Last night I listened to the BBC Radio 4 production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and I highly recommend it. For those of you who don’t know the poem, it’s a charming tale of decapitation, interrupted Christmas dinners, pointless violence, fulfilling oaths you were tricked into taking, and riding off to face death without even the chance of finding brief solace with your host’s hotcha wife.
I’ve had plenty of Christmases like that, which is why I like to re-read the poem around this time of year. The BBC version has the added benefit of narration by Ian McKellen in his best Gandalf the Gray voice. It will be accessible on the BBC Web site for the next few days — just go here and click on the Thursday play.
Lately I’ve noticed that the quality of what gets called a Christmas classic has improved dramatically since I was a kid. In the green remembered hills of my childhood, a “Christmas classic” was usually something to be dreaded, and I’ve learned that my memory hasn’t played me false. We recently went through a run of videos in search of good, old Christmas movies, and most of them were terrible. Miracle on 34th Street was the worst of the bunch. I mean, come on — a long, talky flick about a bunch of greedheads trying to get Santa Claus clapped into the loony bin. Could there be a less attractive premise for a Yuletide story? And the other movies sent to manhandle our heartstrings — White Christmas, et al — aren’t much better. It’s a Wonderful Life and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol are still fine movies, but they are to film what “Stairway to Heaven” is to music — classics so overplayed that I can no longer even hear them.
The changeover came slowly, but I think the turning point was A Christmas Story in 1983. A few years later there was Carroll Ballard’s Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, an underrated film from one of the most unjustly neglected directors in movies. And of course Elf, which you knew was going to be a Christmas perennial even as you watched it the first time. Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings is, at bottom, a Christmas story — check J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeline at the back of The Return of the King and you’ll see that the mission to rescue the world from all-conquering evil begins on December 25. At least Tolkien knew how to deliver his Christian allegory with a light hand — a lesson his buddy, C.S. Lewis, certainly needed to learn. I’ll include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the Christmas classic film list, but only because my daughter would excommunicate me if I didn’t.
If there are any other films to add to the New Classics list, let me know. Just don’t be surprised or offended if I take my time responding. My holiday break is here, and my oldest wants to watch all three Lord of the Rings films with me, in as close to continuous sequence as we can manage. Now there’s a Christmas tradition I can get behind.