When Christmas time comes around each year, one of the first movies that we get out and play is ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ Not the horrible remake that was done a few years ago but the real deal: the 1947 version with Maureen O’Hara, John Daily, the Oscar-winning Edmund Gwynn and the delightful child-star Natalie Wood. The story came from Valentine Davies who was purchasing a present for his wife in a New York department story on Christmas Eve of 1945. Pressed by the crowds he wondered what Santa Claus would think of all the commercialism of the season. This became the spark for his story which George Seaton adapted into the screenplay.
It being one of our favorite holiday films and with both Laura and I in the car driving down to visit my parents some five hours away from our home, we found ourselves talking about the story and passing the time doing what any good student of story enjoys doing from time to time: deconstructing the elements of the story.
If you happen to be one of our apprentices of story in our Scribe’s Forge writing seminars, then our musings on this classic tale will make more sense as you already have the context and the vocabulary of story structure under your belt. If you are new to story structure we hope you’ll hang on for the ride.
Every story is basically told through the progression of four throughlines: Objective Throughline, Main Character Throughline, Impact Character Throughline and Subjective Throughline. Our deconstruction of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ falls nicely within this structure.
OBJECTIVE THROUGHLINE: Macy’s Santa Claus battle with a mean-spirited psychologist results in Santa being on trial in a competency hearing that threatens to lock him up before Christmas Eve.
MAIN CHARACTER THROUGHLINE: Doris Walker, a divorced and disillusioned manager in the toy department at Macy’s Department Store struggles with her loss of trust and faith as she tries to build a relationship with her neighbor, Fred Gailey.
IMPACT CHARACTER THROUGHLINE: Kris Kringle battles the commercialization of the holiday in hopes of bringing back the spirit of joy and selfless giving to Christmas.
SUBJECTIVE STORY: Kris Kringle and Doris Walker struggle with each other between the concept of faith and rational pragmatism that disguises Doris’ fears and disillusionment.
The characters are numerous and diverse but ultimately reveal some very interesting story telling structure underpinning the tale that makes it fascinating all these decades later. First, let’s take a look at the Driver Characters … those characters that move the Objective Thoroughline forward in the story.
- KRIS KRINGLE / PROTAGONIST: Our Santa Claus character provides both the action and thought characteristics of a protagonist. However, as he is NOT the main character of the story, he would not be considered a hero per se.
- RATIONAL WORLD / ANTAGONIST: Kris Kringle is in direct opposition to the ‘rational world’ which we experience around us. This makes the antagonist in this story ‘situational.’ Kris is battling a condition or situation that exists at large. This part of the story structure is actually represented by a number of characters who come and go in the story with various affect. The most prominent representative of the world is the District Attorney Thomas Mara who represents the world view throughout the trial. However others also represent this view through other parts of the story: R. H. Macy, Mr. Gimble, Julian Shellhammer, Mrs. Mara and her son as well as the post office mail sorter. All these characters are a part of the situation that drives the Objective Plot forward.
- FRED GAILEY & DR. PIERCE / GUARDIANS: This is where things got rather interesting for us as we discussed this structure. Fred Gaily represents the ‘Action’ characteristic of Guardian as he literally defends Kris in court. On the other hand, Dr. Pierce represents the ‘thought’ characteristic of the Guardian in his brief appearance in Doris Walker’s office as he counter’s Mr. Sawyer’s diagnosis of Kris as having ‘latent maniacal tendencies.’ As Dr. Pierce only represents one half of a full character’s aspects, he is a thin, two dimensional character and we feel that way about him in the film. On the other hand, this makes Fred Gailey into a ‘complex character’ and, as such, more interesting. Speaking of Mr. Sawyer…
- GRANVILLE SAWYER / CONTAGONIST: Mr. Sawyer is in direct opposition to the guardians at every turn and, most importantly, definitely has his own ulterior motives in his behavior. He both thinks and acts as a manipulator in the story … an ideal representative of a contagonist position in the story.
Now that we have the Drivers of the Objective Throughline, let’s take a look at the passengers of the Objective story who are being pulled along by that plot.
- DORIS WALKER & JUDGE XAVIER HARPER / REASON: Doris is actually a complex character her actions are those of a skeptic but her thought processes are all about reason.
- FRED GAILEY & ALFRED / EMOTION: While Fred Gailey’s actions are those of a Guardian, his thinking and rationality are those of the Emotional Argument.
- SUSAN WALKER / SIDEKICK: Susan Walker is Doris’ little girl and, as the central theme of the subjective story revolves around the conflict between Santa Claus and her mother – the personifications of faith vs. rational pragmatism – she is at the center of their conflict. In a sense they are struggling over what she represents, child-like wonder and hope being crushed by the commercial world.
- DORIS WALKER & CHARLIE HALLORAN / SKEPTIC: Charlie Halloran is the District Attorney who is prosecuting – which he takes pains to explain to his wife is different than ‘persecuting’ – Santa Claus. He is the action half of the Skeptic in this case while Doris Walker represents the thought processes of the Skeptical Archetype.
Finally, as we look at the Main and Impact Characters of the piece, we must determine which of them remains the same and which changes as a result of the journey. Despite the forces against him, it is Santa Claus in the form of Kris Kringle who remains constant and, ultimately, it is Doris Walker who accepts that ‘Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.’ She changes to realize that it is hope and faith that offers her an opportunity for happiness that she will never find in the commercial world.
Which, after all, IS what Christmas should be all about.