What makes great holiday movies stand apart from the rest?
We’ve covered the 7 Essential Ingredients to Writing a Successful Holiday Movie; Nostalgia, Magic, Family, Atmosphere, Tropes/Cliches, Hope, and Redemption. That’s not to say that holiday movies have to have all of these elements. You can mix, match or cherry pick. But they are each essential in certain ways because they are effective. They pull the heart strings of the audience in a season that is centered on being thankful, celebrating family and friendships, and looking inward — whether you are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. ScreenCraft even has a genre contest specifically dedicated to family fare — our Family-friendly Script Contest — if you’re looking to submit your own holiday script.
The holiday movie genre is an interesting one. While dominated by Christmas, holiday movies often transcend the religious connotation of the Christian holiday, instead representing a season of joy, hope, and love for all. Because of this, the holiday movie is in high demand. Hollywood and audiences are always looking for the next classic. The most recent being the now coveted 2003 contemporary classic Elf.
But what is it about these holiday movies that capture an audience — not just in the year that they are released, but in every holiday season thereafter?
Here we feature five holiday season classics and offer you a chance not to just be reminded to watch them again as the holiday season comes about, but to also allow you, the screenwriter, the opportunity to read the actual scripts.
Screenplay drafts will differ from the produced films and are to be used for educational purposes only.
A Christmas Story
The Story: Based on the humorous writings of author Jean Shepherd, this beloved holiday movie follows the wintry exploits of youngster Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), who spends most of his time dodging a bully (Zack Ward) and dreaming of his ideal Christmas gift, a “Red Ryder air rifle.” Frequently at odds with his cranky dad (Darren McGavin) but comforted by his doting mother (Melinda Dillon), Ralphie struggles to make it to Christmas Day with his glasses and his hopes intact.
The Essential Holiday Movie Elements Used: This is one of the rare holiday movies that uses nearly all of the essential elements we’ve featured. The nostalgia factor is centered around our childhood memories of how Christmas and the overall holiday season was growing up. While it is set in the 1940s, the film reminds us of our own childhood memories and the trials and tribulations of not only the anticipation of Christmas morning, but the overall coming-of-age times of yesteryear. We have the holiday atmosphere, Ralphie hoping to receive that coveted prize, the many tropes and cliches of holiday movies that audiences love (this movie actually created some of them), and one could argue that Ralphie attains some redemption after showcasing his obsession over the rifle as the heeded warnings of safety issues actually come to light. Ralphie nearly shoots his eye out and from that point on, Christmas is no longer about the rifle to him — it’s about family.
Interesting Screenplay Trivia: The nonsensical ramblings that Ralphie exclaims while beating up Scut Farkas were scripted, word for word.
CLICK HERE to read the screenplay for A Christmas Story.
The Story: New York City policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and two daughters on Christmas Eve. He joins her at a holiday party in the headquarters of the Japanese-owned business she works for. But the festivities are interrupted by a group of terrorists who take over the exclusive high-rise, and everyone in it. Very soon McClane realizes that there’s no one to save the hostages — but him.
The Essential Holiday Movie Elements Used: Once one of the most hilariously debated subjects — Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie? — this action film seems to have been accepted as a true holiday movie tradition. The holiday atmosphere is the element that makes this film a treasured holiday treat, but we also have additional holiday movie elements that may surprise some. Early on in the film, we see that family is an important aspect of the story and characters. McClane is trying to reunite his family and spends the whole movie trying to survive to do so. We even see his children play an integral role in the plot later on in the movie. You could also certainly argue that both hope and redemption are ever-present as well, as McClane, his wife, and his family hope to survive to be reunited — and as John McClane has redeemed himself in the eyes of Holly, his wife, after some early tension.
Interesting Screenplay Trivia: The screenplay for Die Hard is actually an adaptation of a novel — Nothing Lasts Forever. In the original script, as in the original novel, the action took place over three days, but director John McTiernan was inspired to have it take place over a single night by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
CLICK HERE to read the screenplay for Die Hard.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Story: After George Bailey (James Stewart) wishes he had never been born, an angel (Henry Travers) is sent to earth to make George’s wish come true. George starts to realize how many lives he has changed and impacted, and how they would be different if he was never there.
The Essential Holiday Movie Elements Used: This classic is the true “granddaddy” of holiday movies, utilizing each and every essential holiday movie element. We once again have the nostalgia of the holiday season, thanks in due part to the atmosphere of the film. The movie created many of the tropes and cliches we look for and expect, so those are obviously present, while both hope and redemption encapsulate the whole concept of the movie itself. And finally, there’s the magic, showcased in subtle but prevalent fashion with George being contacted by an angel who grants his wish of never being born. We then watch as George struggles through seeing this magical alternative reality, only to learn the error of his ways — earning him the blessing of returning to his life and fixing the wrongs and mistakes he made.
Interesting Screenplay Trivia: Two of the writers — husband and wife writing team Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett — called the finished film “horrid” and refused to see it when it was released. They even had an arbitration with the Writer’s Guild to have Frank Capra’s name taken off, but it remains on. The finished film was also a box office bomb when it debuted in 1946.
CLICK HERE to read the screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The Story: As the holidays approach, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to have a perfect family Christmas, so he pesters his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and children, as he tries to make sure everything is in line, including the tree and house decorations. However, things go awry quickly. His hick cousin, Eddie (Randy Quaid), and his family show up unplanned and start living in their camper on the Griswold property. Even worse, Clark’s employers renege on the holiday bonus he needs.
The Essential Holiday Movie Elements Used: The Christmas atmosphere is certainly ever-present, as are various tropes and cliches of the genre, but it’s the family element that is central to this classic. All that Clark wants is for his family to be together. He even wants to use his Christmas bonus to put in a pool for the family and relatives to enjoy. But while his love for his family shines, they are also the cause of nearly each and every conflict he encounters during their visit. They don’t get along. They each have their own idiosyncrasies. But in the end, they are family. Christmas hope is injected within the story as well, as the young visiting children yearn to experience true Christmas magic. That magic is subtle and specific to those children, but it’s there. Clark also gains subtle redemption within the story after being overwhelmed by his family and showcasing some clear signs of frustration with them and the overall situation of everyone being in the house. He is redeemed and celebrates with his family as the film comes to an end.
Interesting Screenplay Trivia: The movie is based on John Hughes’ short story Christmas ’59, the second Vacation story to be published in National Lampoon’s Magazine — the first was Vacation ’58, which was the basis for National Lampoon’s Vacation. Hughes wrote the script for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
CLICK HERE to read the screenplay for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The Story: In this modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a wildly successful television executive whose cold ambition and curmudgeonly nature has driven away the love of his life, Claire Phillips (Karen Allen). But after firing a staff member, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), on Christmas Eve, Frank is visited by a series of ghosts who give him a chance to re-evaluate his actions and right the wrongs of his past.
The Essential Holiday Movie Elements Used: Scrooged is the underappreciated classic of this bunch. A Christmas Carol adaptations are holiday season traditions — sacred. The story has been handled by Shakespearean-trained actors, Oscar winners, Disney animated characters, and even the Muppets — so why not let ole Bill Murray have a shot? The story is the ultimate redemption tale — taking an otherwise unlikable character and showing him the error of his ways throughout most of his life, only to see him redeemed in the end. The magic element is present with ghosts and time travel. The atmosphere is uniquely holiday-themed by placing the initial holiday settings within a television Christmas production, and then carrying that over with Frank’s journey through his life and wrongdoings. The tropes and cliches are sent up within the comedy of the situation, and the sense of hope is showcased later on in the story as Frank hopes for redemption, gets it, and leaves us all hoping that he’ll get the redemption most “scrooges” in this story earn.
Interesting Screenplay Trivia: Before Bill Murray had signed on, he requested that the script be re-worked. “We tore up the script so badly that we had parts all over the lawn,” Murray told Starlog. “There was a lot I didn’t like. To remake the story, we took the romantic element and built that up a little more. It existed in the script’s original version, but we had to make more out of it. The family scenes were kind of off, so we worked on that.”
CLICK HERE to read the screenplay for Scrooged.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies