Recently, I was asked to appear on the Podcast, The History of Literature, to discuss holiday movies from a screenwriter's perspective. Oh, what fun!
To prepare, I decided to fire up the Roku and see what holiday treasures were available, what classics I'd overlooked, and what new offerings were in store. To say that I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of titles, new and old, is like saying Santa can afford to lose a couple . From White Christmas to The Christmas Chronicles, my streamers were serving up a veritable lifetime's worth of holiday fare. But being as my classes are on winter break, and Moviepass was telling me that no movies were available in my area, I nuked up some popcorn, nestled into the couch, and started watching.
This then, are my observations about holiday films, what they have in common, what makes a good one, and what you need to know to write one yourself:
Full disclosure, I have never written a holiday movie. So my experience with them is as a viewer and academic, not a practitioner. That said, I’ve seen a lot, and have opinions about what works and what doesn’t.
And the primary thing that I will say is that the rules, the observable patterns of structure, and story, and character, and theme that go into making a good holiday film are the same rules that go into the making of any good movie, the telling of any good story.
A flawed hero with a clear, urgent, visible goal, who takes action to achieve it despite overwhelming obstacles. Raising conflict and stakes. Events connected causally through the laws of probability and necessity. A clear beginning, middle, and end, with a dramatic questions posed at the set-up and answered in the conclusion, in which our hero undergoes a change, often sacrificing what they want for what they need.
Aristotle talked about all these elements in the successful plays and epic poems of his day, and they are just as true for the White Christmases, Home Alones, and Bad Santas of our time. Adherence to these patterns, the acceptance that there is a right way to tell a story that is built into our DNA (and which is encapsulated in my book) is often the determining factor in whether these holiday films, like any films, are successful, artistically or commercially.
But like any genre, there are elements unique to holiday films.
One such element is that holiday films can also encompass any other genre. Comedies, dramas, musicals, horror movies, sci-fi, road trip, rom-com, family. Each of those genres have their own iconography, the codes and conventions that we associate with them, the tech or aliens of sci-fi, the magic of fantasy, the saloons and gunslingers of the western. But each of these genres can be utilized in a holiday film.
That’s because holiday films, as redundant as it sounds, are primarily defined by the one essential property that they are set during the holidays. And for all intents and purposes, that’s Christmas.
Which means their unique iconography include the settings, tropes and clichés associated with the holidays: snow, decorations, caroling, trees, Santa, family gatherings, etc.
But what truly defines the genre, much more than the visual elements, the characters, props, and settings, are the sentiments it evokes and comments upon, sentiments that we associate with the holidays. So the genre is best categorized by the filmmakers’ attitudes toward those sentiments, from the extremes of pure schmaltz to pure cynicism, and the success of the films, from an artistic point of view is really dependent on how well those feelings are conveyed and adopted by the audience.
Which means, it really depends entirely on who is watching it, and their state of mind at the time, whether they are susceptible to the melodramatic manipulations of a Hallmark movie or provoked to giggles or hostility towards them. So for this reason, holiday movies can get away with a far broader range of quality than most movies. There’s an audience for all of them, which is why there are hundreds of new ones every year, mostly disposable, since it really doesn’t take big stars, special effects, big budgets, or that much originality or skill, to provoke a meaningful emotional response from someone eager and susceptible to it, as many people are during the holidays.
So it is important to acknowledge just what ARE the various sentiments associated with the holidays that successful holiday films evoke:
I think these are the main ones:
1) FAITH IN THE DIVINE. Of course, the holiday is associated with the birth of the figure that forms the basis of the belief system adopted by the majority of purveyors of the holiday film, so this makes sense. But it takes many forms, whether overt religious figures like Jesus, Joseph, and Mary or stand-ins like Clarence the angel or even Santa, a decidedly non-religious purveyor of spiritual belief. Because what we are really talking about is MAGIC, there is some element of that in most good holiday stories, and what that comes down to is FAITH in the UNKNOWN. Things will work out, whether thanks to God or Fate, but something bigger than ourselves, as long as have faith.
I should note that this is antithetical to Aristotle who didn’t like the idea of the gods coming to resolve the plot of a story. The phrase Deus Ex Machina, God in the machine, refers to the trope of Zeus or Apollo descending in a chariot at the end of a tragedy, to set everything right, because the mortal characters couldn’t do it themselves. Aristotle advised against that, the characters’ actions got them into this pickle and the characters’ actions needed to get them out. So deus ex machinais the unearned ending, the resolution that comes out of nowhere. But holiday films get away with it, since the emphasis isn’t on the problems resolved by a divine intervention, but by the human characters learning to trust in powers greater than themselves, a leap of faith that usually brings about a positive outcome.
2) NOSTALGIA. Because these movies are associated with a particular time of year, they tend to get trotted out on an annual basis, so there’s a nostalgia associated with watching them, recalling memories of years past when we watched them and the feelings associated with our own past holiday experiences. That’s why one of my favorite holiday movies is The Year Without a Santa Claus, when I watch it I recall the shag carpeted living room I first watched it on. We all have movies that we associate with our past, that we look forward to seeing each year because of those personal feelings they evoke. But then the films themselves often revolve around nostalgia, often overtly like in A Christmas Story or Elf or Home Alone which are often about the joys of childhood, anticipating Santa, opening presents, enjoying the snow. But even when more implicit, even a new holiday movie can take us back to our memory of what it was like to enjoy the holidays as a child. Which leads us to the next crucial element:
3) FAMILY. Yeah a lot of holiday films are centered around family gatherings. But most, in some way, are about affirming the importance of family, however the story defines it. Whether it’s Kevin’s family that gets reunited at the conclusion of Home Alone, or the family of soldiers that comes together at the climax of White Christmas to save the inn, or the makeshift family that emerges between the drunken larcenous mall santa and the bullied delusional kid at the end of Bad Santa, or the “it takes a village” we are ALL family sentiment at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, what holiday films promote is the idea that we can’t do this thing called life on our own. And it’s not God that we need. It’s each other. Which is why most holiday stories are built around the theme of banding together to solve a common problem or at least recognizing the value and indispensability of our fellow man. Which leads to the final, and most important sentiment of a holiday movie.
4) THE HOPE FOR REDEMPTION. In many ways, A Christmas Carol, in all it’s iterations, whether with Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Alistair Sim, Mickey Mouse, or Kermit, is the ultimate holiday story. Dealing with the divine (the ghosts), nostalgia certainly (for a bygone era), family (the Cratchitts who are happy despite being poor), and most importantly, redemption (Scrooge the meanest, most selfish, mercenary invidividual in literature) is the HERO of the story. There goes the supposed rule of screenwriting that we have to sumpathize with our heroes. There is no less sympathetic individual in movies than Scrooge. And yet he is the perfect protagonist for a holiday movie. By the simple fact that he has the opportunity to be redeemed. I know that the idea of resurrection is associated with a different holiday, one that doesn’t produce as many movies. But in the best xmas movies, the hero gets reborn as someone new. John McLean, George Bailey, Kevin McAllister, Jack Skellington, the GRINCH, like Scrooge, all find redemption. And all get to wake up on Christmas morning with a whole new hope for their future.
And who doesn’t want that?
Of all the holiday movies I’ve watched, which is my favorite?
Love Actually – a film that defies a lot of the rules of good storytelling. There’s no clear protagonist with a clear goal to pull us through the action. It isn’t structured around a clear beginning, middle and end with a dramatic question posed and answered. It’s really just a collection of vignettes, character pieces, dramas, comedies, tragedies. But what it does astoundingly well is evoke, examine, and even exploit, all those themes we associate with the holidays and a good holiday film. Redemption, family, faith, hope, love, community, forgiveness. In many ways it is the ultimate holiday film since it is defined not by story or character at all, but by pure sentiment.
And a close second: one I never see on any list is Funny Farm with Chevy Chase. It too captures all the sentiments, and is hilarious to boot. Catch it if you haven’t.
Other favorites? I posted the question on Facebook, and here were the most common responses:: A Christmas Story, Elf, National Lampoon’s Xmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34thStreet, Scrooged, A Christmas Carol, Bad Santa, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Home Alone, and Gremlins. And the two most cited: The Ref and Die Hard. Two fantastic movies in their own right, but encompassing all the elements I’ve described as inherent in a good holiday film, the setting, tropes, and themes. Yet in two decidedly unique and fresh plotlines.
Is writing a holiday film de rigeur for screenwriters, like a xmas album is for singers?
I don’t think so. Writers with any kind of longevity tend to gravitate towards consistent genres or types of projects, just the nature of the business. Most work is not from specs, but assignments. Producers have properties they need a writer for. So as a writer you want to write what you enjoy and what you write well and come to be associated with not just writing well, but writing a particular type of film well so that producers will think of you when such a need arises.
So yes, there are writers who specialize in holiday movies, that is their niche. I ran into one at Cinestory this fall. Brian Turner. He wrote Santa Baby, Snowglobe, Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe, My Chrismas Love. Producers know he does them well, call him in when they need one.
Are there special approaches or rules to writing holiday films?
Just the same rules of all good storytelling. But always be aware of the elements, codes, and conventions, specific to the genre. I admire Love Actually, Die Hard, Elf, All Through the House (the first segment of Tales from the Crypt) because they are a good rom com, action movie, comedy, and horror film respectively, independent of being set in the holidays. What makes them good are the same things that make any screenplay good.
But as with any good genre film, a successful holiday film must combine expectations with surprise. There are a LOT of clichés associated with holiday films, mostly because we find them comforting. We go to the movies in general because we are hoping for a particular emotional experience. So we will be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met. At the same time, we will be bored if we know prior to the curtain coming up everything that will transpire. So as screenwriters, we need expectations met AND expectations thwarted. A writer needs to know the tropes and clichés and conventions and they need the skill and originality to do something fresh with them, whether making Santa a drunk safecracker or setting the film during a terrorist siege of an LA skyscraper. An elf raised by humans is a great original concept to explore traditional holiday film themes. Let’s all get together to put on a show to save the farm or a workaholic business woman who has soured on love, not so fresh anymore.
Have holiday films changed over time?
Sure, in the ways all movies have changed. You couldn’t make Bad Santa in the fifties. You can’t make White Christmas today. And would you want to? Sure, there will always be an audience for schmaltz, that’s what Hallmark Movies and 95% of the Netflix moves are for. And more power to them. But in general, we’re more sophisticated as an audience now. Perhaps jaded to some extent. But more than simply evolving, we want our movies to reflect the realities of our current life, and situation, our contemporary concerns, hopes and fears. And those change. So yes, in general, holiday films are different today than fifty years ago, even as the themes have remained the same, but the characters, settings, storylines, the delivery system of those theme, don’t so much evolve as change to reflect the times.
Does one write with an idea of where it will end up, on screen or on Lifetime?
In terms of marketplace, I don’t know anyone who sets out to make an HBO or Netflix movie. If they are hired to write a movie by those services, then yes. But you want to make the best movie possible and get it to as wide an audience as possible. Still, be real. Always be aware of the practical realities of the business, and that this is a blueprint for another medium. So know if this is a big budget movie that requires stars, locations, effects. If it’s a small indie, that doesn’t. If it deals with characters and themes for a broad, general audience, or deals with controversial or niche issues. Know that the roles will be played by actors, staged by a director, financed by producers that want to make money off it.
But at the same time, make sure that you have something you want to say, that you need to say, something that has a part of you in it, that is personal, that you have stakes and investment in on a level deeper than commerce.
That’s the only way to get through it, to get through any screenplay for that matter, that you get something cathartic out of the writing of it, independent of what happens once it’s out of your control.
And those are my thoughts on Holiday Movies. If you want to hear more, please check out the podcast The History of Literature http://historyofliterature.com.
And have a great holiday season!