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Citizen Dickens: Bringing 'The Man Who Invented Christmas' from Miami to the big screen

Last December, Miami author Les Standiford and bookseller Mitchell Kaplan stood on a soundstage in Dublin, waiting to hear the name of a certain miserly recluse: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The pair were watching a scene from the new film “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” based on Standiford’s 2008 book of the same name, in which Dickens is at home writing his soon-to-be famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” “Scrooge,” Dickens says to himself, chewing over the name. The word conjures Ebenezer himself, who appears in top hat and tails behind Dickens. The writer, played by Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame, spins around to face his new character, portrayed in the film by Christopher Plummer.

”Pleased to meet you, Mr. Scrooge,” Dickens says.

“Sorry I can’t say the same,” Scrooge replies.

For Standiford, who has waited nine years for a worthy film adaptation of “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 22, this short exchange of dialogue made him giddy. The movie was finally happening.

“I was looking at Dan [Stevens], the dashing young Dickens, and it was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is real, and they even struck the right tone,” Standiford recalls with a laugh. “It’s not the ultimate flattery for a writer, but it’s up there. I remember, after the shoot ended, when I thanked Mr. Plummer for his work. I gave him a copy of my book, and he held it up and said, ‘The reason is all right here, my boy.’ ”

The film version of “The Man Who Invented Christmas” came together with help from a longtime friend, Miami bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books and Books and founder of the Miami Book Fair. Kaplan’s production company Mazur/Kaplan, which he operates with Hollywood producer Paula Mazur, helped to find the film’s financial backing. Kaplan optioned Standiford’s book in 2008 shortly after it was published.

Ebenezer Scrooge and his edifying, time-traveling ghosts are deeply ingrained in popular culture, the subjects of countless stage and movie adaptions. Which is why Standiford thought “A Christmas Carol” was well-trodden territory, until he learned that Dickens had feverishly written the book in six weeks, then self-published it when publishers rejected the manuscript.

“I didn’t know any of these things at the time,” Standiford admits. “Did I know that Dickens was at the end of his financial rope and in despair? No. But I know now that Dickens single-handedly reinvigorated Christmas in his day. Christmas used to be a second-tier holiday, second even to Boxing Day, but [Dickens] took this underappreciated holiday and shot it through with a worldly Christian parable. Christmas wasn’t about gifts, but about the debilitating effects of ignorance and want and the possibility that anyone can be redeemed through charity and love. That was Dickens’ genius.”

Dickens’ impoverished childhood echoes in the pages of “A Christmas Carol,” Standiford says. The film’s screenplay, from writer Susan Coyne, reflects that connection by showing how Dickens drew from his backstory to craft characters such as Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the penniless but warmhearted Cratchit family.

“[Dickens] was a talented guy who believed in his belief system, and he spent every penny he had to borrow from his friends, because he was certain the book would be a hit,” Standiford says. “Thank God he did.”

The reappraisal of a literary titan and his best-known work also appealed to Kaplan, who says he started producing films through a desire to tell the stories of the books he sells in a new medium.

“That’s our secret sauce: We work from the written word, and turn them into films,” says Kaplan, who has 15 film projects in development, including “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” due in theaters next spring. “People like origin stories, and ‘A Christmas Carol’ is one of the biggest selling books in history. Charles Dickens was a social reformer, and he struck a chord dealing with issues of humanity during a time with rampant poverty and few labor laws.”

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” will open Wednesday, Nov. 22, at multiple South Florida theaters. A discussion with author Les Standiford, director Bharat Nalluri and producers Mitchell Kaplan, Paula Mazur and Robert Mickelson will take place 7-10 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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