A sequel to A Christmas Story, called Christmas Story Christmas is nearly upon us and based on the trailers, it seems like a movie version of that annoying cousin we all have who constantly quotes A Christmas Story. How did we get here?
Back in 1983, when director Bob Clark decided to follow his back-to-back triumphs of Porky’s and Porky’s: The Next Day with a modestly budgeted adaptation of folksy humorist Jean Shepard’s semi-autobiographical writings about his childhood, he never could have guessed what a remarkable and enduring legacy his over-achieving little Yuletide sleeper — A Christmas Story — would have.
But Christmas can do strange and wonderful things for Xmas-themed entertainment. As the director of the seminal 1974 slasher hit Black Christmas, Clark knew that firsthand. The power of the holiday season can transform charming, beautifully observed comedies like A Christmas Story into beloved perennials quoted and referenced and re-watched by generation after generation as a beloved American tradition. A Christmas Story was a commercial and critical hit at the time of its release, earning nearly twenty million dollars at the box office on a three million dollar budget and getting mostly glowing reviews, including four stars from Roger Ebert.
But it was really on television and home media that A Christmas Story made the big leap from a neat little over-achiever to a ubiquitous cultural tradition. Ted Turner and TNT lovingly shoved the cult classic down audience’s throats with Christmas Story marathons where the film is shown twelve times in a row from Christmas Eve to Christmas Evening. A grateful public couldn’t get enough of A Christmas Story. The wholesome exercise in dewy, nostalgic, Norman Rockwell-style Americana from one of Canada’s top filmmakers (that was filmed partially in Canada, making it eligible for the country’s Cesar awards) became an unlikely merchandising bonanza. A Christmas Story has only gotten bigger and more beloved with time because it’s naughty as well as nice, with enough darkness and cynicism to undercut the dewy sentimentality.
The film chronicles, in rambling, episodic form, one magical Christmas for nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a stand-in for Shepard, who narrates in a voice as soothing as a warm hug or mug of cocoa on a snowy day and plays the adult Ralphie in addition to co-writing the screenplay. Ralphie’s mind is fixated on getting the firearm of his innocent childhood dreams, a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle he wants more than anything in the world despite being told by seemingly everyone he encounters that he’ll shoot his eye out with it. Ah, but what would American gun ownership be without the very real and probable chance of danger, death, and blinding? That’s what makes it fun and exciting. Making Ralphie’s object of desire, not just a very specific consumer item but a gun designed to mimic a lethal weapon lends the proceedings an innately satirical dimension. A Christmas Story is about crass consumerism as much as it is about family and tradition. (As Christmas Story expert Caseen Gaines has argued, this is also pretty much a very anti-gun movie at its core.)
Ralphie’s visit to Santa Claus, for example, is a Lynchian nightmare with a visibly bored and angry professional Kris Kringle doing nothing to hide his contempt for his job and all the munchkins thrust in his lap and elves who are mostly concerned with getting the hell home as quickly as possible. Ralphie’s encounter with Santa ends with him pleading for a gun under the Christmas tree and “Santa” kicking him down a slide with a big black boot and warning him that he’ll shoot his eye out with an irresponsible gift like that.
A Christmas Story is very much concerned with the bifurcated nature of memory and how our childhood experiences often have a dark, even sinister undercurrent that can get lost in a fog of nostalgia and forgetting. A seemingly more pandering and cynical form of nostalgia is the driving force behind the movie’s upcoming sequel A Christmas Story Christmas, which is due to hit HBO Max on November 14th a mere thirty-nine years after the release of the original film and only sixteen years after the death of Darren McGavin, its most famous cast-member.
A teaser trailer for the new movie surveys an empty house filled with items we know and love from the first film as A Christmas Story’s endlessly and boorishly recycled catchphrases are recycled all over again. Wanna hear Darren McGavin say, “Fra-Gi-Le: it must be Italian!” in a way too impressed voice?! Here’s your chance. The tone is somber and reverent. This is no mere giant house we are visiting. It is, rather, a museum erected to the timeless glory of A Christmas Story.
“The Wait is Finally Over!” we’re promised, as if we as a culture have been holding our breath for the last four decades and waiting for Peter Billingsley to stop palling around with frequent collaborator Vince Vaughn and return to leading roles in the part that made him famous. We then see a tight close-up of Billingsley’s bespectacled eyes in what is clearly a spoiler. Despite what everyone warned the last time around, it looks like Ralphie did not, in fact, shoot his eye out! It seems unfair to judge a movie based on trailers designed to give away as little as possible but A Christmas Story Christmas doubles down on cheap nostalgia in a way that inspires dread rather than excitement. This has what our nostalgia has wrought; a monster that turns old movies into new movies, direct to streaming.
In fairness, it is possible that A Christmas Story Christmas could be good. Maybe even great. It is produced by Billingsley and Vince Vaughn and co-written by Nick Schenk, a man whose three biggest credits are all super-macho Clint Eastwood dramas, including a movie actually called Cry Macho. This means it has the potential to surprise people and justify its existence as something beyond a late-in-the-game cash grab. It seems fitting that A Christmas Story Christmas will debut on a streaming service rather than as a theatrically released film because it was on television that A Christmas Story became a Christmas classic but also because it engenders lower expectations. It looks like A Christmas Story Christmas will not only benefit from those lowered expectations but maybe require them as well. The bigger question is, what are the stakes? And in 2022, do we really want to be thinking about Ralpie — or anyone — shooting their eye out?