Five Great Holiday Films and How to Copy Them

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The film that made ugly holiday sweaters cool. Bridget Jones's Diary. Photo courtesy: Miramar

The film that made ugly holiday sweaters cool. Bridget Jones’s Diary. Photo courtesy: Miramax

Well, it’s that time of year again: enormous meals; relatives; decorations; tension; parties; presents; a bit too much alcohol; hope and disappointment. And, most importantly, movies. While everyone always gets asked questions like “When are you getting married?” or “When you have a baby?” at the holiday table, those of us who are screenwriters also get asked, “When are you going to sell a script?” or even “Why don’t you write a Christmas movie?”

I can’t help you with most of the questions you’ll be asked this season but I can help you with holiday movies. Here are five great holiday films and suggestions on how they will help you write your own.

Jodie Foster directs this bitter sweet comedy about a single woman who goes home for the holidays. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Jodie Foster directs this bitter sweet comedy about a single woman who goes home for the holidays. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Home For The Holidays (1995)

Family dramas are a hard sell these days. It’s rare when you see a film that is simply about the problems of one family. Set it at the holidays, though, and suddenly Hollywood is more interested. Home for the Holidays is a great example of this, serving decades of family tension with a Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings. While the drama (and comedy) is specific to this one family, it’s also something we all understand. Every family has holiday tension at one point or another, so audiences identify with it. A holiday film can become a sugary coating for whatever difficult thing you want to write about.

The other take away from Home For The Holidays is that it’s not only about Christmas. Write a holiday film about Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s Day or the Fourth of July or Halloween. They’re all great opportunities to write what you want to write.

Written and directed by George Seaton, Miracle on 34th Street is an American classic. Photo Courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Written and directed by George Seaton, Miracle on 34th Street is an American classic. Photo Courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Miracle on 34th Street (1947 and 1995)

On the flip side, a lot of holiday films are actually about the myths of the holiday—typically posing the question, what if this myth was real? What if Santa Claus is real? Is the basis for a lot of films, The Santa Clause (1994), The Polar Express (2004), and one of my favorites, Miracle on 34th Street. I happen to enjoy both the original and the remake. There are, of course, a few films that are actual representations of the myths, but part of the fun of making the myth real is to bring disbelief and belief into dramatic conflict. Doris/Dorey Walker has raised her daughter not to believe in Santa, so when Santa actually shows up in their lives mother and daughter have an excellent character journey from disbelief to belief.

John McClane fights bad guys at Christmastime. Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

John McClane fights bad guys at Christmastime. Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Die Hard (1988)

Certainly, an action film about a man saving his wife from terrorists/robbers did not need to be set at Christmas. It would certainly play at any other time of year. And yet, the idea of setting it at Christmas – the time when we are all supposed to be together no matter what – heightens the already high stakes. Die Hard does this and so much more. It also creates visual opportunities, as well as, being a fertile subject for the kind of quips action movies thrive on.

Photo courtesy: Miramax

Photo courtesy: Miramax

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

When you write any kind of story, one of the things you’re constantly juggling is time. As a screenwriter, you’re juggling not only the length of the film—which cannot become absurdly long—but also the time the film covers—which is sometimes absurdly long. A great example of using the holidays to denote time passage is Bridget Jones’s Diary. The film begins with one Christmas, continues through the next Christmas and ends on that New Year’s Eve. Certainly, there are other ways to denote time passage; changing wardrobes and hairstyles as one example. But the holidays provide remarkably clear delineation.

I should note that while I enjoyed both Bridget Jones’s sequels, the second film makes a hash of time and the third seems to abandon it completely. Time-wise, copy the first film but leave the other two alone.

It's a Wonderful Life. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

It’s a Wonderful Life. Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

This charming film was not a big success when it first came out. In fact, it was not a big success until it fell into the public domain for a few years. When a film falls into public domain it can be shown for free. In the seventies there were still a lot of independent television stations looking for free or cheap programming. Those stations began playing It’s a Wonderful Life over and over each year throughout the holidays. And that turned it into a classic.

What’s interesting about the film from a screenwriting perspective is that it combines each element I’ve described above. It’s a family drama that could certainly have been told in another way. It brings myth to life, asking the question, “What if angels were real and could show me the error of my ways?” It uses the holiday to heighten the tension. While the story goes back in time – and sideways to alternate realities – it uses Christmas to always denote the present.

So, whether you bring your characters to the holidays or create your characters from the holidays, holiday films are actually a great way to tell the story you want to tell. What are you favorite holiday films and what have you learned from them?

 

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

10 Replies to "Five Great Holiday Films and How to Copy Them"

  • comment-avatar
    Rick Eager December 16, 2016 (9:07 am)

    Thanks for the article as there is plenty of food served for holiday thought! I’m more of a comedy writer myself, with that said, I love anything John Hughes. Christmas vacation is a classic and I think one thing that makes it that way is Cousin Eddie. I think deep down we all have a “Cousin Eddie” in our family somewhere, so he may be the extreme version of a totally relatable holiday/come to dinner character. Speaking of extremes, and on a scale, for a holiday script (and real life) there’s the bah humbug, Ebenezer Scrooge type on the lower end, and the overly enthusiastic Buddy the Elf type on the higher end. Ahhh… the possibilities, right!?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 16, 2016 (9:33 am)

      Appreciate the comment. And you’re right, so many possibilities when it comes to holiday films.

  • comment-avatar
    Christopher December 16, 2016 (9:07 am)

    What? The Ref didn’t make the list? Now that’s just a crying shame…

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 16, 2016 (9:34 am)

      You know, I haven’t seen The Ref since it came out… it didn’t come to mind. What would you learn from that kind of film? Would you call it an anti-holiday film?

  • comment-avatar
    Karen Crider December 18, 2016 (1:13 am)

    I remember a Christmas film I watched as a kid called, All Mine to Give. It was a story about a family whose parents died of some awful disease, and the kids were fostered out at Christmas. It was a heart breaker because it ran counter of what Christmas should be. Instead of a time of coming together, it became a time of tearing apart. And I may not have all the details right, but I never forgot the gist of the play. It wasn’t a movie honored with awards, but it was powerful, the kind you never forget. To me, that’s the mark of a well written play.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 18, 2016 (4:33 am)

      Thanks for the comment. Sounds like a very interesting film and a good one to learn from.

  • comment-avatar
    Gary Logsted December 19, 2016 (10:43 am)

    Let’s not forget “A Christmas Story” as one of our quintessential Christmas movies. More than life itself, the boy desperately wants an air rifle for Christmas. He leaves little hints around, asks his mother, asks his teacher, writes an essay, pummels the town bully over his despair, and even asks Santa. But in the end it’s only “the old man” who truly understands what it means to be a twelve-year-old boy. Now there’s a Christmas message for the whole family.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 19, 2016 (10:58 am)

      Yes, “A Christmas Story” is a classic. A bit of family drama mixed with a lot of nostalgia.

  • comment-avatar
    Jamie December 27, 2016 (4:58 am)

    This is one time where televison REALLY fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather. I for one am very grateful to have been here.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 27, 2016 (5:19 am)

      lol… took me a minute before I got it. Yes, Groundhog Day is a great example of a holiday movie. It takes the myth, about predicting the future, and pairs it with a plot playing with the same idea. Excellent movie.

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