“A Christmas Carol” is one of those stories that has been told and told again year after year to the point that it’s hard for any new adaptation to do much more than retread the same material. That’s not necessarily a detriment to those retellings; it’s just the nature of bringing to the big screen a story that all but reinvented the way Christmas is celebrated. Audiences know what to expect. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser. He is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts who force him to change his ways. He becomes a better person. God bless us every one.
Because of the potential for repetition, it’s to the utmost credit of Bharat Nalluri’s (“MI-5”) new film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” that it has found a new way to examine the story of “A Christmas Story” by looking at the story of its creation. Instead of Scrooge becoming a more kind-hearted person, we watch as author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, “Legion”) must confront his resentful feelings toward his father for a childhood that saw him employed at a work house. Instead of just the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, Dickens plays host to the entire cast of the novella. Instead of the same story repackaged with different faces, the film has the appeal of something entirely new.
At the center of the film is Stevens as Dickens, with the actor once more proving himself to be one of the most versatile performers at work today. Ably switching between the mania of a writer consumed by his craft and the turmoil underneath, it’s a dynamic performance through which Stevens commands the screen. The role of Dickens’s mental projection of Scrooge goes to Christopher Plummer (“The Exception”), who is given the opportunity to not only recreate the most iconic moments of “A Christmas Carol” but to approach them from the different angle allowed by the film’s unique spin on the material. The veteran actor proves more than up to the challenge, and his portrayal of the legendary character is one for the books.
And ultimately, much of what “The Man Who Invented Christmas” does so well comes down to the way it broaches the material. We know the steps Scrooge’s redemption will follow, but watching it be informed by and contrasted with Dickens’s struggles lends them new weight. The emotional climax is a truly fantastic repurposing of the Christmas Future scenes that puts a lovely bow on both stories, and while the dialogue doesn’t always sing as well as writer Susan Coyne (“Mozart in the Jungle”) seems to think it does — there are moments that seem to have been scripted specifically to provide “trailer lines” — there’s a certain joy to be found in watching Dickens banter with some of his most famous characters.
With that being said, it’s impossible to deny that the image of Dickens consulting literal manifestations of Ebenezer Scrooge and his fellow characters is just the least bit silly. Nalluri and Stevens handle it well enough by lending these moments an almost dreamlike quality in both visuals and performance, but Dickens, as he’s portrayed here, is borderline schizophrenic. He seems to be one superpowered alter-ego from turning into The Beast from “Split.”
It’s easy to take the silliness in stride once one considers that “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is currently the best Christmas movie playing in theaters. It embodies the spirit of the season and of Dickens’s work in a novel way that will likely please fans of “A Christmas Carol” and those who, like me, know it more for the Muppets’ take on the material than anything else. It’s doubtlessly absurd, but in a way, even that serves to buoy its charm and spirit.