A NEW film, The Man who Invented Christmas (Cert. PG), claims that the inventor was Charles Dickens. It might be truer to say that he helped to shape what it is today. Prince Albert’s popularisation of the Christmas tree, for instance, occurred at about the same time.
In 1843, Dickens (played here by Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey) unsuccessfully pitches “A Christmas Carol” to his publishers, but he prevails with his masterpiece. All well and good; but where is Christ in this Christmas carol? No mention of angelic hosts, shepherds, stable, Mary, Joseph, or Jesus; but neither do St Mark’s or St John’s Gospels include the nativity. The notion of a Virgin birth was either unimportant or unknown to them when it came to their particular ways of proclaiming that God in unsurpassed generosity had become incarnate.
One can make a reasonable case for Dickens’s doing much the same. “Christmas”, he declares, “ought to be one day a year when we open our hearts.” The film goes much further. By the end, Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), in this allegory of redemption, says: “I’ll try and live Christmas every day of the year.”
Despite the film’s claim, this wasn’t Dickens’s first Christmas tale. Several others (e.g. The Pickwick Papers) preceded it. The new picture speculates on what or who inspired the author’s story, doubling some of Dickens’s acquaintances with their fictional counterparts. The solicitor Haddock (Donald Sumpter) becomes Marley’s ghost. Under Bharat Nalluri’s direction, his manacles are totemic of whatever binds not just “Charlie” but each and every one of us. Ubiquitous mirrors impel characters and, by extension, audiences to reflect on what elements of our own inner being need releasing. In Ebenezer Scrooge, it is fear; but what about ourselves?
His long-suffering friend and chief supporter, John Forster (Justin Edwards), also plays the Ghost of Christmas Present. He epitomises goodwill to all. The film likewise features a clergyman, the Revd Henry Burnett (Marcus Lamb), the inspiration for Bob Cratchit, father of the crippled Tiny Tim. The boy was originally based on Dickens’s nephew, whose father, Henry Burnett, wasn’t ordained, but a Royal Navy clerk. Does the film change the character’s status to sanctify his loving disposition? If so, it’s hardly necessary.
The story (more than 200 movie versions so far) is of transformation. Scrooge, who gave nothing to this life, becomes one who rejoices in helping others. Tim not only gets better himself, but is the instrument through which Scrooge, in serving the boy, redeems himself. The Man Who Invented Christmas considers Dickens’s determination to let Tim die until the author was persuaded otherwise. It is an interesting dilemma that would have merited further exploration. In a society rife with childhood mortality it would not have been strange for Tim to be killed off. Dickens may have been trying to avoid repeating something as sentimental as Little Nell’s fate in The Old Curiosity Shop.
Ultimately, it is his maid Tara (Anna Murphy), insisting on the festival’s Christian origins, who convinces him to save Tim. Significantly, she is also the Ghost of Christmas Past, a reminder that Jesus is the reason for the season.