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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
March 2018

Mitchell Kaplan goes two for two in the film biz

TArtFeature_1his writer grew up listening to her grandmother read a particular excerpt from A Christmas Carol every Christmas Eve -- the part where the poor Cratchit family sits down to enjoy a goose and pudding, and Tiny Tim proclaims, “God bless us, everyone!”

Later we’d watch a movie version of the transformation of the miserly Scrooge on television, usually the 1951 adaptation with Alastair Sim and its plea for social justice reflecting a spirit of seasonal giving and forgiveness.

I didn’t realize that when Charles Dickens wrote the novella in 1843, Christmas, at least in England, was a dreary holiday, not a major celebration -- mostly just a break from the hardships of the Industrial Revolution. A Christmas Carol turned out to not only re-energize the holiday, but also to revive Dickens’s career.

This is what inspired award-winning South Florida author Les Standiford to write his own novel, The Man Who Invented Christmas, about the creation of one of the world’s most famous books, and the formation of Christmas traditions that are now almost global in scope.

But thinking about how to write a book, even for a writer as well-known as Standiford, hardly seems to be a recipe for a visual, gripping movie. Not so, thought Mitchell Kaplan, one of Miami’s cultural icons, and the founder of Books & Books.

ArtFeature_2

Good storytelling is good storytelling, he says, and that holds true for the printed page and the screen. Kaplan says he’d been interested in producing indie films for some years, and his friend’s book intrigued him.

“I’ve always been interested in stories of all kinds, whether in books or in film,” he writes in an e-mail addressing BT questions about the film, “and as someone who sees books very early, the game of whether or not a book would make a good movie is one that I’ve played for many years. I finally decided to take the plunge and option a book that possessed all the elements of not only a wonderful novel, but would translate well to a screen.”

Kaplan had been working with the veteran Hollywood producer Paula Mazur, and together they formed a television and film production company, Mazur/Kaplan. The first book they optioned was 2008’s best-selling Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows, about life on the English Channel island of Guernsey during its World War II occupation by German troops, and the years afterward, and about the love of writing and reading. The movie will be released this spring, was studio-funded, and is directed by Mike Newell.

The Man Who Invented Christmas was independently produced and, in the end, was released first, in November 2017. This month it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray.

But again, it all started with the story.

ArtFeature_3“The same thing that intrigued Les Standiford to write the book drove me to believe that it would be a movie worth making,” explains Kaplan. “The story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol and what it revealed about him and the lasting impact it continues to have is something that came as a revelation to me. I felt filmgoers would be equally intrigued. Beyond that, as a bookseller, I loved how Les was able to create a real sense of dramatic tension in just how Dickens navigated the self-publishing of his book.”

Dickens, as it turns out, was in a slump, with publishers unwilling to take any of his new work. So he published the book himself. Standiford, who is also director of the creative writing program at FIU, found that the story about writing the story of A Christmas Carol was almost as fascinating as the resulting novel.

At a lecture about how he came to focus on this particular story, he said he had little knowledge about Dickens’s process in coming up with characters like Scrooge, the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come, not to mention the nature of a rather grim Victorian England of the time, Dickens’s troubled childhood, and his debilitating writer’s block.

As it turns out, Kaplan and Mazur also embarked on an independent “publishing” venture in making the film. “While we are creative producers,” he tells the BT, “producing an indie film also entails finding the funds to actually make the film, on top of all the creative aspects. This adds an additional wrinkle and pressure. Fortunately, Paula [Mazur] and I work very collaboratively, and we brought in two other producing teams to help in the process.”

ArtFeature_4Kaplan adds that while he intuitively understood the collaborative nature of filmmaking, he had no idea how much he’d would enjoy the experience. “In both cases,” he says, “we worked with remarkable partners.”

Those partners included Canadian funders, the New York-based Bleecker Street distribution company, an Irish film location, and some high-caliber actors: Dan Stevens, loved by Downton Abbey viewers, as Charles Dickens; Jonathan Pryce as father John Dickens; and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge.

“There’s a certain combination of luck, vision, and timing that allowed for our superior casting,” comments Kaplan. “Paula and our team of producers worked very hard to get our remarkable screenplay in front of these actors. That they were all available was miraculous.”

Because this is based on historical fiction, Dickens in the film deals with his family, his debt, his writer’s block, all the while coming up with the always brilliantly descriptive names for his characters and then encountering them along the way. So we meet, in a lovely snowy Dublin setting, Scrooge, poor old wandering Marley, and, yes, Tiny Tim. We see the origins of phrases now iconic in the English vocabulary, including “Bah! Humbug!”

While Dickens addressed the dark side of life with its social inequities not dissimilar to ours today (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” asks Scrooge; or when the Ghost of Christmas Present states, “This boy is ignorance, this girl is want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!”), the film funnels Dickens’s humor throughout, reminding us why the novel is beloved and why the making of its origins was such a smooth transition to screen.

As for Kaplan, more books-to-screen are in the hopper. Next up, after the release of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, “a number of different projects, including The Silent Wife, [described as a psychological thriller] starring Nicole Kidman.”

 

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