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Novi author's book 'Baby in a Manger' adapted for TV, to air Christmas Eve

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

From the very beginning, author Dana Corbit Nussio had a clear vision for a scene in her 2004 book “Child in a Manger.”

“I had an image in my head of all these people at a live nativity scene. Everything’s going swimmingly until the doll in the manger starts to cry,” explained Nussio, of Novi. “Somebody’s obviously left a baby. That was the concept. It was one of those things I could just picture – I knew it should be a movie, and I told people it should be a movie, but nothing ever happened with it.”

Until earlier this year.

A native of Indiana, author Dana Corbit Nussio has lived in Novi since 1995. She has written more than 20 romance novels for Harlequin.

Her Harlequin novella has been adapted into “Baby in a Manger,” which debuts at 7 p.m. Dec. 24 on UPtv, starring Monica Knox and Michael Morrone.

Nussio found out about this at the beginning of 2019.

“I was in shock! I was outside shoveling the driveway when I got the message from my editor. I’m pretty sure I screamed. There wasn’t anyone around to hear me because I was shoveling,” she said, laughing.

The very first scene of the telefilm has Alison Hensley (Knox), a Child Protective Services agent, playing Mary in a nativity scene at a church on Christmas Eve. When the doll standing in for Baby Jesus is somehow replaced by a baby girl who starts crying, everyone is astounded. Alison declares that the play is over and immediately goes into action.

Michael Morrone and Monica Knox star in "Baby in a Manger." They play a police officer and Child Protective Services agent, respectively, who don't see eye-to-eye on what to do with an abandoned baby. Image courtesy of Brain Power Studio.

Brock Layson (Morrone), a police officer who’s new to the area, tells Alison that this case is now a police matter. The two butt heads on how to proceed with this abandoned baby, but call a truce, especially when Alison has to take the baby in on Christmas Eve since no foster homes have room. As they try to locate the baby’s mother and decide their next course of action, Alison and Brock grow closer.

Knox immediately connected with her character, whom she called headstrong, very career-focused, very solid on her two feet.

“She’s this very strong woman,” said Knox. “I liked that there was some grit to her. She was tough, strong in her morals, but there’s also another side to her – a softer side. There was some heartache, too, in her life in regards to her family… It was a character that I immediately gravitated towards; I love strong women characters who aren’t afraid to speak their minds and stand up for what they believe in, but she can be vulnerable too. As an actor, that’s so great… you get to play both levels, which I think is exciting. That’s initially what attracted me.”

This project was the first where both Knox and Morrone played the leads.  

“We got to experience that together. We immediately had a bond from day one; we were rooting for each other, we supported each other on-set. Off-set, we were learning lines and working on scenes together. We were both pretty passionate in terms of wanting to make this a really great holiday film for people to enjoy and just wanting to take it all in. We were so grateful – we just had a blast. (Michael) was a lot of fun on set to be around. He always had loads of energy. He was always making me laugh.”

Once Nussio learned of the adaptation, it had already been filmed. She reached out to Knox, who sent her promotional materials and kept her informed.

“We were never introduced. I was going off the script. Later, down the road, Dana actually (introduced herself) to me on social media,” said Knox. “We ended up connecting that way, which was really fun and exciting. It was neat to get her perspective. We never did work together directly, but we did talk about the film.”

Although she’s nervous about watching herself perform, Knox was pleased with her portrayal of Alison. She watched it with her two daughters, who gave it a thumbs up. Nussio was pleased with the adaptation as well.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Nussio. “I didn’t know how I’d feel about it. My husband liked it, too, which is high praise.”

Child Protective Services agent Alison Hensley (Monica Knox), dressed as Mary during a nativity play, finds an abandoned baby in a manger. She flashes her creds to police officer Brock Layson (Michael Morrone) in "Baby in a Manger."

Some changes were made in the adaptation, according to Nussio. Brock’s surname in the book is Chandler. The story occurred in Indiana, but the film version occurred in Canada (it was filmed in New Market, Ontario).

“It was wild to see my story come to life,” said Nussio.

Knox explained what makes this movie stand out from other Christmas movies that flood the airwaves during the holidays.

“Even when we were starting this project, I remember one of the producers mentioning this one goes a little deeper in terms of the subject matter than most Christmas movies,” she said. “There are some complicated scenes in the movie. A baby is left in a manger by her parents. It explores acceptance, tolerance, and understanding – themes when it comes to a young mother leaving her child and what a complicated decision that would be and the reasons behind it.”

That begs the following questions: What happens next once the parents are found? Does the baby go into the foster care system? How is it dealt with?

“Christmas movies can often be seen as fluffy and nice – and (this one) is. It has a magical, Christmas quality to it,” said Knox. “It’s an uplifting movie and love does bring it altogether in the end, but I think it does go deeper than the average Christmas movie by exploring more complicated topics.”