A Little Background
A Christmas Story is a 1983 movie based on short stories by American author and radio humorist Jean Shepherd from his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Set in late 1930's / early 1940's Indiana, it follows the adventures of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his relentless pursuit and acquisition of his heart’s desire for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. The film did not impress critics in its theatrical release and had limited audience enthusiasm, in part because holiday-themed movies were not in vogue during that time. Over the years, thanks to television and in particular the TBS marathons, the film has grown significantly in popularity and ranks near the top of all-time favorite holiday movies.
A Christmas Story is easily contained within the 3-act story structure, with each act featuring Ralphie trying to convince an adult (his mother, his teacher and Santa Claus himself) that the BB gun would not be the instrument whereby he would “shoot his eye out” (an ongoing motif that links the acts). In all three cases, Ralphie’s elaborate methods to convince the adult in question of the safety of the toy are successfully foiled, but at the end of Act III, Ralphie’s father (the “Old Man”) comes in to save the day and makes sure Ralphie receives the gun from Santa.
The plot follows the basic pattern for all good stories: the hero (Ralphie) wants something so badly he’s willing to do whatever it takes — within reason, of course — to get it. Along the path of this journey, he is repeatedly thwarted from reaching his goal by stronger and stronger adversaries, increasing his desperation and lengths he’s willing to go until finally, when it appears his mission has failed, he gets what he worked so hard for.
If you watch the movie enough times, you become intimately familiar with the subplots. Some of them:
- The Old Man’s constant war with the neighbor’s dogs
- The Old Man’s constant war with inanimate objects (the furnace and family Oldsmobile)
- The Old Man’s gift of creative cussing pulled out on many occasions
- The infamous "Leg" lamp
- Ralphie and his friends’ escalating confrontations with the neighborhood bully
- Ralphie’s mother and her overprotectiveness of his younger brother
- Ralphie’s finally receiving his long-awaited Little Orphan Annie decoder ring (and being disappointed by the “secret message” it provides)
Tying All of It Together
Unlike in lesser made films, the myriad subplots do not detract from the main story in this movie, but rather enhance it. At the end, Ralphie does get his gun — but he also beats up the bully so badly that he has to be pulled off the kid before he did him any serious damage, essentially providing satisfying closure for both dramatic points. The Old Man’s lost final battle with the neighbors’ dogs leads the family to enjoy a charming, but odd, Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant that remained a cherished memory for Ralphie (as narrator) for the rest of his life — as only delightfully strange events in our lives can do.
There are many other examples of how the subplots weave within the main story and/or the characters’ motivations and personalities. There’s not a bit of wasted dialog or action; any further editing would do irreparable damage to the overall effect of the film.
Thus the appeal of A Christmas Story: it cultivates a familiar storytelling approach with highly entertaining subplots that enhance the effect of the time and place, and thus, the overall feel.
One can speculate on a number of themes. Here are a few examples:
- Persistance pays
- If it’s worthwhile goal, it’s worth fighting for
- Never come between a boy and his BB gun
After Ralphie gets his gun, he rushes outside to try it. An ill-advised shot nearly causes what most of the adults in the movie already warned him about: he comes close to really shooting his eye out. However, thanks to some creative storytelling, Ralphie is able to successfully blame the near tragedy on something else, only eliciting the sympathy of his ever-supportive mother. Perhaps the lesson learned is this: adults really do know better than kids, but that knowledge is certainly limited to what input the parents have access to. True to form, however, movie heroes, even kids, always win the day, even through deception and subterfuge. Didn’t we all survive childhood with a bit of that?
I’ve taken time to analyze my own feelings about what makes The Christmas Story such an enjoyable one to watch over and over again. Sure, it’s a little holiday tradition I’ve established for myself, coming from a very traditional (and large) extended family. We humans enjoy our little rituals, don’t we? ☺
However, I think it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s the realism of the sets and the nostalgia they elicit. Or maybe it is, at the end, a heartwarming story about a young boy who gets his Christmas wish, courtesy of Santa (with an assist from a bighearted father who remembered his own boyhood). There certainly appears to be genuine affection expressed by the boys’ mother toward them and even an amused tolerance of her husband’s larger-than-life personality. I’m sure it’s all that and more, for me and for the many people who camp out in front of the TV every Christmas to watch it.
Merry Christmas to all!