This will introduce a whole generation of people to the real Dickens.
The Man Who Invented Christmas tells of the magical journey that led to the creation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and other classic characters from A Christmas Carol, showing how Charles Dickens mixed real life inspirations with his vivid imagination to conjure up unforgettable characters and a timeless tale, forever changing the holiday season into the celebration we know today.
Based on Les Standiford’s 2008 book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, the movie brings the imagination of one of the world’s best-loved authors to vivid reality as
he creates the masterpiece that has shaped modern-day Christmas celebrations for more than 150 years, directed by Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) from a screenplay by Susan Coyne (Mozart in the Jungle, Slings and Arrows).
After a string of successful novels, world-renowned writer Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops in a row.
With the needs of his burgeoning family and his own extravagance rapidly emptying his pockets, Dickens grows desperate for another bestseller. Tormented by writer’s block and at odds with his publishers, he grasps at an idea for a surefire hit, a Christmas story he hopes will capture the imagination of his fans and solve his financial problems.
But with only six weeks to write and publish the book before the holiday, and without the support of his publishers – who question why anyone would ever read a book about Christmas – he will have to work feverishly to meet his deadline.
Dickens locks himself away to write, but his chaotic household, which now includes his profligate father (Jonathan Pryce), is a constant distraction. Working late into the night, the writer channels his own memories to conjure up the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, and place them on a collision course with the misanthropic miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer).
Charles Dickens’ slender volume, A Christmas Carol, has fascinated and delighted readers, artists, playwrights and filmmakers for almost two centuries with its themes of family, benevolence, goodwill and festivity. In fact, it set a new standard for the holiday, inspiring the spirit of the traditional Victorian Christmas and beginning a host of customs that are still popular today. But while most readers are familiar with the beloved tale, few know the story behind it.
Les Standiford, author of the book that inspired the film and a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer in his own right, learned A Christmas Carol was almost never published. “I had no idea that he had to pay for the publication himself,” he says. “Even though no publisher was interested in it, the book was responsible for changing the trajectory of Dickens’ career. I set about to find a book that explained it all, but to my great surprise, there was no such book.”
So Standiford decided to write one himself. A fascinating peek into the creative process of one of the world’s greatest storytellers, it was quickly optioned by producer Robert Mickelson and executive producers Paula Mazur and Mitchell Kaplan. All Dickens buffs, like many involved in the making of The Man Who Invented Christmas , they discovered Standiford’s meticulously researched account of this period in the author’s life about eight years ago. “Paula and Mitch gave me the book,” recalls Mickelson. “It was a story we weren’t aware of at the time and exploring Dickens’ creative process as well as his life fascinated me.”
Standiford is an accomplished author whose work includes New York Times bestsellers Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, Bringing Adam Home and The Man Who Invented Christmas. The author’s upcoming book, Palm Beach, will be published by Grove Atlantic next fall. Standiford is a graduate of the University of Utah, where he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. He also attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and Columbia School of Law. Additionally, he is a former screenwriting fellow and graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
Kaplan says, “as a bookseller for 35 years and a good friend of Les’, I knew that his delightful retelling of how Dickens brought his classic to print resonated deeply with readers, and if we put the right pieces together we would create something very special for moviegoers, as well.”
For Mazur, the book offered a new perspective on A Christmas Carol. “In 1843, at age 31, Dickens was a literary rock star, which makes the story feel very contemporary,” she says. “He was wildly successful and was plagued by all the issues that are attendant to that.” Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol was a last-ditch effort by Dickens to raise money to support the affluent lifestyle he and his family had grown used to. But the lavishly illustrated volume turned out to be more than just an instant moneymaker. It also renewed interest in, and enthusiasm for, a holiday that had fallen into disfavor.
There have been other Dickens biopics over the years, but The Man Who Invented Christmas focuses on the intense six weeks during which he wrote and self-published A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers envisioned a screenplay that presented Dickens as a modern man: flawed, fierce and funny all at the same time. Writer Susan Coyne, co-creator of “Slings and Arrows,” a Canadian TV series about a modern-day Shakespeare theater festival, had made an impression on Mickelson with the offbeat sensibility she infused into the show. “Her writing has a charm and character to it, as well as a great deal of humor,” says Mickelson. “I am a big fan.”
Coyne is renowned as the co-creator and co-writer of the internationally acclaimed miniseries Slings and Arrows, for which she won three Gemini Awards and three Writers Guild of Canada awards. Coyne is currently working as a supervising producer on the fourth season of Amazon Studios’ Golden Globe-winning series Mozart in the Jungle. Coyne has three series in development in Canada that she will write and executive produce. She also wrote two of the three Anne of Green Gables telefilms produced by Breakthrough and YTV. For the stage, Coyne has adapted plays by Chekhov (Three Sisters and “Platonov”) and Turgenev (A Month in the Country).
Coyne delivered a playful narrative in which Dickens interacts with his fictional characters as he gives birth to the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge. In Coyne’s screenplay, Dickens has long conversations with his creations as their stories unfold in front of him. “The characters become real to him,” she says. “We know that Dickens did carry on conversations with his characters, so that is based on the true story and we’ve invented his interior thoughts. He often talked about the characters in his plays and books being more real to him in some ways than the people in his own life.”
Coyne identified with the anxiety creative people often feel when they are under the gun. “Dickens was down and out at this point,” she says. “He’d had all these big successes like The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. And then he had a few flops. The more I read about him, the more fascinating he became. He was such a mixture of ambition, humanity, pettiness and largeness of spirit — a complex and remarkable person.”
Struck with writer’s block, Dickens develops an adversarial relationship with his characters, especially Scrooge. “Scrooge becomes his nemesis,” says Mickelson “And Dickens becomes a character in the story that he’s trying to write. It’s like he’s entered his own Dickensian novel. There are many layers woven into this tale.”
The script instantly attracted the attention of producer Ian Sharples of The Mob Film Company. “It’s always about a gut reaction to material for me,” he says. “ The Man Who Invented Christmas has an element of modernity about it. Even though we’re dealing with a real person from more than a century ago, Dickens seems familiar, and for me as a filmmaker, his journey is very familiar. The struggle of getting a piece of literature into the book shops in his day was just as hard as getting a feature film made today.”
Director Bharat Nalluri, best known for the charming period comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, was selected to helm the film. “Bharat has a lightness of touch,” says Mickelson. “He gets great performances from his casts. We thought he would bring a perfect balance and capture both the humor and the energy of Dickens.”
Nalluri is a British director of Indian descent. He made his name in the U.K., directing the pilots for three iconic BBC dramas: MI-5”, “Hustle (which he also co-conceived) and Life on Mars. Nalluri followed this with Tsunami: The Aftermath, a HBO miniseries that dealt with the harrowing events of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Next, Nalluri directed Frances McDormand and Amy Adams in the feature film Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It was followed by Nalluri directing and executive producing the pilot for the Emmy-nominated sci-fi drama The 100. He then returned to helm MI-5. Nalluri is currently in development on a number of feature and television projects in the U.K., U.S. and New Zealand.
Nalluri was impressed with the many layers of meaning with which Coyne infused the screenplay. “It’s a rare treat to get a script that’s so fully formed,” he says. “It’s a fun, enjoyable piece with great characters and visual flare. Underneath it all, it has a little something to say about the world we live in. In a way, it takes after Dickens, who created these larger-than-life, often very comedic characters and used them to tell stories that delivered a profound impact on society and were fun to read.”
With only a short time to shoot and a complex story to tell, Nalluri proved an able leader. “He is just fantastic,” says Mazur. “We had a lot of visual strands that had to be pulled together. He is one of those rare directors who is equally in command of the visuals and the story. Bharat was able to wrap his head around all of that and track it through a pretty complicated, fast shooting schedule. He also worked extremely well with the actors.”
Standiford, who spent time on the film’s Dublin set, was thrilled to see the story come to life on screen. “These filmmakers have brought the essence of the book out in the film and that’s particularly gratifying,” he says. “I think people who see this production are going to be entranced by it.”
“It is such a charming script,” says Dan Stevens, known to millions of Downton Abbey fans as the ill-fated heir Matthew Crawley. Instead of the gravitas associated with the older Dickens, Stevens invests the role with youthful energy, charisma and curiosity.
“This isn’t a reverential biopic. It’s the story of a gifted artist’s creative drive and the pressure he puts on himself to produce. At the time, Dickens had four kids and one on the way. I also had one on the way when I was reading this, so that resonated with me. And it explores the complicated relationship with his father and the story of how one of the greatest books of all time was written. A Christmas Carol really permeates the culture in a way that no other Christmas story does — except perhaps the Nativity itself.”
To prepare for the role, Stevens turned to several well-respected studies of the author, including Becoming Dickens, written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. “It is really about the period just before our film. It’s less the venerable Dickens we all know and revere, and more a witty, ambitious, up-and-coming writer. I also read Michael Patrick Hearn’s annotated edition of A Christmas Carol. Some of the details that made their way into the film, like the way he stood in front of a mirror making faces and doing odd voices, come from letters written by his friends and family.”
Playing opposite Stevens as his creation and seeming nemesis, Ebenezer Scrooge, is Christopher Plummer. A character whose name has become synonymous with bitterness and greed, Scrooge has rarely been played with so much charm.
Plummer has been involved with the project since almost the beginning. “Susan Coyne created an extraordinary and magical story for a film,” he says. “When I was asked if I would be in it, I said damn right I will. I’ve been a lucky guy. I’ve played so many of the great parts, but never Scrooge. It seems like an obvious follow up to King Lear.”
As John Dickens, Jonathan Pryce exudes breezy confidence and bonhomie, making it difficult to dislike the man or to judge his actions. “
Pryce did some preliminary research into the life of the elder Dickens, but his experience playing real-life characters has taught him always to rely on the script as his primary source. “What you always want to do is fulfill the screenplay,” he explains.
“The character has to stand up in his own right and not rely on the fact that people will know about the background. If the screenplay is good, then the writer has done all the research that is necessary.”
The filmmakers initially met with Simon Callow, an acknowledged Dickens expert, while they were researching the script. They later asked him to play John Leech, the brilliant illustrator who created unforgettable evocations of Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him. Callow was introduced to Dickens when he was 13 and in bed with chickenpox.
“Chickenpox is a vile affliction that makes you want to scratch yourself all day long,” he remembers. “My admirable grandmother put a copy of The Pickwick Papers in my hands to distract me. I was utterly entranced. I steadily read through all the books. Dickens’ genius was in creating characters that made an immediate impression and became instant archetypes.”
Callow was impressed by the way the script uses the creation of A Christmas Carol to illuminate Dickens, both as a writer and as a man. “It is cinematically and narratively inventive in the same way that A Christmas Carol is narratively inventive. It weaves in and out of realism and fantasy.”
He hopes seeing Dickens as a young man will transform his reputation as a somewhat stuffy Victorian writer. “We all have this image of Dickens with his beard and his visionary eyes,” says Callow. “But he was once a terribly handsome and dashing young man, brilliantly funny and fantastically good company. This will introduce a whole generation of people to the real Dickens.”
They will also be entertained and amused, says Susan Mullen, the film’s Irish producing partner. “It’s funny, it’s heartfelt. I think what Dickens wanted was for us take it upon ourselves to be more generous. That we should lend a hand, that we must care for others — it’s a beautiful message. And it really did change the way everybody viewed Christmas.”