by Brenda W. Clough
I’ve been fascinated for a long time by movies and books that depict the creative process. Most depictions of writers, especially on TV are utterly unrealistic. All those impoverished novelists mysteriously living in penthouses in New York City that overlook Central Park: is that anywhere even distantly within the realm of possibility? It’s fantasy.
But there are works that do it right. Sunday in the Park With George is a musical that really gets it. “Dot by dot, building up the image,” yes, that’s how it’s done! And the new holiday offering The Man Who Invented Christmas is another, with added Dickens and Victoriana — irresistible! Knowledgeable people have complained of everything from the loosey-goosey psychology, the size of the newspaper headlines to the anachronistic modern psychobabble to whether it is really possible to believe that the hyper-prolific Charles Dickens ever came within a whiff of writer’s block. I don’t believe that last myself, but I loved the film!
The movie is very -very- loosely based upon the nonfiction book of the same title by Les Standiford. The book is mildly interesting; I assure you that the leap from popular lit-crit to the screen has made the work much more fun. One could of course look at leading man Dan Stevens, a manic and delightful young Charles Dickens, all day. Dickens was famously dramatic, truly the Incomparable, and portraying him has always been catnip for actors. And what I instantly adored was all the truisms of the writing life. Of -course- your characters poke you in bed at night and say, “You better go to the study, you should see what’s happening there.” What else shall your publishers do but fight shy at any innovation, it’s been this way since Homer smote his bloomin’ lyre. Of course the entire novel you’re working on follows you around town, the characters mournfully haunting your restaurant meals and guilting you out whenever you have fun. What else would you expect, but that finding the character’s true name makes him step forward into reality, so that you can interview him? Naturally you draw your inspiration from every quotidian detail of your daily life. No, five tankards of beer do not help with the work in the slightest and you know it, but you drink them anyway. Without fail your family, friends, and even pets are perpetually interrupting you at the crucial moment. All this internal nuttiness is entertainingly externalized, and dramatized on the screen for you.
My own writerish complaint about the movie is that Dickens clearly did not pants the plot of A Christmas Carol — he didn’t have to invent on the fly. I, a pantser born, can clearly see that the work was conceived from start to finish in a single standing broad jump of creativity. We can know that Dickens did not have to agonize about the ending because it is so plainly visible in the very structure of the work. It’s not -long- enough for him to need to invent as he went along — you can see in his other books where he did riff and explore and whiz; I could flip through Nicholas Nickleby with you and show you exactly where. But it’s not in this book. However, I am willing to give the movie this point, because otherwise where would the tension go? And this allows all the characters, Scrooge, the Fezziwigs, Tiny Tim and the whole gang, to sit in Dickens’ study and taunt him about his inability to get it in gear. I love it.