An Irish-Canadian co-production, The Man Who Invented Christmas tells the story of how Charles Dickens wrote his classic book A Christmas Carol and how he dreamed up the character of Scrooge. In 1843, Dickens was a literary rock star, but struggling financially after the slow sales of his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. Seized with the vision of a story that would fire the hearts of humanity, Dickens pitched his publishers A Christmas Carol, but they passed. Desperate, Dickens declared he would publish it himself. Slipping into the world of his novel, he spent the next six weeks laughing and arguing with his characters, acting out scenes like a madman on the streets of London for hours on end. His family and friends were worried he was going insane, but Dickens prevailed and finished just before Christmas, creating a masterpiece which gave birth to the Christmas we know and love today.
Director Bharat Nalluri talked to Film Ireland about reinventing a classic tale for a modern audience. He began by explaining the evolution of the process of getting from script to screen. “It’s classic independent filmmaking – the project’s been in the works for 9 years with different iterations and I came on board about 4 years ago and worked on the script for a couple of years. Things were put on hold for a while for finances to be put in place… and then I got a call saying it was back on again and I was back on the project in the summer of 2016. I was on holiday on a beach somewhere when I got a phone call asking “do you fancy going to snowy Victorian England, via Dublin! 2 days later I’m flying out to meet Dan Stevens and things are in motion.”
Bharat worked with Susan Coyne on developing the script, which is based on the book by Les Standiford. “The script was quite complicated and we were really just trying to simplify it. It needed a bit of love. And we finally cracked it. You can always tell when you crack it because then you can get any actor you want. As soon as you have a good script it’s really easy to cast. Great actors know when that script is singing.”
Talking about what attracts him to projects, Bharat says, “I’m quite a commercial film director. I like making movies for audiences – the bigger audience, the better. The secondary thing I’m looking for is that it entertains you. But at the end if you can find some subtext to it, that’s great. In truth, that’s what Charles Dickens is. He was a great melodrama king really. He made you laugh and made you cry with stories full of humour and pathos – but at the end of it he always gives it some subtext. He changed the world. He changed the way we think about poverty, the dichotomy of the haves and have nots – so that’s what I was looking to do with this script. I’m also a huge fan of A Christmas Carol.
“I’d been trying to work on A Christmas Carol for maybe 10 years, trying to work another way into it. Many people have done it brilliantly. Most Christmas stories – the great ones – usually have A Christmas Carol at the heart of them. It’s a Wonderful Life is A Christmas Carol backwards. It’s a good man shown how bad the world would be if he didn’t exist. Whereas Scrooge is a bad man who’s shown how good the world would be if he changed. Other movies that aren’t even Christmas movies – Groundhog Day – it’s a man who keeps revisiting himself until he becomes a better man – it’s pure Christmas Carol really. So some very clever filmmakers have already done it. To try and crack another way into A Christmas Carol was very difficult. But then this script came along and we discovered this 6 weeks of Dickens’ life where he went into this feverish momentum and wrote this world-changing book. This was a moment in his life when he was a literary rock star. He’d had success with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby but the flip side of that was he’d had 3 flops in a row. He saw himself as a failure, was suffering from writer’s block, wasn’t making any money. All his books were being pirated and bootlegged. He was living in debt. He was a bit of a champagne socialist – enjoying the finer things in life. But he had witnessed a lot of poverty in his life and was driven by this idea of having some change. The great thing about this is that through that 6 weeks in Dickens life we revisit the things that made him believe in social justice. He endured poverty himself as a child. there’s little stories there that are not well known. His parents ended up in debtor’s prison. He ended up in a shoe polish factory as the bread earner and it completely changed him. By exploring that in the film while having him writing A Christmas Carol and having this wonderful idea of the characters from the book appearing in front of him and goading him and almost being his psychotherapist, you get this wonderful way of using A Christmas Carol to reflect on a Charles Dickens’ biopic that is entertaining and full of joy – but at the end, hopefully in a Dickensian style, it says something about the human spirit.”
The film fizzes with the central performance from Dan Stevens as Dickens who brings a vigour to a role that blends a Gene Wilder-like zaniness with a foppish, exasperated fever and soul-searching. “We were both very keen on not doing a period drama – after being on the world’s biggest period drama for 2 years [Downton Abbey], Dan very bravely killed himself off. We were desperate to do something that was very modern in its take and I think we were looking for a modernity in how Dickens was and is – and Dan brought that. He brings this energy – and Dickens had that – he was a bit of a fire brand. The other great thing was that this is Dickens when he is 31. We’re used to seeing him as the curmudgeonly 50 year old man with the strange beard. He was a handsome young man in his 30s when you look at the portraiture of him. Dan was a really good fit. And then it was just about energising it. And it’s a very brave performance, it could have easily fallen off the tightrope. It’s quite a big, dynamic performance and we had to marry that with the film’s style, otherwise I think it would have stood out by itself and that was Dan’s genius how he managed to pull that through.”
Dan’s performance takes you to darker places than you might expect as he wrestles with the demons of his failure, his childhood and his relationship with his father, played by Jonathan Pryce. “The script allowed you to do that”, explains Bharat, “and because you believe the darkness and you believe the depths of his dark night of the soul then your suspension of disbelief is with you and then you can go out on a limb and have great fun. There’s some big moments of comedy, which you mightn’t expect from a Dickens’ movie.”
Complimenting Stevens are a number of celebrated actors – Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes. What was it like to direct them? “Like all very successful actors, they want direction. They want to know they’re doing the right thing. They don’t take it for granted and if you give them something they’ll give it back you.” Working with Plummer was a particular joy for Bharat as he recalls, “all my conversations with Plummer were about The Man Who Would Be King, which is one of my favourite movies.”
The Man Who Invented Christmas is currently in cinemas.
An Irish/Canadian co-production, produced by Parallel Film and Rhombus Media with support from the Irish Film Board, The Man Who Invented Christmas was filmed around Dublin and Wicklow, which were transformed into 1840’s Victorian England.
Bleecker Street has acquired the US rights to the film.