Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Man Who Invented Christmas (Movie), or So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters


Scott D. Parker

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.

When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own (yay indie writer). But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooges”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Beau plays hardball

This week, Beau Johnson takes at look at Steve Weddle's Country Hardball, a novel-in-stories.

"Downright dazzling." -- New York Times Book Review

"This debut collection of 20 tales takes a close, respectful look at poor folks in contemporary rural Arkansas. Dark, noirish and worth a look." --Kirkus Reviews 

"Ex-con Roy Alison would like to go straight, but he can't seem to make up for past mistakes . . . Weddle's debut novel is a suspenseful series of interrelated stories . . . of people facing nothing but bad options, though Roy eventually manages to make something good come from his situation." --Publishers Weekly

Get your copy

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Loveoid by J.L. Morin

Not long ago, I read an article in The Guardian saying that international lawyers are drafting plans for a legally enforceable crime of 'ecocide'.  This label would criminalize the destruction of the world's ecosystems.  I'm not sure how this would be enforceable in practice, but I was interested and surprised to read that the notion is drawing support from some European countries and from island nations at risk from rising sea levels. "The aim", said the article, "is to draw up a legal definition of 'ecocide' that would complement other existing international offenses such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide."

Meaning, I suppose, that fiction depicting large scale human destruction of the environment may one day be considered, in its way, crime fiction?

Anyhow, these thoughts and similar ones occurred to me recently when I picked up J.L. Morin's new novel Loveoid, a book that definitely views ecological devastation as something no less than criminal.  The author, who has written four previous books including the 2015 YA cli-fi novel Nature's Confession, is very clear in her views, and what comes across again in Loveoid is that she's a writer committed to exploring and laying out a number of the threats and dilemmas that human beings and this planet face.  

Set in a disputed North African territory, Loveoid takes place a few minutes into the future, as the saying goes. Climate destruction is rampant and the Earth is becoming ever more crowded. Misery abounds. Yet the world's superrich are doing great and continuing to rake in their profits.  They live lavish, in-their-own-world lives, serviced by androids. For them, overpopulation means more consumers to sell to, and for the people who can't stand the debased conditions any longer, who find life too regimented and limiting, there is always the option of euthanasia hotels.  But then something disturbs the lives of the ultra-privileged; a virus hits, something called an extremophile virus, a bug that affects the wealthy in particular. The predatory, unloving nature of the people affected may have something to do with why the virus hits them instead of anyone else, and we get an inkling of what these people are like through a character named Ainsworth, a guy who sounds as if he might have stepped out of a Don DeLillo novel:

Ainsworth’s swift maneuvering through a series of cold and conventional wars had grown Trident Fuel Company from 900 billion into a multi-trillion-dollar player. To say he had a high-profile job was a euphemism. His private fleet of jets and helicopters enabled him to give orders anywhere face-to-face on a spectrum of world-shaping issues. But he still managed to keep up his fascination with women. They offered a flavor of warfare requiring Gordian counter-plotting, frontline technology, and improvisational deceit to effectually undermine their prying, security, and emotional blackmail.

An American biologist named Olivia is hired by Big Pharma to lead the research in finding a vaccine (the loveoid of the title), and in essence, the book then becomes her story, a narrative of her transformation.  Through her connection to an Egyptian astrological farmer named Khalid, Oliva embarks into unusual spheres of knowledge completely unlike the knowledge she has cultivated during her time in the corporate world, and by way of her journey, Morin takes the reader on a mental adventure.  Quantum realities play a part, as do parallel timelines. Love, a diminished value in this profit-driven world, regains its place as a supreme value.  But the planet remains endangered, and those who benefit from exploiting it are not about to go away, even if they have to deal with a virus.

In Loveoid, J.L. Morin spins a tale of awakening and vision, a tale that has hopefulness in it but does not overdo the optimism. Morin writes with both passion and great intelligence, at ease with complex philosophical ideas.  She is not afraid to tackle head-on the most pressing and dire issues of today, and she does so with focus, storytelling verve, and an admirable clarity.  As with much speculative fiction, the novel asks more questions than it answers.  And the questions it asks, the ideas it broaches about humanity's potential, are intriguing.  Still, as is only realistic, the story never entirely sheds its undercurrent of possible doom, a mood that at this specific time seems only too fitting.  Morin must have started her novel before the coronavirus pandemic, with all its attendant fallout and conflict, but one can't help but read a virus novel without our present situation in mind.  And never far below the surface of the narrative, as the rich CEOS do their deals and their plotting and the less powerful people try to sustain themselves with things as basic as love and empathy, is a stark warning. If we don’t take care of Nature, Nature will take care of us. 


J.L. Morin grew up in inner-city Detroit.  Her previous novels include Trading Dreams (2012), a humorous story that unmasks hypocrisy in the banking industry, and the YA cli-fi tale Nature's Confession (2015).  She writes regularly for the Huffington Post and Library Journal and has published in The Detroit News, Agence France-Presse, Cyprus Weekly, European Daily, and World Economic Forum, among others.  

You can get Loveoid right here.


Monday, December 7, 2020

The Gift of Christmas Movies


With temperatures dipping and the presence of a life-threatening virus still abound, inside is the place to be this time of year. There are so many things to keep us cozy and busy this season. This week I'm looking at movies, so grab some snacks and a blanket and scroll down for a list of fun and frivolous holiday movies. 


Directed by Henry Selick and Tim Burton

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a wickedly original and visually stunning full-length work of stop-motion animation.

The Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, rules over the spectacularly spooky Halloween Town. But Jack is growing bored with the continuous fear and fright. When he wanders into Christmas Town, he falls in love with the cheery holiday. Jack and his precocious helpers work to bring Christmas to Halloween Town, but the evil-minded Oogie Boogie has different plans altogether.


Directed by Frank Capra

This holiday classic set the standard by which all holiday films would be judged. So well-made and touching, it can weather continuous, yearly viewings.

This gem follows the life of everyman George Bailey. After a run of bad luck George stands on a bridge on Christmas Eve, desperate and ready to jump. George's guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, appears to show George the positive impact his life has had on his loved ones and the town of Bedford Falls.


Directed by Bob Clark

A Christmas Story serves up a heartfelt sentimental feeling with a side dark humor. This is the rare example of a movie my entire family loves to watch.

This holiday treat tells the story of Ralphie Parker, a 1940's nine-year-old, as he attempts to insure the ultimate Christmas present; a Red Rider BB gun. The antics of both Ralphie and his family make for constant laughs.

ELF (2003)

Directed by Jon Favreau

One Christmas eve, Buddy the baby mistakenly crawls into Santa's bag of gifts and is spirited back to the North Pole and raised as an elf. Years later, after learning that he is not truly an elf, Buddy travels to NYC to find his real father. Elf is a cheerful, good-natured family comedy that has become a classic


Directed by Brian Henson

I have a soft spot for the Muppets retelling of this Dickens classic. It brings a feeling of nostalgia and innocence. Featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge, this movie marked the first time the Muppets appeared on screen since the passing of Jim Henson. His son Brian finished directing the production in his honor.


Directed by Richard Donner

Scrooged is a contemporary and dreamlike retelling of the classic Dickens tale. Bill Murray plays Francis Xavier Cross, a sarcastic and selfish television executive. Cross chooses to spend Christmas alone, despite well-wishes and invitations from family and co-workers. His story aligns with Dickens’ as the spirits of Christmas begin their visits. Bill Murray brings his character to life and laughs.


Directed by Chris Columbus

Through a series of crazy mishaps, 8-year-old Kevin is left home alone after his family flies to Paris for Christmas. At first, he’s thrilled to have the house to himself, but he soon realizes just how much he misses his family. As well, he’s also left to protect the house from a pair of bickering, inept burglars.


Directed by Burny Mattinson

A 1983 animated version of the Dickens classic, with Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge McDuck as the miserly Scrooge. Keep an eye out for stellar cameos by Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, Ichabod Crane, Mr. Toad.


Directed by George Seaton

Miracle on 34th Street delivers a warm holiday message without being overly mushy or gushy. A department store Santa tries to convince a little girl who doesn't believe in Santa Claus and her practical, store-executive mother that he is Santa Claus, and winds up going on trial to prove who he is. This movie has something for everyone. Featuring Natalie Woods, Maureen O’Hare and Edmund Gwynn.


Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

This is the third in the "National Lampoon" series about the Griswold family vacations. As usual, Clark Griswold makes elaborate plans for the event, but the true meaning of Christmas is broken by a series of misfortunes. Things go from bad to worse to funny in this holiday comedy.