Wonderland: The Story of Christmas – Sky Arts

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Adrian Munsey

It’s the time of year where literature takes centre stage. Perennials such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are repackaged for the season. Adaptations plump out a sparse television schedule; beautiful collectors’ editions appear in bookshops. But this is more than an industry cashing in on our nostalgia: the habitual return of certain books, says something about how Christmas assembles itself in our imagination. In his Sky Arts documentary, Wonderland: The Story of Christmas, film-maker Adrian Munsey explores the relationship between books and Christmas. Unsurprisingly, he starts with Charles Dickens.

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption has become as integral to the rituals of Christmas as Midnight Mass and overcooking the turkey. Dickens’ 1843 novella, documents the extremes of poverty and wealth he witnessed first-hand. Dickens tried to instigate change through political channels, but he soon realised it was not the message, but the messenger. Dickens’ curmudgeonly villain voiced the very worst attitudes towards the poor, but this was not fiction; it was taken from real life. The poor were expected to fend for themselves, and if they couldn’t, too bad. Munsey’s contributors can’t help drawing comparisons between Dickens’ age and our own.

Wonderland treads both sides of the Christmas experience. We trace the writing of Dickens and his contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen, as a response to their difficult, unsettled childhoods. Dickens’ early brush with poverty haunted him, and it was never forgotten. The sense of disconnection also pulls through when discussing Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (started after his mother’s death), and J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan, who lives outside society, outside family, in a kind of limbo – a Neverland.

In its lighter moments, Wonderland delves into the unexpected. The Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R Tolkien, while still touched by the Christmas he spent in the First World War trenches, flung himself into the spirit of the season when it came to the next generation. Writing letters to his children, as if they were from Father Christmas himself, Tolkien went to great lengths to keep up the pretence. As the camera surveys these beautifully-illustrated letters, we discover Tolkien would leave them lying in the fireplace, with a single snowy footprint on the carpet. Tolkien’s attitude to Christmas may have been ambivalent, but in his writing, he was forging new connections.

When it comes to Christmas writing, it would be very easy to tip into sentimentality, but Munsey selects his authors carefully. There is Christmas at old age (Edith Nesbit) and Christmas postponed by grief (Rudyard Kipling). Wonderland celebrates the cosiness of winter reading, but acknowledging that festive fiction still has something important to say.

This is a perfectly-sized festive treat to snuggle down with over Christmas. It will send you back to the classics that have shaped Christmas literature, and how we intellectually and emotionally experience the season. Wonderland succeeds in not only sparking a renewed interest in the stories we know, but encourages us to seek out the ones we’ve yet to discover.

Wonderland: The Story of Christmas will air on Sky Arts at 7pm on Friday 23 December.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Festive treat for book lovers

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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