The Die Hard Debate: What Actually Makes A Christmas Film?

It’s the same every Christmas. At this point, you can practically count on it rearing its ugly head. Indeed, I myself have fallen into the trap, and I often discuss it. You all know the question, and everyone will have an opinion one way or the other. For some unknown reason, it is one of the most divisive of all movie discussions. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

For my money, the answer is an unequivocal “yes, of course it fucking is”. But this year it did get me thinking. Most movie categories or genres are identifiable through certain recurring tropes and motifs. When we talk horror, we mean spooky houses, masked killers, monsters, demons, and all manner of other terrifying goings-on. When we talk comedy, we mean jokes and sight-gags, and anything else designed to make us laugh. So, what if we could put this debate to bed once and for all. What if we could identify a Christmas movie by its own recurring tropes and motifs?

Is it possible? Can the humongous and broad spectrum of Christmas movies be boiled down in this way? Is “Christmas” even really a genre? The pantheon of so-called Christmas movies, after all, includes movies as varied and different as Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Chris Columbus’ Home Alone, and, of course, the aforementioned Die Hard. Action, horror, family, comedy, musical… nothing is off-limits. But is there a “formula” here? Are there defining elements?

To find out I’m going to take a look at a selection of films no one tends to argue over. These films are pretty much universally agreed to be “Christmas movies”, and unlike Die Hard they don’t tend to spawn a yearly discourse around their inclusion on lists of favorite Christmas films.

I spent a long time considering what films I wanted to include. As I already said, there are lots to choose from, so I needed a way to narrow down my subjects. The first restriction I decided to impose on myself was to remove any adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’ classic is arguably the definitive Christmas story, so it stands to reason that any adaptation of that work will wind up falling into the category in some way, shape, or form (not including Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, of course, because it isn’t set at Christmas. And also, it’s really, really shit). Frustratingly, that does remove a whole host of potential Christmas favorites from the discussion. At least, it does for now.

So, we have no Muppet’s Christmas Carol, we have no Scrooged, and we have none of the many direct adaptations. It also means, perhaps somewhat controversially for some of you, that I’m not going to be considering It’s A Wonderful Life in this either. The structure, themes, and plot points of It’s A Wonderful Life bear a striking and not accidental resemblance to Dickens’ classic ghost story, so I think it’s only fair if I’m restricting myself from other versions of the tale, to keep that one out too.

Having said that, A Christmas Carol’s position within the Christmas Movie sub-genre (if we’re calling it that) can’t go ignored. And I decided that while I won’t be including any adaptations or retellings, I will be using the original tale as a framework on which to analyze the other films. There are certain aspects of A Christmas Carol that make it “Christmassy” and it can be useful to them use it to see how this applies to other Christmas Films.

For example, A Christmas Carol is based as Christmas. It might seem obvious, but this is integral for something to truly be considered a Christmas Film. Christmas has a look, whether that be snow, Christmas lights, the tree, the decorations, garish and God-awful Christmas jumpers… and we don’t tend to get that “look” at any other time of the year. It’s Christmas. And in order for something to be a Christmas film, it has to take place in some significant way over the Christmas period.

So, what films are we looking at then? Well, Home Alone seemed to be an obvious choice for consideration. Not only is it categorically not based on A Christmas Carol, but it is also widely regarded as one of the definitive Christmas films. There tend not to be many arguments over whether or not is deserves its place in the list, so let’s consider it one.

Likewise, The Grinch seems an obvious choice. For the sake of this piece, I’ll look at the Jim Carrey/Ron Howard movie, but really you could take any one of the adaptations and use it, they’re all pretty much exactly the same.

Now, you might be wondering why The Grinch doesn’t fall within the realms of Christmas Carol adaptations, given the similarities between the central characters of each story – after all, they both start out hating Christmas and come to love it. However, The Grinch, unlike It’s A Wonderful Life, follows a different trajectory in how to get its central character to that point. He doesn’t visit different timelines or past, present, and future events. No, he instead carries out his evil plan only to have a change of heart at the end.

It’s worth noting though, folks, that way may have just uncovered another key component of what makes something a Christmas movie. A character learning through the season, coming out as a different person on the other side. Ironically, I think you’ll find that it’s A Wonderful Life is the outlier here, as most of the other central characters we find in Christmas movies tend to be miserable, grumpy, and frustrated with the season itself or with what it represents.

Kevin McCallister in Home Alone is angry with his family. He feels ignored and miserable. By the end of the film he has learned to appreciate his family – which is sort of the meaning of Christmas itself. Scrooge, of course, goes through a similar thing. As does… ahem, John McClain.

But here’s the key, these characters learn because of Christmas. Christmas in all of these stories is either the element that sets the plot in motion or the catalyst for the eventual realization. Kevin in Home Alone is left home alone because it’s Christmas. Likewise, the “Wet Bandits” arrive too because it’s Christmas. The Grinch, meanwhile, hates Christmas and decides to steal the town’s Christmas presents. John McClain is in town because he wants to see his family at Christmas. He and Holly are in the building because of a Christmas Party. Hans Gruber and the other thieves choose to rob Nakatomi Plaza also because it’s Christmas.

And what of our final film, a newer entry into the collection, Aardman’s Arthur Christmas. There’s no denying that it hits the “set at Christmas” requirement, but what of its central character. Do they learn and grow? Moreover, do they learn and grow because of Christmas? Well, yes if the simple answer, but it’s complicated. Arthur’s arc is closer to George Bailey’s from It’s A Wonderful Life, and he learns thanks not to three ghosts or different realities but rather thanks to three Santa’s, each one representing either the past, the present, or the future should Arthur not succeed in his quest to deliver the present.

And here is our final recurring motif. The three ghosts. They may not make overtly obvious appearances, but they are always there, whether that be in the form of characters or simply just self-reflection. Looking back at oneself, at your past actions, considering the person you are in the present, and thinking about how you may have impacted people in the future are all key aspects of the Christmas movie.

John McClain does this, regretting his past behaviors with his wife, learning at who he and she is in the present, and looking forward to the future and a life with them, knowing how he must change if he wants to achieve that. Likewise, Kevin McCalister, who regrets his past actions toward his family, learns through his present time alone to wish in the future that he will be better and that his family will return. Even Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation hits these beats.

It would seem then, that there are recurring motifs and tropes to be had. And it would also seem that Die Hard hits them as much as any other film on the Christmas watchlist. But the most important thing to remember, ultimately, is that despite all of this, all that one really needs in order to reasonably consider something a Christmas film is oneself and Christmas. If you want to watch a particular movie this season, go right ahead. Anyone who tells you your favorite Christmas movie isn’t a Christmas movie is wrong (and gatekeeping Christmas seems like an incredibly un-Christmassy thing to do so…).

So, enjoy the season, watch Lethal Weapon, Batman Returns, or Eyes Wide Shut. Do whatever the hell you want. It’s Christmas, guys! Let’s enjoy it.

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© Alex Secker 2018