We’ve reached the point where we’ve adapted certain stories so many times that we now need a myth for the myth. We made too many Peter Pan adaptations, so we got Finding Neverland. We made too many Winnie the Pooh stories, so we got Goodbye Christopher Robin. And because we’ve adapted A Christmas Carol too many times, we’ve now got Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a story that could have provided an interesting look at Charles Dickens but instead couches a bunch of familiar touchstones in coincidence and random observations. It’s a story that’s constantly torn between trying to show Dickens’ attempt to deal with his daddy issues and overcoming his writer’s block.
Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has been suffering from a string of flops following the success of Oliver Twist. Overextended on his home’s renovations, he pitches a holiday story about a miser who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. His publisher says it’s impossible to get it to print in time for the holidays, so Dickens takes a gamble on himself and decides to self-publish. While he spars with visions of his characters, led by an ornery Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), he must also deal with his spendthrift father John (Jonathan Pryce), whose poor spending landing a young Charles in a workhouse.
I suppose the original culprit of whimsical mythmaking about a famous author is Shakespeare in Love, but that film isn’t about the writing of Romeo & Juliet; it’s a love story that happens to include the development of Romeo & Juliet. By comparison The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t really know what it wants to be about. The title itself is misleading since we never really get a sense of what Christmas was before A Christmas Carol. And while Dickens goes through the motions of writer’s block and arguing with his characters, everything about him dealing with his past and fear of turning into his father feels tacked on and haphazard.
It doesn’t help that the movie feels exceptionally cheap. These are the kinds of obvious soundstages that you can get away with on something like The Muppet Christmas Carol because it’s Muppets and a cartoony look serves the setting, but here it looks like a Hallmark movie, which feels particularly incongruous when we have flashbacks to Dickens’ days working in a blacking warehouse. The Man Who Invented Christmas is constantly stumbling as it walks the line between Dickens’ wondrous imagination and his years enduring the sting of child labor.
I’m not opposed to a movie where we see Dickens trying to write one of his more famous novels, but The Man Who Invented Christmas feels like it’s going down the path of least resistance. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield would be far more in line with the autobiographical aspects of Dickens’ life and speak to his larger body of work, but because A Christmas Carol is his most well-known novel, the film is stuck trying to figure out a way to both expand that book into a story about Dickens’ life and shrink it so that every noteworthy element is something that can be glanced or name-dropped.
The whole endeavor makes The Man Who Invented Christmas corny at best and cloying at worst. No one is obligated to make yet another movie based on A Christmas Carol, but the insights The Man Who Invented Christmas wants to claim are unearned and constantly feel forced. I’d much rather we were gifted a straight Dickens biopic than all this humbug.