Today is the last Thursday in June, so I am taking the opportunity to publish a Breening Thursday article. This is the last article in the series which I will publish until August. I am suspending this series during July because of #CleanMovieMonth2020. Instead, I will publish Code Concepts articles on Thursdays. This series will be back in August, which is #AMonthWithoutTheCode2020.
The film I am breening today is The Man Who Invented Christmas from 2017. This film was suggested to us as a a film to breen by Megan Chappie of The Pen and the Cross. On November 17, 2019, Megan wrote an article in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me. We republished it here on November 30. Every participant in the series gets to suggest two un-Code movies for us to breen. We then choose one of those films and breen it in a future Breening Thursday article. After Megan wrote her article, she suggested this film and Gettysburg from 1993. At that time, leading up to Christmas, I wasn’t doing Breening Thursday articles, so I delayed this topic. I have felt bad about not getting around to one of Megan’s suggestions. Since I have recently gotten into a fairly consistent of publishing in this series, I decided to breen this film as my last breening project before the month-long breening sabbatical in July. I watched this film on Sunday.
Today we are getting ready for Christmas in July with this story about how Charles Dickens wrote his famous Yuletide book, A Christmas Carol, in the six weeks leading up to Christmas, 1843. Starring Dan Stevens as the famous author and an aged Christopher Plummer as Dickens’s imagined character and feared alter ego, Scrooge, this biographical drama was based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Les Standiford. This is the first twenty-first century film we have breened. In fact, it is almost twenty years newer than the latest film we have breened, Mulan (1998). I think that it is accurate to say that, aside from one Hallmark film I watched with my grandmother, this is the first live action film as well as the only non-Disney film from the twenty-first century which my sister and I have seen in its entirety. This was a unique experience for us. It is enlightening and informative to us and our readers to breen more recent films, showing how the Code would effect newer releases.
I remember hearing about this movie when it came out three and a half years ago. I recall seeing a commercial for it somewhere, and I remember that my grandmother spoke highly of it. I know that she appreciated the historical, traditional ideas presented in the advertising campaign, and I believe that she actually watched and enjoyed it. Since my family never watches new releases, we didn’t take her recommendation. Rebekah and I both found this movie more enjoyable than we expected to. It is very wholesome for a modern film. It had a Disney-like quality, which speaks to how family friendly it seems. Perhaps that is also because Dan Stevenson, who starred as the Beast in the live-action Beauty and the Beast the same year, stars in this film. This film was only rated PG, a mild rating these days, so it was obviously intended as a family film. I found it to have some very good qualities. Since I am unaccustomed to current film techniques, I found it a bit subconsciously disturbing to see a whole film with modern styles, such as different coloring, angles, music, lighting, etc. Thus, I found myself dreaming fitfully about it most of the night after watching it right before going to sleep. After thinking about it and rewatching certain scenes, I found that some things are just modern trends, to which anyone can become accustomed, and other things are elements which would need to be changed to make this a Code film.
With no further ado, let the breening begin!
When John Forster (Justin Edwards), Charles’s good friend, comes over to the Dickens house, Mrs. Dickens asks him (Morfydd Clark) “how things stand” between him and his sweetheart, Miss Wigmore. He replies, “Oh, splendid, Mrs. Dickens. In fact, I intend to ask her to bestow upon me the greatest happiness a man can ever know.” Mrs. Dickens doesn’t reply. She just looks very uncomfortable. Seeing her expression, Mr. Forster clarifies, “To marry me.” Mrs. Dickens then laughs, smiles, and expresses her happiness to hear the news. The expression on Mrs. Dickens’s face indicates that she has misinterpreted Mr. Forster’s speech, perhaps inferring some improper relationship. This pause and embarrassed expression should be eliminated. Mr. Forster should say “to marry me” without stopping.
At the end of the scene, Charles and Forster leave the former’s house. Charles complains about the cost of keeping up social appearances, saying, “It’s – expensive being a gentleman.” The profanity in this line is quite out of place. Since it is the only instance of foul language in the film, I suspect it was intentionally added to ensure a PG rating. This word, the harsh form of darn, should be replaced with some non-profane adverb like awfully.
Next, Forster and Charles go to his publishers. Trying to sell the two men on his friend’s writing ability, Forster opens the scene by saying, “Charles bloody Dickens is the best-selling bloody author in the history of English bloody literature.” The bloodshed in the sentence is far too gory for Code standards of violence! The word bloody is a British forbidden expression which was practically profanity in Victorian England. Its usage is never acceptable unless in a literal sense. I don’t think that any Englishman of the period would actually use that word to such excess. The three uses of the word should simply be removed. The sentence would have the same meaning but would but much less, well, bloody.
Later, Charles and Forster go to a club to dine. Charles, who is already in a bad mood because of his poor finances, is further irritated when fellow author William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp) comes over to his table to “console” him about the poor reviews which his latest book received. After he has left, Charles complains that he hates London because it is no place for a man without money. “Not to mention the bloody fog,” he adds crossly. The italicized word should be replaced with something like miserable.
That night, Mr. and Mrs. Dickens are shown in bed together for the night. The context is not suggestive, yet the general principle under the Code was that even married couples should not be shown in bed together. As I explained in my Code Concepts article about twin vs. double beds, it was the British aversion to seeing a man in woman in bed together which led to the PCA’s ban on the depiction of shared marital beds. In the Victorian Era, during which this film is set, married couples often had separate bedrooms. They can be in the same room in this scene, but I think that twin beds would be more proper, since the actors aren’t married.
During this scene, Charles complains to his wife that he should have gone into some other line of business. However, she reminds him of his negative feelings toward each profession he mentions. When he lists law, she replies, “‘The law is an ass.’ I believe you wrote that.” This is a quote from Oliver Twist. In the book, Mr. Bumble says, “The law is a ass – a idiot.” Note the poor grammar of the character, saying a instead of an. At the time, ass was often used to mean a fool or an idiot. However, by 2017, the word had become associated with other meanings. Thus, I think that it is better to avoid it here. Instead, she could use the latter part of the quote, saying, “The law is an idiot.”
Mrs. Dickens then remarks to her husband, “Do you know what I should have liked to be? An explorer. Paddling a canoe somewhere in the wilds of Canada in a pair of buckskin breeches, all on my own. No nappies to change.” This daydream is obviously inspired by the book she was reading, Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie. This was an account by the authoress about her experiences as a British immigrant to the forests of Canada. However, there are some historical errors here. Firstly, this book was not published in London until 1852, yet this film is set in 1843. Secondly, the feminist fantasy which Kate Dickens describes of paddling a canoe by herself while wearing breeches is hardly something women of the 1840s considered. She sounds very serious about wishing to be an adventuress instead of a housewife. This is an extremely unrealistic view of Victorian women, not to mention Mrs. Moodie’s book, which describes a very harsh life in the Canadian bush. I think it would be better for Mrs. Dickens to be reading a different book and to mention a more realistic wish, such as wanting to be an actress. Charles could look at her and laugh, realizing that she is largely joking.
The next evening, after Charles gives a lecture, a couple discusses his writing as they are walking out. While the wife says she loves Mr. Dickens’s books, her curmudgeonly husband says that he does not share his admiration. Annoyed, Charles curtly asks, “What is it you particularly object to in my books?” The man responds, “Pickpockets, streetwalkers, charity boys. Those people don’t belong in books.” The term streetwalker is much too pointed a reference to a woman of the “oldest profession.” It is not acceptable for such a reference to be included in a Code film, since all references to women of ill repute had to be vague due to the sinful nature of the profession. Also, Victorians were very prudish, so it is unlikely that a gentleman would say that word so plainly in front of his wife. Instead, he should use the delicate Victorian expression unfortunate women.
After leaving the hypocritical critic of his books, Charles crosses the street to find himself in a very poor neighborhood. When he sees a Fagin-like man selling two children, he runs after him down a dark corridor. As he is running through this stone corridor, he passes a woman who looks like an unfortunate woman. With her dirty burgundy dress and casual manner, she looks too much like a woman of the streets. Instead, perhaps an old beggar lady could be shown.
I must mention here a central theme of this story, which needs a little revision. This film presents the idea that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas in England. It is true that it played a huge part in the return of traditions and celebration. It popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas,” inspired generous giving throughout the land, and convinced people that Christmas was a holiday whose traditions should be observed by urban people as well as peasants. However, the publishers’ reaction to Christmas is a little inaccurate. One of them says in reference to Christmas, “Does anybody really celebrate it anymore? Apart from our clerk, who never misses an opportunity to take a day off with pay.” For this gentleman to wonder if “anybody” celebrates Christmas presents an unrealistic desertion of this Christian holiday in early Victorian England. According to Wikipedia, in early 19th century England, Christmas celebrations were associated with the countryside and peasant revels, so increasingly urban and modern city society found such simple celebrations disconnected from industrial life. This book showed that Christmas still could and should be celebrated in major towns and cities. To reflect this, I think the publisher should instead say, “Do Londoners really celebrate it anymore?”
Soon after, Charles and Forster visit Mr. Haddock (Donald Sumpter), a solicitor. As the miserly old man is searching the papers on his desk, he finds a dish of biscuits (which Americans call cookies) which have been on his desk for who knows how long. As Mr. Forster politely reaches into the dish to take one, we see that worms are crawling on them. This image is quite revolting. There must be no worms on the food. Instead, the biscuits should appear very stale. Forster could perhaps show this by struggling to bite into one of them due to its hardness.
Later, Dickens imagines that he sees characters in his book, such as Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). While Scrooge is in his room, the Ghost of Jacob Marley (Donald Sumpter), is heard approaching the door. When the door bursts open, Marley’s Ghost lets out a horrific yell. This spectre, who is played by a very old man, looks like a zombie because of the ghoulish white and grey makeup he is wearing. His appearance is much too horrific and zombie-like, and the yell is chilling. When he first enters, he should not wail. Regarding his appearance, I suggest that he look more like the description in the actual book A Christmas Carol. Aside from wearing more antique clothing, such as a waistcoat, tights, and a pigtail, he is described as being transparent and having a folded kerchief
bound about his head and chin. This description was reproduced very accurately in the Code film of this story, which was made in 1939. Although the clothing need not be accurate to Mr. Dickens’s writing for Code compliance, I suggest that he be made transparent. With this change and a lessening of makeup, he will look like a ghost rather than a zombie. Also, he shouldn’t stagger with the manner of a zombie, rather with a calm, spectral manner as he drags his chains. I also suggest an elimination of the final wail, which ends the scene. If he must wail, it should be ghostly. He is just screaming as though he is being murdered. I don’t think that is what was meant by Dickens’s words, “the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise….”
The next objection occurs when Scrooge awakens Charles in the middle of the night to see the Ghost of Christmas Past (Anna Murphy). When she tells Scrooge to follow her, he replies, “Not bloody likely.” This usage of the forbidden expression, like the previous ones, is unacceptable. The italicized word should be replaced with something like very or at all.
Later, Charles is standing in front of a bookstore window at night, surrounded by the characters from his book. While being annoyed by Scrooge, Charles hears something behind him. He turns around to see a giant statue, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. As the statue begins to move, loud cracking noises are heard. These sounds are rather gruesome. Although this spirit is always the sinister one, the cracking sounds should be omitted to prevent this ghost from being too frightening.
Eventually, Charles goes to the bootblack factory where he worked as a boy. In a flashback, he remembers working there soon after his father was taken to debtors’ prison. This sequence is extremely dark, not only in content but in actual lighting. The dim, bluey lighting of the scene adds to the horrifically gloomy feeling, which I found quite disturbing. To lessen this, I suggest that the scene be a bit brighter in terms of lighting. I also suggest that it be presented with less fancy editing, such as echoes on the voices, slow motion photography, and quick cutting back and forth between things. I think that, if it were presented in more of a realistic feeling, I think that it would have less of a disturbing impact. I was disturbed by it myself, so it certainly would be troubling to many children.
During this flashback, one of the other factory boys cruelly gives young Charlie a dead rat as a mocking Christmas present. Less focus should be put on the actual dead animal. Perhaps the rat should be smaller.
After this cruel gesture, Charlie attacks the other boy, and a violent ensues. The other lad, who is significantly bigger, quickly knocks Charlie to the floor. As he punches in the face, this is much too violent. He should just be shown knocking him down, but actual punching should not be shown.
As Charles comes back to the present in the factory, Scrooge taunts him. Charles finally overcomes him by mentally willing the old miser into an open grave right in the factory. Eventually, the grave’s dirt walls start closing in before Charles, realizing how to end his book, opens them again. The fact that a live man is standing in a grave is quite ghoulish and horrific. There should be no open grave in this scene. Instead, there should just be a tombstone, as in the book. Scrooge should kneel before it and cower in horror when he sees his own name on the tombstone. That would keep the purpose of the scene without include the gruesome image of his standing in the open grave.
That concludes my breening of the film itself. Only one further problem remains, and that is the work’s title. The fact that it calls Charles Dickens the inventor of Christmas borders on the sacrilegious. Christmas is one of the most important Christian holidays, yet Mr. Dickens’s famous work is entirely secular. Thus, the title should be changed. I suggest something which is a little clearer about what the film actually is. Something like Dickens and His Christmas Carol or The Man Who Wrote “The Christmas Carol” is a possibility, although these are just suggestions. Personally, I think it should be called The Dickens Christmas Ballad, which reflects one of the first titles which Charles suggests for the book.
That is the end of my breening of The Man Who Invented Christmas, or should I say The Dickens Christmas Ballad? I really enjoyed watching and breening this movie. It was very entertaining. I found most of the acting to be very good, although the style is definitely different than that in classic films. I appreciate the historic details of this piece. From costumes to story details, it is a fairly accurate and faithful depiction of Charles Dickens, his era, and how he wrote A Christmas Carol. This film has a refreshingly small amount of objections, so it wasn’t difficult to breen. This movie’s makers obviously had good intentions. They wanted to make a generally wholesome and impacting movie which promotes the importance of generosity and forgiveness. It also was a unique way to revive and glorify the beautiful Dickens novel about the true meaning of Christmas. Thank you for the suggestion, Megan!
Merry Christmas in July! I will see you for more exciting breening projects in August. If there are any films which you would like us to breen, please leave us a comment with your suggestions. Until then, in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one!”
Click here to join our monthlong celebration of nothing but American Breen Era (1934-1954) movies in honor of the Production Code Administration’s anniversary, #CleanMovieMonth2020!
Click here to join our upcoming blogathon about American Breen Era movies adapted from classic literature, the Code Classics Blogathon!
Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!