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How do you play the writer who rebranded the holiday spirit?

Photo: Dan Stevens (left) as Charles Dickens and Christopher Plummer (right) as Ebenezer Scrooge in new holiday movie ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

A search on the Internet Movie Database, not surprisingly, reveals a plethora of adaptations of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.” There was a television musical version in 2004, with Kelsey Grammer as Ebenezer Scrooge and Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski, and Geraldine Chaplin as the Ghosts of Christmas Present, Past, and Future (respectively). Back in 1962, an animated television version featured Mr. Magoo as Scrooge. Bill Murray gave us a modern take with “Scrooged” in 1988, then The Muppets got in on the ghostly action in 1992. Hollywood has even remixed the narrative with a serial womanizer (Matthew McConaughey) facing off against a trio of “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

It is safe to say that Dickens probably had no idea his would-be-rebound book would lead to such an expansive cultural touchstone. At its core, “A Christmas Carol” had every intention of reminding readers of the redemptive appeal of a return to the true spirit of giving. That sentimental and universal message, and its expression through recognizable character types like Scrooge, the ghosts, and the loveable Tiny Tim speaks directly to the heart. To a greater extent, the story feels more like a play than a work based on a novel. There is a staged feel to the narrative, complete with character types made for soliloquys in bright spotlights.

In adapting the Les Standiford book “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” television series writer Susan Coyne (“Mozart in the Jungle”) and director Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) venture straight to the source of those rich and familiar voices, the mind of Dickens himself. The premise takes us inside the darker aspects of the creative process—the blank pages and the crushing deadlines, fueled by financial and familial concerns. This is where we find out exactly who Dickens the writer is.

And who better to embody the author himself than Dan Stevens? I must acknowledge that I have precious little evidence to make such a claim, since I have not seen a single episode of “Downton Abbey,” the 2008 TV mini-series “Sense & Sensibility,” or “Legion.” I recognize him as a supporting player in films like “The Fifth Estate,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” before his breakout turn as the Beast in the Disney live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast.”

The intriguing aspect of his performative work is his ability to project his character’s mood through the lens in a similar way to how actors on a stage reach audience members at the back of a crowded theater. His work lacks the natural element we tend to expect from actors living in the skin of a character, but we get the emotion he’s transmitting to us. It is theatrical, certainly, but we know and appreciate the meaning behind the expressions.

I offer that as unusual praise for his work as Dickens in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” because just how real is Dickens to modern audiences? Like Shakespeare, he is more of a cultural creation, a figure studied and documented in academic circles, but lacking in human dimension. His life and world is nothing more than a stage, so why not have a consummate stage performer render him?

And better still, surround Stevens with Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’s father, John, and Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge, actors capable of the same sleight of hand, crossing the great divide between audience and character, whether on screen or onstage? Such actors fill in what might otherwise feel like limited period frames, especially in a narrative like this, which lacks a gallery of notable figures. We critics often speak of gravitas—that foundational experience and wisdom veteran performers gain over time—and we have certainly watched Pryce and Plummer earn it over the course of their celebrated careers.

It is amazing to consider that these two have only one Academy Award between them (Plummer’s Supporting Actor Oscar in 2010 for “Beginners”) because it feels like they have always been solidly dependable presences whether on television or in feature films. And they live by the credo that there’s no role too small or unworthy of their attention. Think of Pryce as Juan Perón in “Evita” opposite Madonna, and as a cartoonishly aristocratic villain in “What a Girl Wants,” or Plummer as Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” or lending his voice to the animated feature “Up.”

It is this passionate search for meaning in stories and characters that drove Dickens. These actors find ways to not only tell stories through the words of others; they translate those words and feelings into an expressive universal language. Stevens, in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” is cementing another monumental stepping stone in his path, bridging the divide between characters and audiences. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving.

Rating: PG

Grade: B