The Story Behind Charles Dickens and the World's Most Beloved Tale

by Joel Martens

Rage Monthly

Saturday December 23, 2017

Utter the phrase "Bah Humbug!" and there isn't a person on the planet or at least very few, who won't be transported to the dark, inhospitable world that surrounds the old crank, Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are few books that have entered and stayed a part of the world's archive of literary works as has Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." So much a part of the human consciousness is the story that the experiences in the short novella, oft told and oft translated and never once out of print, are now embedded in cultures the world around. Who can't recall those three visitations by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and their ominous warnings about "The chains forged in life, made it link by link, and yard by yard; girded of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

Then there are the foreboding children carried by another of the ghosts: "They are Man's and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

It's a story so familiar to all and though much is known of Dickens prolific body of work, little has been shown about the process of creating his stories. "A Christmas Carol" would eventually revive his sagging career and set him once again on the path of success, making him a literary luminary and offer a foretelling of the many beloved classics that would follow: "David Copperfield," "Bleak House," "The Pickwick Papers," "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations."

A new film by Director Bharat Nalluri, "The Man Who Invented Christmas," sets out to change at least a part of what is known of Dickens creative process. The film takes aim at one of the more challenging moments in his career: He was deeply in debt after three failed novels and desperate to resuscitate his flagging fame. Nalluri, along with seasoned thespians Dan Stevens ["Downton Abbey"] and Christopher Plummer ["The Sound Of Music"], have managed to tell a delightful tale about how he managed to write the story that would entrance the world.

The Rage Monthly sat down with Bharat Nalluri to discuss how a man who didn't really know what Christmas was, went about creating such a classic story around the world's most beloved tale.

How did you come to be involved with "The Man Who Invented Christmas?" Was it a body of work that you had known about and working to develop, or were you approached by someone to do it?

"A Christmas Carol" has always been really important to me. I came across it when I was 12 and it kind of invented Christmas for me. I come from a family that didn't really celebrate Christmas, and yet I was surrounded by all these people in the north of England who were having a great old time, and I wondered what it was all about. I came across this great book ["A Christmas Carol"] in the library, read it and I finally understood what everybody is getting into. It really introduced me to Dickens, who I think is an incredibly important character in terms of literature, in terms of politics and in terms of social change. He was an extraordinary personality, and I've loved his books and in particular, "A Christmas Carol."

It's been done in so many ways and is at the core of most great Christmas films and all those films about redemption, like "Scrooged." Even "Groundhog Day," which is a very populist film, which I love, but at its heart, it's "A Christmas Carol." A man revisits himself, all on the same day, but he basically changes himself and becomes a different person, a better person. So, because of the connection I mentioned earlier, I've been trying to find a new way into telling this story. Some producers heard that I was interested and approached me with the script for "The Man Who Invented Christmas" and told me, "We've got a really clever way of getting into Dickens and 'A Christmas Carol' that's really fun and engaging. Would you be interested?" They sent me the script, a work of genius, really, Susan Coyne's script is such a perfect script.

I'm always interested in how the process of adapting a book works. Is it more of a challenge than coming up with something original?

It has its advantages and its disadvantages. In this case, there is a book called "The Man Who Invented Christmas," the original has a much longer title, that's a wonderful fact-based book around the period when Dickens was trying to write his book. His world, the people who were around him and what did and didn't influence him... and Susan Coyne just ran with that. She came up with this kind of joyous movie in which Dickens is visited by all of his characters and he is lead through his own life and asked to redeem himself. It's a mirroring of "A Christmas Carol" and Dickens' life and was a bit of genius that Susan had.

Dickens is amazing, in a 70-page novella -- and this is why he is loved so much -- he sets up a world and you can see in your mind's eye, the picture he wants you to see. You're in Dickens' world when he writes. I don't know exactly how he does it, but it's almost as if you can see which way the light is coming through the windows. Because of that, I wanted everything you saw in his world referenced in "The Man Who Invented Christmas": The tiles in the fireplace in Dicken's writing room are the tiles from Scrooge's place. There are lots and lots of hidden Easter eggs throughout this Christmas film, and if you know your Dickens, many fun things to look for.

As a filmmaker, that is an extraordinary reference to have, because it kind of does all of the heavy lifting for you. I know exactly what his writing room should look like, how the street should look, or how the bedroom should appear, because we had all the references to it in the book. The frightening thing is, because it is such a well-loved book, you really don't want to screw it up. (Laughs) You've got to hit it just right, because people have such ownership of the story and understand it in a very personal way, having had their own unique experiences through it.

"The Man Who Invented Christmas" is a unique story as far as biopics go. To take such a specific part of Dickens life and focus so tightly in on it must have been a challenge.

Again, Susan's script was remarkable. The genius of focusing in on those six weeks and revisiting Dickens' backstory, through the story he's writing and then combining those two elements, gives it a really lovely time frame. I love contained films, movies that happen over very specific times and then there's a character change. Something very comforting about that for me - I'm not sure what it is, maybe the ticking clock element - I'm just not sure, but I love it. So much of it too is about the performances, you live and die by that. Dan Stevens sucks you in and Christopher Plummer keeps you there. They are the people who travel through the film and take you with them.

It's funny, now that I've seen Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, I can't un-see him or imagine anyone else in the role. It was a brilliant choice.

I think he is the Scrooge of all Scrooges. (Laughs) There is something that he brought to it that blew us all away. He turned 87 on set and he was the first guy there every day, knew his lines, was incredibly generous with all the other actors, a true professional. He also has this wonderful, naughty little boy hidden in there, that little glint in his eye, which is why he is always still so fresh on the screen. That's his Scrooge as well. He's terrifying and cynical, all those things, but because of that naughty boy at the back of it, he's funny, too. It rounds him off beautifully.

How much source material did you have for building the characters? I read that you had access to his daughter's journals, is that something you actually pulled from?

We did all sorts of research, we went to the British Library, got on the white gloves on and touched the first editions of "A Christmas Carol." I'm not sure we really needed to do that, but it certainly imbued us with an "Oh my goodness, we'd better get this right," moment. We looked at the diaries of the daughter, too. It was those diaries that sort of set off Susan's story track.

There's a moment in one when she says that she would walk passed his room and would hear voices emanating from inside. He would be gathering all of these characters, kind of extrapolating things from that. So, in the film he visualizes the characters and they sort of goad him as he discovers them for the manuscript... Basically putting him through a kind of psychotherapy as he is writing. (Laughs)

One of the things that most don't realize, is that Dickens was sort of a social activist. He brought awareness to issues like poverty, homelessness, income inequality and child labor.

"A Christmas Carol" changed the way people felt about the poor. There was a whole movement around charitable giving after it came out. It was a hint to the world that you can be wealthy and give back, it doesn't have to be just one way. It helped to change the laws around child labor and other things, it was all that sort of drip, drip, drip that he kept bringing in to his books. I think that's the most effective way to create change, because people don't feel like they're being preached at. What Dickens was saying was let's just change the clocks, second by second and turn this whole thing around. It doesn't have to be done in one go.

There is a great quote which we use in the film, "No person is useless in this world, who lightens the burdens of another," which is an amazing thing to say. It's not like he's asking you to change the world, he's asking us to lighten the load of another and it's the tiniest things that can do that. I think that is his genius and that's why he resonates and he continues to be someone that we look to and get inspired by.

Words to live by...

"The Man Who Invented Christmas" is in theaters now. Check your local listings for locations and showtimes.

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