A man with chin length curly brown hair looking intense sitting down with old fashioned clothes from the 30s and an older gray haired man in black with a black top hat leaning over his shoulder saying something in his ear, bookshelves in the background

Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is haunted by Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) in The Man Who Invented Christmas. (Photo by Kerry Brown/Garlands Films DAC)

Theater troupes and filmmakers persist in telling and retelling A Christmas Carol year after year. And why not? Charles Dickens’s ghostly morality tale makes a moving case for redemption and generosity, the respective hallmarks of the religious and secular sides of the holiday.

The story is such a perfect complement to the season that anyone who performs it competently is likely to meet with success. That is, unless they give in to the temptation to put their own spin on it. Then, all bets are off.

This year, a local theater production and a nationwide movie decided to get creative with the classic tale. In each case, they would have been better off letting Dickens be Dickens.

The troupe is Shadowbox Live, which in the past has given us Scrooge, a movie-to-stage adaptation that musicalized the tale but left its inspiring message intact. This year, Shadowbox remade the wheel with Cratchit, an original production that sets the action in modern America and focuses on Scrooge’s underpaid employee rather than the skinflint himself.

In theory, this could work, and the early scenes are promising. As Bob Cratchit, John Boyd sings the first tune, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with a catch in his voice that shows he expects his Christmas to be anything but merry. In the next scene, Scrooge’s nephew (Andy Ankrom) attempts to coax the old miser (a grumpy JT Walker III) into the holiday spirit and ends up leading a lively dance number set to Pink Floyd’s “Money.”

So far, so good. But then Cratchit drops by the local saloon for an after-work drink and learns bartender Jocelyn (Maria Sagan) is having marital problems. He subsequently runs into his crime-prone cousin, Mikey (Lukas Tomasacci), who recently got out of prison. What does all this have to do with A Christmas Carol? Nothing. It’s simply an excuse for Sagan and Tomasacci to sing, respectively, Counting Crows’ “Long December” and Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free.”

Each scene makes it increasingly obvious that Cratchit is little more than a jukebox musical that uses Dickens’s classic a mere jumping-off point. The cast performs engagingly under Julie Klein’s direction, and several of the musical numbers are fun and tuneful. Summit Starr displays a particularly lovely voice as Cratchit’s wife, Emily, and all four of the Cratchit children (Rosalyn Makofsky, Josh Morris, Diana Richardson and Jadyn Talbott Boord) are a joy to watch.

In total, though, the show comes off as a thrown-together affair that never achieves the depth and wonder of its source material.

Meanwhile, at the multiplex, director Bharat Nalluri takes on A Christmas Carol by focusing on its author in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Again, it’s a promising idea that doesn’t live up to its potential.

Set in London in 1843, the flick finds Dickens (Dan Stevens) facing financial difficulties due to weak sales of recent works such as Martin Chuzzlewit. His solution is to write a Christmas novella that will come out just days before the actual holiday. When his publisher balks at giving him an advance in light of his previous disappointments, Dickens decides to cover the costs himself. That leaves only the matter of actually writing the tale, which is complicated by a severe case of writer’s block.

Adapted by Susan Coyne from a novel by Les Standiford, the film mixes historical fact with a dash of fantasy. In the midst of his creative funk, Dickens is haunted by Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), the very character whose story he’s attempting to tell. But perhaps the greatest fantasy is that Dickens must be convinced by others to turn his new work into a tale of redemption, when redemption is its core message.

It’s also hard to buy the suggestion that Dickens is in denial about the hardships he faced as a boy, considering the influence those hardships had on his literary descriptions of Victorian society. Add Stevens’s gravitas-lite performance, and you get a picture of the influential author that is far from convincing. The handsome photography and Plummer’s wonderful turn as Scrooge are rare pluses in a film that is less magical than the story that inspired it.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG) opened Nov. 22 at theaters nationwide.

Cratchit runs through Dec. 23 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. For show times and reservations, visit shadowboxlive.org.

Bob Cratchit (John Boyd, left) is tempted by recent jailbird Mikey (Lukas Tomasacci) in Shadowbox Live’s production of Cratchit. (Photo by Tommy Fiesel)

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