Thanksgiving has come and gone and it’s amazing how quickly the world shifts its focus toward Christmas, the lights, the music and of course the movies. Christmas movies are a very peculiar breed. Like the season they represent, they tend to rely heavily on moral fables. Larger-than-life characters inhabit their scenes. Their stories are filled with the dichotomies of good and evil, believer and skeptic, miser and philanthropist even suicidal and grateful to be alive. Though sentimentalism abounds in successful Christmas movies, their humanness allows the audience to overlook it and sometimes revel in it. There are key ingredients to making a successful Christmas movies that some of the very best films have in common.
Create a larger-than-life protagonist. While the big screen always calls for big characters, in Christmas movies the protagonists are super human, sometimes possessing supernatural powers. Jack Skellington in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a king who travels from world to world in order to hijack Christmas. In “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge transcends time as he visits different epochs in his life. And, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey travels into a parallel universe in which he’s never existed. The protagonists also personify selflessness or, like the Grinch, extreme selfishness.
Tell a moral tale. Christmas movies follow a very distinct trajectory. The protagonist lacks an ability, understanding or moral characteristic to make them whole. In Capra’s masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey fails to see how absolutely essential he is to the fabric of his community. The main character travels on a journey, through time or space and ultimately learns an important life lesson that reveals the change they need to make in themselves. In the final minutes of the movie, the character makes this change. At the end of the film, George Bailey realizes how much the community appreciates and needs him and changes as a result.
Do not neglect the plot. Charles Dickens was perhaps the best at creating fascinating and memorable characters while still delivering intricate and satisfying plots. Modern Christmas movies have a tendency to be structured around a funny or interesting idea rather than the necessary elements of plot that set good films apart from rabble. Include the essential plot elements of setup, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. A good story needs conflict and an active main character struggling to achieve something great.
Infuse the film with Christmas imagery and symbols. What makes Christmas stand out from other holidays? More than any other Western holiday, Christmas seems to be easily identified with its own brand of music, lights, foods, sounds and symbols. These identifying marks will prompt the audience that they’re in a Christmas movie and help them get into the spirit of the film.
Add a hint of magic. The most wonderful time of the year should be filled with wonder, awe and amazement. This gives the writer of Christmas movies a tremendous sense of freedom as almost anything is possible. Things that would normally not feel plausible, a man converting from miser to philanthropist in a night for instance, are brushed off by the audience as simply a Christmas miracle. The best Christmas movies have those singular moments when magical things intrude onto the real world and effect wonderful and amazing changes for good.