During the hectic rush and bustle of the recent holidays, my writer’s mind locked in on a puzzler: why can I watch the 1947 version of the Christmas film, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, endlessly but cannot bear, endure, or tolerate the 1994 remake?
For a week or more, the AMC channel played endless repeats of the two films. I’ve loved the original all my life, but this Christmas I probably saw it at least six times. No matter what I was doing, if it was playing, I usually plopped on the comfy chair and watched.
Obviously it feeds my emotions and creative heart somehow, but how?
And why does the modern version irritate me so?
I admit I’m a huge fan of the old studio-system method of making movies. Sure, there were problems. Any system will have them. But the writing was usually top-notch!
Pushing aside the obvious elements of casting and actors’ abilities or lack thereof, I considered a few preliminary areas of story analysis: history, source, similarities, differences.
History: The 1947 version was distributed in English and Dutch. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (Other Best Picture nominees that year included GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT, which won; THE BISHOP’S WIFE; and David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Terrific films all!)
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET brought home Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (awarded to the marvelous Edmund Gwenn; he beat out the also-marvelous Charles Bickford in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER); Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies); and Best Writing, Screenplay (George Seaton). The film also won two Golden Globes.
The 1994 version garnered one Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Richard Attenborough), but did not win.
Source: When I found a hardbound copy of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET for sale in an antiques shop, I ignored my rule against acquiring used books and snapped it up. Okay, Mr. Davies, I thought, let’s see what YOU wrote and how closely do the two films follow your version?
To my surprise, I discovered that this novella was published by Harcourt Brace the same year as the movie’s release and was actually written as a movie tie-in. It simply follows the script, with few deviations, mostly in narrative summary instead of actually dramatizing full scenes. The dialogue is almost identical to the screenplay’s.
The book, then, offers me no answers. Phooey!
Similarities: On the surface, the two films are … not much alike. Both deal with a similar premise: an old man thinks he’s Santa Claus; a little girl doesn’t believe; a couple who love the little girl learn to love each other; Santa is put on trial; Christmas is saved.
Differences: The 1947 version is 96 minutes. The 1994 version is 114 minutes.
Despite its shorter length, the older version manages to keep a crisp pace that doesn’t sacrifice characterization either in the major roles or the brief walk-ons. From the child Susan who may appear to be completely devoid of imagination but harbors a secret dream of a house with a backyard to play in … to the harried mother whose feet hurt as she searches for a fire engine toy … to the neurotic and malevolent Mr. Sawyer … to the judge whose grandchildren won’t speak to him because he’s put Santa on trial … to the post office employees–characters are vivid, touching, or funny.
Think about the doctor who vouches for Kris’s sanity when the Macy’s store is about to fire him. The doctor appears briefly in a couple of scenes, the one I’ve just mentioned and later when he’s almost speechless over receiving the X-Ray machine he needs so desperately. We see this man who cares deeply about his patients. He’s well-spoken and obviously competent, yet he’s chosen to work in the geriatrics field–an area that the more ambitious doctors often ignore. I would want this man to be my physician. Why? Because the writers took a short span of time to make me like him.
The modern version tosses the key character Alfred away. Gone is the gentle teenager befriended by Kris at work. Alfred’s little part is pivotal to illustrating Mr. Sawyer’s petty malevolence. Saving Alfred is Kris’s motivation for confronting Sawyer and striking him, thus giving Sawyer the opening he needs to have Kris tricked and committed to the asylum.
Instead, the modern version cooks up an evil store owner right out of comic-book casting. A couple of mindless henchmen (one’s female, so are they henchpeople?) trail Kris around and eventually grab him. It’s a ludicrous plotline that’s silly, cheap, and absolutely devoid of what gives fiction its heart and soul.
People matter. At the root of successful storytelling is the awareness that people must be important. People drive the story, whether through their attempts to accomplish something or through their anguish or belief in what Mr. Gayley calls the “intangibles.”
The 1947 version has a central theme about the joy and hope of the Christmas spirit. It deals with people who have been hurt in the past and are afraid to have faith in miracles or … each other. It’s a story about how kindness and joy can carry people through whatever problems they encounter.
My favorite part of this story is the scene with the little Dutch orphan. This film was made two short years past the horrors and devastation of WWII. The child has lost her parents in that war. Holland was occupied by the German forces, and the people nearly starved before the Nazis were driven out. This girl has been adopted by American parents, and while she’s clearly adored and well-cared for now, her loss of family, home, language, and country are to be seen in her little face. All she’s got is her belief in Santa mitigated by the fear that he won’t be able to communicate with her. And when Santa speaks Dutch to her–a notoriously difficult language–she lights up in a way that always touches my heart.
I realize the 1994 version was trying to “update” the film for modern audiences, but in choosing a hearing-impaired child instead, the writers forgot to include the underlying emotion and backstory that’s so evident in the Dutch girl.
In short, the remake hits what its writers perceived as the audience buttons, but they failed to create story from the heart. And story from the heart is what creates an emotional button that audiences respond to.
When Kris Kringle and the Dutch child sing together, I believe.