News and Views

Long Read: Reinventing Dickens for Christmas

21 Dec
Dr Joanna Robinson, School of English, UCC: As if a prolific output of fiction, journalism, drama, and letters was not enough to keep him occupied, Dickens was also quick to get involved with various philanthropic projects.

Charles Dickens is embedded in many popular images of Christmas, but to which version of Dickens do we credit the invention of a particular brand of seasonal spirit?

It would hardly be Christmas without a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for stage or screen. This year, the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future appear in Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a film which liberally reimagines the moment when they were created.

The year is 1843 and the already prolific 31-year-old author is under pressure to write another best-seller. "Being a gentleman’s damned expensive," he quips, as his taste for luxurious interior décor, a growing family and the shameless scrounging of his father put further strain on his already stretched finances.

But having come up with the concept of a Christmas book, Dickens must hurry to write and produce it in only six weeks. There couldn’t be a worse time for young Charles to contract a serious case of writer’s block and he must battle traumatic childhood memories and the increasingly clamorous interventions of his fictional characters in order to finish the story. Despite what the title implies, the movie only ambiguously credits Dickens with inventing Christmas.

Ultimately, the film is a fluffy and festive frolic and takes obvious liberties with Dickens’s biography. It is true that A Christmas Carol was written under considerable pressure, but he habitually juggled numerous projects. Early in his career, he would often begin a new book before its predecessor was complete when he was conscious of popular demand for new novels. His early works were originally published as serials, meaning that roughly three chapters of a book would be released at monthly intervals. This could mean that Dickens was writing and publishing more than one novel simultaneously (for example, Oliver Twist substantially overlapped with Nicholas Nickleby). The first nine monthly parts of the latter were published while the former were still being written and released. Likewise, A Christmas Carol was composed while Dickens was mid-way through writing Martin Chuzzlewit, a novel which also takes selfishness as its central theme. 

As if a prolific output of fiction, journalism, drama, and letters was not enough to keep him occupied, Dickens was also quick to get involved with various philanthropic projects. The Man Who Invented Christmas depicts one of the author’s many appearances as a public speaker at charity events. His concern to address England’s shameful neglect of children’s welfare in A Christmas Carol was in fact inspired by the 1843 Second Report of the Parliamentary Commission on Children’s Employment (‘Trades and Manufactures’)

Appalled by the report’s contents, Dickens wrote to its author Dr Thomas Southwood Smith in March 1843 with the idea for a cheap political pamphlet, titled "An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child". As Michael Slater notes in his biography of Dickens, this would not have been the first time that Dickens had written a response to Southwood Smith’s proposed reforms, nor was he the only literary lion to be spurred to action by the report (Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem The Cry of the Children similarly records her disgust at the "Condition of England" in the early-1840s).

The pamphlet was rapidly abandoned, but A Christmas Carol evolved from this earlier plan. Dickens wrote to Southwood Smith again to say that he had conceived a scheme for a "Sledge hammer" blow for the poor, "with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea.’[1] If rave reviews are some measure of its impact, A Christmas Carol was as forceful as Dickens had hoped, and the author was lauded as a national benefactor.

Parliamentary reports do not scream good festive viewing and the alterations Susan Coyne makes in her screenplay are generally forgivable and entertaining. But its most telling intervention is in the film’s underlying suggestion that Dickens’s yuletide legacy owes as much to the directions and platitudes of others, as it does to his considerable genius. In fact, Dickens repeatedly plays second fiddle in this supposed biopic. The Man Who Invented Christmas is actually a story about reinvention and dramatises how Dickens is himself co-opted as a symbol for Christmas, just as A Christmas Carol is appropriated and retold by different people and in different contexts.

The film begins with Dickens appearing on stage to greet an adoring public in New York, but the author is knocked to the ground as soon as he begins to speak. The curtains open to reveal actors dressed as his characters dancing and singing in front of a stage set that parodies nostalgic images of Dickens’s London - all narrow, wiggling streets and crooked houses.

No doubt this is a nod to the most commercially successful adaptation of a Dickens novel ever made, Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! However, it also emphasises that Dickens’s original tale is only one of the many ways in which the public can encounter A Christmas Carol. The scene depicts the author lying helplessly before a version of his work, which someone else has reinterpreted for a different media – and in a frankly bizarre manner. The scene closes when a confetti cannon unleashes a storm of fluttering paper, which creates a veil between Dickens and his audience, and so completes the image of how adaptations displace and obscure the original author’s central creative role. 

This opening scene introduces a theme of performance that runs through the entire film. Dickens’s appearance on stage in America is followed by other examples of 19th-century popular entertainments, including a toy theatre play and a Punch and Judy show.

Thematically aligning Dickens’s stage appearance, in which he is trampled by his own characters, with puppet theatre implies an ambiguous power relation between the author and his characters. Is the author or the character the puppet? This is not just because Christopher Plummer’s deliciously caustic Scrooge steals every scene in which he appears. The film dramatises increasingly terse interactions between Dan Stevens’s twitchy Dickens and his inventions, in which each party vies for control. "The characters won’t do what I want," he moans. By the end of the film, Dickens’s previously empty office is crowded with a chorus of interfering individuals, who help to direct the course of events and even question what role Dickens has to play in their lives:

"Who’s that?"

"He’s only the author."

"No wonder he looks depressed."

The Man Who Invented Christmas plays on the idea that characters develop lives of their own, outside of the author’s control. Of course, I am not suggesting that Dickens is not important, either to the many cultural afterlives of A Christmas Carol or to Nalluri’s film. The plot of The Man Who Invented Christmas turns on Dickens’s efforts to craft a new book in time for Christmas and draws connections between his biography and his enduring narrative about charitable goodwill. But in doing so, the film makes both Dickens and his creations equal actors in the same Christmas story. Dickens is himself co-opted as part of the myth of a "Dickensian" Christmas.

The divide between "real" and imagined people is emphasised by how the fictional figures who materialise over the film are presented as aspects of Dickens’s experiences or subconscious. We witness Dickens cannibalising his fellow Londoners or family members, and transforming them into aspects of his narrative. Meanwhile, Scrooge is fully brought to life – and allowed the opportunity to redeem his wicked ways – only when Dickens recognises parallels between Scrooge’s miserliness and his own preoccupation with money and status.

On the one hand, writing A Christmas Carol is framed as a process of shared discovery, in which author and characters take turns to superintend the proceedings. But on the other, Dickens’s central role as "inventor" is dispersed between innumerable characters, who cavort through the film, interfering with his plans. How can he be the man who invented Christmas when the film sees this invention as a collaborative (and heavily qualified) process?

The bearded man of letters

The 31-year-old Dickens portrayed in The Man Who Invented Christmas is a far cry from the bearded man of letters most familiar to us today. Further extending the idea that this film dramatises the co-existence of various versions and images of Dickens, his father John is yet another avatar. Played by Jonathan Pryce, John Dickens is styled to recall images of the older author and his beard is cut to resemble the distinctive whiskers his son grew in the 1850s.

Despite the fact that he is represented scavenging through his son’s bins to find saleable items, John Dickens is ultimately presented as a kind of Santa Claus figure, who brings gifts for the children and entertains them with stories and games. If Scrooge personifies dark corners of Dickens’s subconscious in this film, John Dickens is his polar opposite. Indeed, this father-figure embodies one of the popular images of Dickens that is so often summed up by quoting the reaction of a barrow-girl, who Theodore Watts-Dunton supposedly overheard in 1870, asking "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?" In giving Dickens multiple, contradictory avatars, Nalluri shows the co-existence of different versions of the author present in the public’s imaginary Dickensian Christmas. 

As multiple versions of Dickens jostle on screen, and contribute to the development of A Christmas Carol in different ways, the audience is left to wonder which Dickens do we associate with a Dickensian Christmas? Are we reassured by the older, Santa-like image? Or do we prefer to see the story as a commercial venture by an ambitious young author? Nalluri’s job is to reconcile these apparently incompatible personas to tell a coherent fable about how the author’s very real commitment to philanthropic work was communicated through fiction. Dickens is certainly embedded in many popular images of Christmas, but to which version of Dickens do we credit the invention of a particular brand of yuletide spirit?

"Don't kill Tiny Tim!"

Actually, what does it mean to be an inventor? The Man That Invented Christmas seems to suggest that successful creative practice for Dickens entails admitting the influence of others and allowing oneself to be led by them. After wrestling with the demands of his fictional creations, Dickens can only finish the story when he bows to the advice of his friend John Forster and an Irish nurse ("don’t kill Tiny Tim!"), and admits that the book’s central charitable message stems from his father’s advice.

Director Bharat Nalluri and actor Dan Stevens discuss The Man Who Invented Christmas

Yet, in reinventing the story behind A Christmas Carol, Nalluri is certainly reinventing the author himself. Dickens’s concessions to friends and relations at the end of the film include him responding positively to the interventions of his neglected wife, Catherine. Although small hints of marital strife gesture forwards to Dickens’s cruel treatment and separation from Catherine, they are too minimal to cast a cloud over the rosy final sequence. 

Dickens’s eventual reliance on others downplay his colossal genius for invention and repeatedly displace his autonomy as author. This is appropriate if we think about how our relationship with the original text is changed each time a new adaptation is made. In The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, Paul Davis calls this continual process of reinvention the "culture-text" of A Christmas Carol – it’s a text that we are still creating, and which "changes as the reasons for its retelling change."

As John Mullan argued recently in the Guardian, The Man Who Invented Christmas hardly does credit to Dickens’s pioneering literary work, or his business acumen in dealing with publishers and illustrators. Yes, we see him negotiate with the Punch illustrator John Leech, but Forster usually acts as "the heavy" who makes sure that arrangements are followed through.

But these versions of the author, like his interest in parliamentary publications, do not lend themselves to festive viewing. Even though The Man Who Invented Christmas gives us many versions of Dickens, it also judiciously cuts his less sympathetic or sentimental characteristics. Far from the open arms and hearts of the film’s final scene, The Man Who Invented Christmas really emphasises that much must remain hidden from view if Dickens is to be reinvented for Christmas.

Dr Joanna Robinson is a lecturer at the School of English at UCC. She is the author of the forthcoming Dickens and Demolition (Edinburgh University Press).

University College Cork

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