What Makes a Good Holiday Movie?

A Response to Marshall Thornton’s article in ScreenwritingMagazine

By Dominic Buono

Every year there are a smattering of Holiday releases in November and December that have the goal of gaining moviegoers hard earned dollars at the theatre (or on demand during the Pandemic) that tend to utilize the tropes and traditions of the Holiday season. As with anything in film, there are a variety of opinions and reasons to support those opinions on what makes a good holiday film. Screenwritingmagazine.com ran an article a few years ago written by Marshall Thornton on his opinion of what makes a good holiday film, he broke it down into five major categories. They are:1. Family2. Romance3. Nostalgia4. The Trappings of Christmas (or the Holidays)5. A Great Song

This list is by no means expansive, and it is a fairly lighttake on the ideas of what goes into making a good holiday film. I would argue, however, that it is completely missing some of the very necessary things needed to make a good holiday movie. To explore this we’ll talk about two of the very best holiday films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life and Die Hard. Before you argue with me that Die Hard is not a Christmas film, read the article.

In It’s A Wonderful Life the protagonist, George Bailey, goes through an ordeal that leads him to seeing what the world would be like without him present. The film focuses on family, not just his wife and children but the larger family he created within his community by running the Savings and Loan. The film follows the Romance that he has with his wife, Mary, through the rough patch that they hit during the depression and the war, the Nostalgia for a simpler time (it always feels like the time period people harken back to is a simpler time, history will show that there is no such thing as a simpler time), the trappings of the holiday (most of the movie is set around Christmas), and a great song (tell me you don’t’ go around humming that little tune George sings to Mary when they meet after you watch this movie).

Frank Capra’s classic was panned when it released theatrically, and with time has only grown to be appreciated for the classic that it really is. The performances are great, the message is one of togetherness and community, and the consequences feel real throughout the film. While it may have some overt religious tones to it, it is a film that can be appreciated by anyone of any denomination because it dwells on the things that unite all people: the need for love and compassion by a person’s fellows. The reason this film works as a holiday film where Love, Actually does not is that it truly gets the meaning of Christmas. George’s eyes need to be opened to the fact that even though he’s going through a rough patch and is facing a dire situation, the meaning of the season is about community. Love, Actually fails that, the film is about a bunch of self-centered and selfish people who fail to learn anything by the end of the film because they get what they want as opposed to George Bailey learning that even though he may not be financially rich, he is the wealthiest man in town because of the love people have for him. That is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life a classic.

Die Hard is a departure from the formulaic holiday movie that the 1980s only could have produced. Long before Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way, itself a parody, action films took a holiday turn. Make no mistake, Die Hard is a film dependent on the holiday just as much as any holiday film. John McClane is only on his way to Los Angeles because his wife has taken a job in LA, their marriage is on the rocks, and he loves her and wants to patch things up. John is a fundamentally flawed individual, a callback to the detectives of Film Noir (hitting the nostalgia and romance tropes all at once). The film begins with him getting ready to attend a Christmas Party, one of the tropes of the holiday (and the Trappings of Christmas named by Thornton), and further intertwining and remind the viewer that the film could not take place at any other time of the year. How often do businesses throw holiday parties? Typically, at Christmas only, and these days that is only if you work at a company that values its employees.

The theme of Family is definitely a big part of McClane’smotivation throughout the film, his desire to survive to see his wife and kids again, and to protect his wife. He knows, better than the other characters, that the hostage situation is likely to take his wife’s life. This also adds to the stakes to the film, stakes that the other Die Hard films (with the exception of Die Hard with a Vengeance) fail to deliver. As for a great song, take your pick. There’s Ode to Joy, a traditional Holiday song, there’s Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” if you’re into contemporary songs, and in 2020 the entire film is cloaked I nthe nostalgia of the 1980s and an era where good guys and bad guys were clearercut than it is today.

To be a successful holiday movie, especially in the modern era, though, the film has to go beyond the trappings of the 5 key tropes named by Thornton. I would argue that learning a lesson about the meaning of the season, beyond the religious connotations and focusing on the need for self-improvement and empathy, are incredibly important. In addition, modern films should take cues from both Die Hard and It’s A Wondeful Lifeand focus in more on the selflessness of the characters and their desire to do something for their fellow people. Both George Bailey and John McClane make personal sacrifices for their respective communities, albeit in vastly different ways. McClane struggles to stay alive and pick the robbers off one-by-one, with only two notable casualties on the parts of the hostages in the entire film. George Bailey remains in his hometownthroughout his life because the people of the town need the Savings and Loan to compete with Mr. Potter’s bank and destroying the town, something we see in the segment where George sees the town without him.

In 2020 it is important that people realize we are a community, all of us. It does not matter where we are from, our orientation, the color of our skin, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our political affiliation, or our susceptibility to illness. We all have far more in common than what separates us, and the global Pandemic should have taught us that by now. This Holiday I hope that you take the lessons taught to us by George Bailey and John McClane, and not those of the utterly awful people in Love, Actually and stop being selfish. What makes a truly great holiday film is understanding the spirit of the season, and not the stuff that attaches itself to the season. The nostalgia, the trappings of the holiday, and the music is not as important as all of us coming together in community to help our fellow human beings out. I hope that this article helps to solidify that, and put to rest the debate over whether Die Hard is a holiday film or not. It totally is.

Happy Holidays!

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