We View Christmas

Movie Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Man Who Invented Christmas is really a film for the holiday season. It recently released as a DVD so we just watched it. Although you can wait to see it sometime closer between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now is a good time to see it, too.

We likely are all familiar with Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol. Certainly, we all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the three spirits, and how a miserable, miserly old man learned the true spirit of Christmas and became a more compassionate human being. What most of us don't know is the story about how Dickens came to write the story. That's what The Man Who Invented Christmas is all about.

In 1843, Charles Dickens was coming off the tremendous success of his book Oliver Twist. Then he had a few flops and his career as a writer seemed to be on the wane. His finances were hurting and he struggled to write his next great novel. This film explores his struggles, both to write A Christmas Carol, and a demon deep inside himself that became the greatest block to finishing the novel that would change the way the world perceived how we celebrate Christmas and the struggles of the poor.

Charles Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) is a fairly happy family man with a brood of noisy children in a large home in the heart of busy London. He is easily distracted by their noises and demands quiet. And his father John Dickens (played by Jonathan Pryce) is a constant distraction, so he has paid for a home for his parents in the country, even provided a stipend for them to keep them there. Yet John Dickens manages to seep back into London for a bothersome visit, much to Charles's irritation. Meanwhile, redecorating his home, Charles finds himself in need of more money and his publisher is in want of another book before they will give him more money. Unable to reach agreement on a book idea, Charles decides to finance it himself, going to a money-grubbing lender with a high financing rate. But this doesn't deter Charles. What looms greater than the lending rate is the looming publishing deadline -- six weeks to write and print the book before Christmas! Charles sends his friend John Forster (played by Justin Edwards) to help make arrangements, including finding an illustrator.

And so off Charles Dickens goes to write his book, fresh without a real concept. Thus we delve into his creative process. He meets people whose names and characteristics he gathers as grist for characters. He hears people say unsettling or encouraging things that become mill for the grindstone for dialogue. A happy older couple dancing in the street become models for the Fizzywigs. And then there's Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Christopher Plummer), who seeps in from the recesses of a dark doorway as Charles works in his study, and they play off each other as the character forms himself in Charles's mind. Little by little, you other characters from the story join the chorus of voices helping Charles Dickens talk out the story and tease out its plots and themes. Should Tiny Tim die? Shouldn't Scrooge save him? Why would he do that? Can a man change? It really is an amazing look into the way a writer works and how a story develops. And then there's the moment an author develops writer's block!

What is keeping Charles Dickens from writing the final chapter, the ending of A Christmas Carol? It turns out there is a secret buried in his worst nightmares, a horrific memory from his childhood from which he cannot escape. And until he resolves that past he cannot resolve his story.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is many things. It's about an amazing nineteenth century author. It's about memorable classic characters. It's about great actors playing well written parts -- Jonathan Pryce is wonderful as the scoundrel of a father and Christopher Plummer is brilliant as an irascible and scheming Scrooge. But the art direction of this film is wonderful, too, taking you deep into the winding alleyways and bustling streets and dark pubs and other public places of Dicken's time. There is also the disturbingly dark and dank children's workhouse where Dicken's spent a part of his childhood to contend with. All this makes the film come alive and breathe as if you were actually there, looking over their shoulders.

In addition to being the story about how A Christmas Carol came to be written, it is also a story about how a popular author came to change the way the world sees Christmas and how it changed the way the world responds to need. You will see that at the end of the film, before the closing credits. It really is an incredible true story. He really did invent Christmas, the Christmas we still know and love in our own time. See and show it to your own family.

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