As its titled would imply, A Christmas Story is generally considered a holiday movie. And I admit, I usually only watch it during the Yuletide season. But really, it’s a film about childhood; Christmas is just the timeframe that screenwriters Jean Shephard, Bob Clark, and Leigh Brown impose on the story to serve as an anchor, a period for which to confine a series of incidents that depict just how a young boy sees the world. Few works have been able to capture the perspective of a young boy as masterfully as A Christmas Story does (as I write this, only Boyhood, The 400 Blows, and the short-lived TV-series Freaks and Geeks come to mind).
Adults have the benefit of hindsight; we can realize how truly trivial so many of our worries as children were. But even for those who had the most carefree childhood, it never seemed carefree at the time. And you couldn’t convince a child of that. They have to learn it. Getting in trouble at school was scary. Breaking a jar in your house and having to confess to your parents. That was scary.
The protagonist of A Christmas Story is Ralphie, a nine-year-old boy growing up in Indiana in the late 1930s/early 1940s. For Christmas, all he wants is a Red Ryder BB Gun. Some of Ralphie’s biggest worries were getting in trouble at school for his part in daring a friend to lick a frozen pole, getting punished for swearing in front of his parents, and facing his mother and father after breaking his glasses. Looking back, these incidents aren’t terrible sins. But that’s looking back. Where A Christmas Story succeeds in capturing a child’s perspective is with its non-judgmental narration, provided by Jean Shephard, whose life the stories are based on. The narrator, an adult Ralphie, doesn’t trivialize the woes of his younger self, but, rather, sympathizes with him, recognizing that, at that time, these things were a big deal. The narrator further aligns himself with young Ralphie by going back and forth between speaking in the past and present tense. At one point, he says, “What happened next would become a family controversy for years,” thus, speaking from the perspective of the future. But, in other moments, adult Ralphie turns into nine-year-old Ralphie, yelling at the radio announcer to hurry up with a commercial. The narration, then, becomes confusing: Is it adult-Ralphie reflecting on his past? Or an interior monologue of a very precocious nine-year-old with a high level of vocabulary?
Even though we were all children at one point, we often forget just how wild our imaginations were. In several instances, A Christmas Story delves into Ralphie’s fantasies and daydreams. I have to admit that part of what makes me identify so much with Ralphie, and therefore the film, is that his fantasies were so similar to mine. When given an assignment to write a theme, “What I Want for Christmas”, Ralphie describes the Red Ryder BB Gun so elegantly that he believes his teacher will give him an A+++++ and lavish him with praise in front of his whole class. In reality, Ralphie receives a C+ and a note: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” (A chorus echoed by his mother and a department store Santa Claus.) I can empathize. In 4th grade, our history teacher had us write an assignment on the Lenni Lenape, a Native American tribe from modern-day Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. I submitted mine in the form of a book, with text and an accompanying illustration on each page. I genuinely thought it was professional, and expected my teacher to call me up after class to say she was going to submit it for publication. In the end, I think I received something like 9/10. A good grade, but hardly a book offer.
In another scene in A Christmas Story, Ralphie imagines what he’ll do with his BB Gun: protect his family from black and white clad home intruders. It’s not very far off from a fantasy I had as a 10-year old: I had seen the movie Goldeneye and I imagined Bond-like villains invading my school while I was in the bathroom. I had it all figured out: I would hide in the stall, and when one of the henchman came to inspect the bathroom, I would kick the stall door into his face, knocking him out. I would disarm him and (in a scenario very similar to the plot of Die Hard) I would be in possession of one of the bad guys’ weapons and single-handedly protect the school. An unlikely result, but just as unlikely as Ralphie protecting his family with a BB Gun. We believed those fantasies. We had hope that they would become a reality. We all had innocent, uncynical dreams like those. Many films like to focus on the coming-of-age story, but A Christmas Story rests idly in that area before adolescence, when these fantasies could thrive. It doesn’t deal with loss of innocence; instead, A Christmas Story preserves and celebrates it.
I love films about childhood. Other than the movies I mentioned above, Stand by Me, Radio Days, and the Sandlot are favorites, but these are told from the perspective of an adult looking back on their youth. Amarcord, another favorite, weaves memory and reality, from Fellini’s adult perspective. Do you have any suggestions for other films that truly capture what it feels like to be a child, in the way that A Christmas Story does? I realize that all the films I mentioned here are about boys (I am a male, after all). How about movies from a young girl’s point of view?