What Makes a Great Christmas Movie?

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Christmas movies are becoming more and more popular. This year, the Hallmark Channel ran a Christmas movie for the first 25 days of December. Meanwhile, in the theaters there’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, Daddy’s Home 2, and A Bad Moms Christmas. So, what do you need to know to jump into this growing market? What are the basic elements of a Christmas movie?

Family

One of the common elements of Christmas movies is family. One of my favorite movies to watch around Christmas is Little Women. This classic novel has been made into a film four or five times. I prefer the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon.

While the film follows the March family over several years during the Civil War, one of the most memorable scenes is one in which the girls decide to give their delicious looking Christmas dinner to a poor family despite that the March family doesn’t have very much of their own. It’s a charming, warm film that’s wonderful to watch during the Christmas season.

Romance

You’ll notice that while most Christmas films follow family closely, they also almost always include romance. There are two versions of Miracle on 34th Street and both are excellent. A lot of the film revolves around Susan, a young girl who does not believe in Santa Claus. Susan’s single-mom works at a department store and hires the Santa Claus each year. When Susan’s mom hires the real Kris Kringle things start to get interesting. One of the many interesting things about these two movies is the way the romance is handled. It doesn’t really seem to be about the romance at all, but Susan’s wish—the wish she asks Kris Kringle to bring her for Christmas—is for her mom to fall in love and she does fall for the lawyer who defends Santa in court.

Susan meets Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Nostalgia

While there’s often a good deal of nostalgia in Christmas films, A Christmas Story places it front and center. Made in 1983 it tells a story set in the 1940s. This perennial favorite includes lots of scenes familiar to our parents or grandparents, scenes that resonate whatever your age. Notice that while the film does not have a romantic subplot it is very rooted in the quirks and oddities of family.

Ralphie asks Santa for his heart’s desire in A Christmas Story. Photo courtesy MGM.

The Trappings of Christmas

Audiences seem particularly fond of watching scenes that include traditions of the holiday. The classic film Christmas in Connecticut uses those traditions as a key element of its plot. A reporter who writes a homemaking column (played by Barbara Stanwyck) must entertain a GI at her lovely home in Connecticut and serve him the delicious Christmas dinner she makes every year. The problem is she can’t cook, doesn’t have a home in Connecticut and knows almost nothing about homemaking. Throughout the film, she’s constantly thrown up against the traditions of Christmas to great comic effect.

Love Actually. Photo courtesy: Universal Studios

A Great Song

Normally, I don’t recommend calling out a song in your script. Music is a very expensive part of the filmmaking process and weighing your script down with a lot of costly music can be a bad decision. However, the right Christmas song is a great exception to that rule. Love Actually is a film a lot of people enjoy at Christmas time and one of the best moments is at the grade school talent show when “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is sung. It is the culmination of one of the many subplots as a young boy teaches himself the drums so he can be in the contest and get close to the little girl of his dreams. If you decide to add a great holiday song to your script don’t tack it on, make it part of the plot.

Joanna sings the now classic “All I Want For Christmas is You”. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

Okay, what are some of your favorite holiday films and which of these elements do they embrace?

 

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

7 Replies to "What Makes a Great Christmas Movie?"

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck December 25, 2017 (2:36 am)

    One of the clichés of Christmas movies is the “conversion” of a character’s character — the mean-spirited Grinch or Scrooge becomes loving, the child who doesn’t believe in Santa learns the “truth” of his existence. (Stan Freberg’s “Yulenet” sketch subtly places this in a Santa = Jesus context.) It’s hard to imagine a “great” Christmas film without this trope.

    Of the “Christmas Carol”s I’ve seen, the best is (really!) the Muppet version. Michael Caine’s change of heart is modulated and believable. The worst is a horrifyingly awful CBS TV version — with music by Bernard Herrmann!

    Would you be kind enough to contact me, Mr Thornton? I want to discuss some things — which //do not// include selling one of my unproduced scripts. (I had formal training at TheFilmSchool.) Honest.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 25, 2017 (2:55 am)

      Thanks for the comment. Good observation!

    • comment-avatar
      JD Avis December 25, 2017 (10:59 am)

      Gotta disagree with the best Scrooge version. To me, the 1951 Alastair Sim version is the best by far!

  • comment-avatar
    jw December 25, 2017 (6:29 am)

    Merry Christmas Marshall,
    To add to the Christmas Carol /Scrooge debate, the 1970 Scrooge, with Albert Finney. This was also a musical, which is a bit strange as I’m not fond of most musicals or films from the 70’s. but it was one of the most emotionally revealing Scrooges, and Albert Finney was spectacular as usual.
    I am intrigued to check out your Boystown Mysteries. As I am compelled to make my play, ‘Fallen Angels’ into a novel.
    Thanks again for your gifts of wisdom and insight.
    jW

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 25, 2017 (6:33 am)

      Thanks for the comment! I’ve not seen that version of a Christmas Carol, though a musical with Albert Finney is certainly an intriguing idea! Good luck with the play. I think the rules of storytelling translate no matter what form your writing takes. I use what I learned in film school as a novelist every day.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul Rich December 25, 2017 (9:31 am)

    There should be a term opposite of Schadenfreude (pleasure upon seeing another’s misfortune) and that is pleasure upon seeing others perform random acts of kindness (the ending of A Christmas Carol). The reader / viewer is euphoric upon seeing Scrooge’s transformation. I have always fantasized about writing a Christmas movie that would cause convulsions of happy tears. I believe it is an innate desire, especially when everyone is in the good-vibe spirit of Christmas, to believe that people are intrinsically good (something I don’t believe). I have always thought when people go to the movies, it is like going to church. It is a gathered congregation mutually witnessing a sermon by the writer depicting a moral view of the world. The “happy ending” will never go out of style and a good Christmas movie is that on steroids.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 25, 2017 (9:37 am)

      Thanks for the comment. I think all films should have some kind of character transformation. Holiday films tend to wear that on their sleeves–which you kind of point out at the end of your comment. I agree with you that not all people are good. Sociopathy is a naturally occurring phenomenon that afflicts roughly five percent of the population. I do think that most people are intrinsically good.

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