It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in late December. We’ve just finished watching what has come to be my favorite Christmas movie ever—The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s the story of Charles Dickens who, between the middle of October and the nineteenth of December, wrote and published his masterwork—A Christmas Carol.
Every year, Bill and I carve out enough time to listen to Jim Dale’s audio version of A Christmas Carol. I love sitting quietly, listening to the words Dickens plucked out of his brain to tell the story. Old Marley was dead as a doornail. If Marley isn’t dead, then the story doesn’t start, and if Tiny Tim dies, the story has no point.
The movie tells the story of a writer with writer’s block who is fighting an impossible deadline, with family issues and financial concerns all hovering in the background. It’s the story of a non-outliner embarking on telling a story without having a firm idea of where it’s going. It’s the story of a writer creating incredible fiction on the foundation of a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood that saw hm shipped off to a workhouse at age twelve. Charles Dickens knew the reality of what happened to the poor in London in the 1800s. When he created the perilous existence of the Cratchit family, he understood all too well whereof he spoke and wrote. And in showing how the Cratchits found hope and grace in their modest celebration of Christmas, he managed to give hope and grace to everyone who has read, seen, or heard the story ever since.
This movie speaks to me on more than one level. There’s the uplifting tale itself, but there’s also the story of the writer’s life and how how that tale came into existence. In the movie, Charles Dickens turns the people he meets in day-to-day life into seemingly living, breathing characters. Unfortunate encounters with a doddering waiter and another with a greedy barrister turn into Marley. An impromptu celebration in the street morphs into Mr. and Mrs. Fuzzywig, while a physically ill relative, a young nephew, provides the inspiration for Tiny Tim.
In the movie, as Dickens collects his cast of characters, they become a sort of Greek chorus, hanging about outside his window, peopling his dreams, and clustering around his desk in his writing room. They boss him about, telling him what they will and won’t do. That has happened to me, by the way. It was in book number nine, Payment in Kind, when I ran into a character who was supposed to be my killer who JUST WOULDN’T DO IT!
I’ve had my share of sleepless nights when a book simply wouldn’t come to order. At one point in the movie, Dickens tells his agent that he may not be able to finish the story, and if that happens, he may never write again. I’ve felt that way on occasion, too. What a loss that would have been for both of us and for our readers, too.
Earlier today, we tried to watch a “new” version of A Christmas Carol, one that started with someone who was supposedly a poor English boy from the 1800s urinating on a headstone purported to be Marley’s. We didn’t watch more than a minute or two beyond that. We wanted to hear Dickens’s marvelous use of the English language; we wanted to see his vision of hope and eventual joy. Maybe that “new” version delivered hope and joy in the long run, but we didn’t have the patience to wait around to see. For us it was a one and done. Whoever was in charge of the remake didn’t want to be bothered with the original words. They thought Charles Dickens told a “story.” What he did, instead, was give us an enduring piece of inspiration and hope. His story allows us to see that people really can remake themselves into someone entirely new.
When I moved to Seattle from Phoenix in 1981, I had spent too many years in a marriage ultimately destined to fail. I came to Seattle with all my hopes shattered and my dreams in ruins. I had written some poetry prior to that, but I had done nothing about my lifetime dream of becoming a writer of novels. Once in Seattle, however, I gave myself permission to crack open the door and start down that path. In the process of publishing my first mystery, I met and married a wonderful man. In 1986, the year after we married, Bill and I traveled to Arizona to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. While in Phoenix I took him by the insurance agency where I had worked for five years. None of the people in the office recognized me because, during the tough years I worked there, they had never seen me smile and they had never heard me laugh. Seattle gave me back both.
So when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and discovers he has a chance for a do-over, his joy and wonder are palpable. And completely believable, at least for me. There are some people who say, quite seriously, “Don’t mess with Texas.” For me? It’s this: Don’t mess with Dickens.
So yes, next year, right after It’s A Wonderful Life, we’ll be watching The Man who Invented Christmas. And it won’t matter one whit that I’ve seen the story before. It’s a life I live every day—going about my life, gathering up stories and characters as I go.
And smiling every step of the way.