Opinion | Pop Culture

Charles Dickens Still Haunts Christmas

How a 19th-century story informs the modern holiday spirit.
Charles Dickens Still Haunts Christmas
Image: Courtesy of Bleeker Street

At 31 years old, Charles Dickens was already a novelist of international renown. He’d also hit upon a career slump—a string of three commercial flops—and needed to deliver a hit to escape mounting financial pressures.

In the winter of 1843, the author struck on the idea of a Christmas ghost story that would be released in time for the holiday. However, his late-fall moment of inspiration left him almost no time to get his book to press—only half a dozen weeks for the story to take shape, for an illustrator to supply drawings, and for the printers to supply them to stores.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of those six weeks of breakneck creativity during which Dickens wrote perhaps his most beloved work. The movie is a thoroughly pleasant, sometimes funny, and occasionally reflective story with a PG-rating and storybook aesthetic that recommend it as the go-to family film of this holiday season.

Dan Stevens—once a star of Downton Abbey—delivers an eccentric, anxious, animated young Dickens to the screen. He gets incredible mileage out of his expressive blue eyes and conveys Dickens’s writerly flights of inspiration with a near crackling energy. Better still, Stevens’s Dickens finds an equally entertaining foil in Christopher Plummer’s Scrooge. Something peculiarly pleasing occurs the first time Plummer appears, equipped with top hat and cane, shuffling through a London cemetery. I felt as though I’d unwittingly been waiting for a long time to see him in this role, so much so that his first “Bah. Humbug!” evoked a satisfied sigh of “at last!”

Much of the fun in this film hinges on similar moments of recognition as the story weaves familiar details from A Christmas Carol—names, events, phrases—into ordinary moments of Dickens’s life. For example, the movie proposes that he collected interesting names of day-to-day acquaintances in a notebook, building a list for his christening of fictional characters. Dickens explains that only after he’s chosen just the right name will that character appear. Rather than leave that description as a mere figure of speech, the film plumbs it: Dickens’s creative process is externalized with characters that actually appear once they’re rightly named, make themselves available for conversation, and as his deadline draws near, harass him to return to work.

In the exchanges between Dickens and Scrooge, The Man Who Invented Christmas brings to life a creative process at once whimsical, mercurial, and manic. A growing cast of characters from A Christmas Carol breaks into the mindscape of Dickens like so many waking dreams. These scenes have a distinct aesthetic and moral sensibility; the world of the famed author’s fiction is at once more colorful and more severe than the flesh-and-blood London that he occupies. As Dickens takes measure of his protagonist’s life, Scrooge is prompted by each ghost to reflect on his attitudes and actions. Persistent appearances by Plummer’s Scrooge—even when the novella isn’t being penned—suggest that Dickens’s conscience, too, is being haunted just as he imagines Scrooge’s to be.

As many readers will recall, A Christmas Carol addresses themes of loneliness and friendship, self-interest and generosity. Visitations from the “ghosts of Christmas past” make stark the relational and moral poverty of Scrooge’s wealthy life. Rather than reveal a single grave sin or Gothic secret to explain the hardness of Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart, Dickens’s novella imagines a kind of cardiac sclerosis setting in over the course of his character’s decisions, actions, and inactions. For both Scrooge and Tiny Tim, the consequences of Scrooge’s selfishness are spelled out clearly, the stakes as high as life and death.

As the film shows elements from this story breaking into Dickens’s biography, it highlights moments of moral consequence. These novelistic interruptions give us signposts for how ordinary life—though less dramatic—is also a working out of convictions and values, of bitterness and sins that accumulate and shape our character.

Dickens redeems Scrooge by having him recognize and repent of his habitual selfishness. The screenwriters redeem Dickens using much the same strategy, as his writing prompts moments of conviction about his relationships with others. For Scrooge, it’s Bob Cratchit; for Dickens, it’s his thriftless father. In both cases, a man reviewing his past is inspired to demonstrate radical generosity to someone he’d previously found difficult to love.

This sentimental model of yuletide—as a time to reflect, embrace our better selves, and celebrate our family and friends—continues to dominate American observance of the holiday. Attaching this vague spirituality to Christmas is perhaps Dickens’s most significant cultural legacy.

In a Dickens Christmas, one’s heartfelt resolution to be a better person transforms a bleak future into joyful one. The holiday is for making peace with our fellow man, for changing our ways, and for celebrating these hopeful events with gifts and lit trees and laughter-filled parties.

Dickens’s story is less an invention than an innovation—a substitution of one redemption story for another. The movie presents A Christmas Carol as the urtext of modern day Christmas. For all the reinforcement of Christian values like selflessness and forgiveness, both Dickens Christmas tales (the novella and the film) displace Christ’s coming in the flesh as the “reason for the season.”

Whatever cultural meanings and practices we attach to Christmas, they are only ever add-ons and, sometimes—far worse—distractions from the ultimate story of a being who comes from outside time and enters into history to point the way toward redemption. It is his generosity, not ours, that transforms hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Without Christ, no amount of personal reflection or resolution-making can redeem a lost soul.

Nonetheless, The Man Who Invented Christmas proves to be an entertaining yarn that points to virtues and values of the Christian community. Without being a “Christian” movie per se, it celebrates reconciliation and transformation where none seemed possible and offers a heart-warming tale for the cold of winter.

Still, I’m pretty sure that the Man who invented Christmas arrived long before Dickens put pen to the page.

Laura Kenna has a PhD in American studies and most recently taught at Trinity Fellows Academy. She blogs about popular culture at remotepossibilitiesblog.com.

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.

Read These Next