How Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ helped reinvent Books & Books’ Mitchell Kaplan

Christopher Plummer, center-left, stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Dan Stevens center-right, stars as Charles Dickens in director Bharat Nalluri’s ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas.’
Christopher Plummer, center-left, stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Dan Stevens center-right, stars as Charles Dickens in director Bharat Nalluri’s ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas.’ Bleecker Street

There is probably no holiday tale told more famously than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Ebenezer Scrooge, the rich and crotchety miser who transforms into a grandfatherly soul after seeing where his life is going, has been a symbol of the holiday spirit for centuries, along with Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley and the other classic characters from the British story.

Yet Dickens’ novella, considered among literature’s greatest works, almost never came to pass.

It is the back story of Dickens’ travails that unfolds in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” the first feature film by Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan and Hollywood producer Paula Mazur, who formed a production company in 2008. The film opened Wednesday.

Kaplan said the story behind Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” fascinated him.

“The drama surrounding its publication intrigued me,” he said. “And also knowing that in ‘A Christmas Carol’ [Dickens] was revealing something about his own biography.”

The film, which stars Christopher Plummer (Capt. von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”) as the Scrooge-like miser and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley in “Downtown Abbey”) as Dickens, is based on the 2008 nonfiction book by Miami author Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University.

Dan Stevens stars as Charles Dickens in director Bharat Nalluri’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” Kerry Brown Bleecker Street

In December 2006, Standiford was reading a fact sheet about Charles Dickens that a colleague had sent him and read that his novel almost didn’t get published. He began researching Dickens’ life and learned Dickens was coming off three publishing flops — “Barnaby Rudge,” “American Notes” and “Martin Chuzzlewit” — and his publisher punted, saying Christmas was a second-tier holiday and noting his previous poor sales.

It was October 1843. Dickens was 31, had four children and his wife was pregnant with their fifth (They ultimately had 10 children). And their lifestyle was expensive.

Thus, Dickens decided to write and publish the book himself. In six weeks, he wrote the book and self-published it, printing 6,000 copies for the first run.

The book immediately caught on and is still popular more than 170 years later.

“There is no way of counting the total of numbers [sold since 1843],” said Standiford. “I have seen one estimate that 30 million licensed copies had been sold as of 2015, but [that] would not count e-copies.”

Standiford’s book, “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits,” explores this chapter of Dickens’ life and how “A Christmas Carol” had many biographical elements in it.

“I was looking for a book, but there wasn’t any book written about it. There were several books that mention about [Dickens’] struggle, but none dedicated to the story of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” Standiford said.

After the publication of Standiford’s book in 2008, the Mazur/Kaplan Company optioned the book and partnered with Canadian producer Robert Mickelson and The Mob Film Company, out of England, to produce the film.

Nine years later, Standiford’s book finally hit the big screen.

“This one took a little longer than usual, but at the end of the day it turned out as good as it possibly could; I have no regrets. I think we’ve created a film that I’m extremely proud of,” said Mickelson.

The film, directed by Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”), has received mostly good reviews.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas’ feels perfectly consistent with such literary biopics as ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin,’ which trade on a preexisting familiarity with the oeuvre in question,” said Variety.

“When a crass money-grab sequel like ‘A Bad Moms Christmas’ is what passes for yuletide cheer these days, a slightly old-fashioned yet sprightly bough of holly like ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ can’t help but warm the cockles of a moviegoer’s heart,’’ says the Washington Post review.

Kaplan, who recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of Books & Books, and Mazur are working on their next venture. They recently finished the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” starring Lily James (Cinderella on Disney’s live action “Cinderella”) and directed by Mike Newell (“The Interestings”). It will be released in spring of 2018.

“Adaptation is an art and to see a wonderful one come to fruition is very gratifying,” said Kaplan, who said he was always imagining what would make a good film, which led him into the movie business.

Added Mazur: “Books are a great template of storytelling. So we built a business around it.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of years that Mitchell Kaplan has owned Books & Books, and misstated who optioned the book to produce the firm.