I spent Thanksgiving week at my parents’ house in southern Alabama. I grew up in the snow-covered woods of northern Minnesota, but my folks have since decided to spend the winters of their retirement years among the magnolia trees and along the shores of a more pleasant climate.
I did two things that week: one, I spent a lot of time deer hunting. I’ve never bought ground burger from a grocery store – in fact the only red meat I purchase from a store at all is the occasional steak less than six times a year – and instead survive almost exclusively on venison, duck, and chicken breast (the last of which I do, alas, purchase). The second thing I did was watch a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies. Not by my choice, but because a member of my family insisted. It wasn’t my mom, as stereotypes might lead one to expect.
It was my dad.
The Christmas Spirit. Dear Santa. The Christmas Candle. Christmas in the Smokies. I’m going to make a game where I draw a noun out of a hat, find a way to match it up with the word Christmas, and learn if it matches an existing Hallmark film.
The dialogue is often terrible, the acting atrocious, the clichés in abundance, and the narrative errors glaring (I swear, these movies will find a way to make it snow in Miami Beach). And yet Hallmark produces over 20 Christmas films a year, people (my father among them) binge-watch them religiously, and they rake in bathtub money. 85 million people watched Hallmark films in 2017 and the company earned $400 million in ad revenue. And because the films are made with all the production finesse of a blind boar stumbling through the undergrowth of an Alabama swamp, they are cheap at about a cost of $2 million per movie. In comparison, Game of Thrones can cost up to $15 million in an episode with the end result being a gigantic butchery of most of what makes epic fantasy palatable in the first place.
Financial success is certainly not the only metric that matters when discussing the value of good fiction, but it certainly makes me pay closer attention. Why are Hallmark films so popular? After watching one a night during Thanksgiving week, I can surely attest to the fact that they do a lot of things wrong. But what are they doing right?
Last Friday, I set out on a mission to answer this question. Domino’s was offering all menu-priced pizzas at 50% off, so I was all over that like dark magic on Zadinn Kanas (Warrior of Light joke). Pizza at the ready, I fired up Christmas with a View. From the Netflix blurb: “Still reeling from a business failure, the restaurant manager of a ski resort finds her world jolted by a new chef, who has his own hidden past.”
Now, because I was also determined to assert my status (at least in the fiction of my own mind) as an eligible, masculine bachelor, I did go to the gym first and lift a lot of big weights. My favorite Christmas film is Die Hard, for the record. Yippi ki yay. I am listening to a rock/metal album by Black Veil Brides as I write this. But I digress.
As I watched Christmas With a View, I found myself thinking about how these films are consistent, and how that is to their advantage, not their detriment. The ingredients are the same, but just like a Big Mac, it might be simple, it might give us a sense of self-indulgent guilt, but we love it anyway. My favorite suspense writer is Lee Child, and unlike one of my favorite fantasy writers, Steven Erikson—who crafts each of his novels into a damn-near perfect piece of art—Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels function like clockwork. Child produces one Jack Reacher novel per year, and they are formulaic to the extent that he always starts writing them on the same day (September 1). Of the two writers, though, Child is far closer to being a recognizable name in most households. People like consistency. It’s why publishers give their biggest contracts to the David Baldaccis and James Pattersons of the world.
But consistency alone is not enough. The storyteller, whether it is Lee Child or the writer of the next Hallmark Christmas film, needs to know which right chords to strike with the reader/viewer. The fact of the matter is, our lives are not always hunky-dory, we struggle with personal and professional conflicts, and the cards don’t always turn up in our favor. There are two ways that fiction can deal with this element of human existence. One is to double down on it. I’ve always found negative catharsis to be a strange notion, however: I’m going to feel better about my own struggles because I watch somebody else experience something much worse? Nah. Far better to approach it in the second manner, in which we see how things can get better. Because in reality, they often will. There are literal metrics to prove this—see one of my previous blogs here. Hallmark does positive catharsis in spades, and that’s why, as cheap and cliché the films are, they work. You can even see the basic ingredients they require on their submission guidelines on their website here: contemporary stories, a sense of humor, romance, friendship/family/community, snowy locale preferred (but if not, we’ll make it snow anyway), and minimal or no grief/distress/tragedy, etc.
Yeah, Christmas with a View checked those boxes. It had its moments of eye-roll—the “hidden past” teased at in the Netflix blurb amounted to a search for a frigging Christmas ornament, not exactly measuring up to Frodo and Sam’s quest for Mount Doom in my humble opinion—but it’s easy to overlook those flaws when, and the end of the film, your heart is lighter and your spirit is higher. I’d say there’s far worse things for a film to do than make somebody feel just a bit better about themselves. Just like I wouldn’t recommend eating McDonald’s every day, I wouldn’t advise a steady diet of Hallmark year-round, but a few times at Christmas, I’d say it’s okay, even healthy, to indulge. And if you know where to look, there are ways to be pleasantly surprised by occasional departures from the norm. The Christmas Spirit, for example, had a fascinating supernatural element that added pleasant seasoning in the same way that nutmeg enhances egg nog. And near the end of The Christmas Candle, there were some intriguing visuals used in a scene of a stormy woods at night that added a sense of dark conflict to the climax.
I’ve long had the idea for a Christmas novel in the back of my mind. The premise and characters have changed several times, but I’ve always hoped to find a way to tap into the wonder of the season, in a way that catches the right beats but also avoids some of the clichés. While my shorter-term plans involve stories that are more appropriately set around Halloween (two offshoots that will peripherally relate to Malichon Manor), the Christmas novel has started to gel more firmly in my mind during the last six months.
In the interim, I just need to decide which one I’ll watch next. I think I’m leaning toward The Princess Switch.
Strictly for research, of course.