Why There are Few Seconds for Thanksgiving Films

Illustration by the author.

No movie encapsulates the U.S. concept of Thanksgiving quite like Addams Family Values. In a single scene, it covers the history, myth, and controversy surrounding the holiday. What starts as a cloying kid’s play about the Pilgrims quickly shifts from propaganda to retributive violence. The horrible truth about colonization is declared, the invading village burned, and the Native American players win some semblance of symbolic justice. Even better, it’s a concise comedic morsel clocking in at roughly four minutes. It begs a question while almost answering it entirely: why aren’t there more Thanksgiving movies?

One scene shows how much material is inherent in the holiday. Even a dismal hack should be able to harvest some drama from such fertile fields. Unfortunately, there’s a multifaceted problem with Thanksgiving that makes movies about it tricky to say the least.

Christina Ricci and David Krumhotlz as stereotypical Native Americans in a bad play in the film Addams Family Values
Christina Ricci and David Krumhotlz in Addams Family Values

First off, there’s nothing supernatural about the occasion. There’s no bearded home invader arriving to deliver gifts, or traditional paranormal terrors to triumph against. Thanksgiving, in the United States, is simply a day of giving thanks when families feel obligated to get together and gorge themselves into food comas. Perhaps in postprandial somnolence nightmares or delightful dreams abound, yet the holiday never seems a fruitful source for horror or family friendly features, animated or otherwise.

Consequently, any story about Thanksgiving tends to be rooted in reality. However, that grounding comes at a cost. Supernatural entities, whether adored or abhorred, create an easy route to explaining occasions with which they’re associated. In other words, explaining who Santa is also elaborates on what Christmas is. Still, any explanation is problematic for Thanksgiving.

The holiday technically commemorates the First Thanksgiving celebrated by Pilgrim settlers in 1621, but over time it adopted other meanings as well. The notion of it being a unifying occasion for the United States arouse from Sarah Josepha Hale. Editor of Godey’s Lady Book and author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, she spent well over a decade trying to turn Thanksgiving from an infrequent occasion celebrated at a state’s leisure into a national holiday.

Food historian at the Smithsonian, Paula J. Johnson, said Hale was, “key in bringing together and popularizing the Thanksgiving holiday with the menu featuring turkey and stuffing.”

Peanuts characters Snoppy and Woodstock getting ready for Thanksgiving by dressing as Pilgrims in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Snoopy and Woodstock getting ready to live the myth in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Furthermore, during the Civil War, Hale believed Thanksgiving as a national holiday might have a unifying influence on the North and South. Perhaps sharing a similar notion, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving… to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it… to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.” And such unifying notions persisted until people began to see through the cracks in U.S. mythology.

Stripping away the whitewash over history revealed Thanksgiving is a painful reminder to Native Americans of the gross mistreatment of indigenous peoples. This means even a cursory exploration of the holiday’s background brings up the problematic past of colonization and its effect on indigenous peoples, or risk alienating audiences, who already aware of those elements may be irked when they’re left out; then steering by the U.S. Civil War with its entire sack full of firecrackers ready to wake other old wounds. As such, screenwriters, when they have orbited Thanksgiving tend to simply rely on cultural shorthand.

In other words, they already expect the audience to have a working knowledge of the holiday. They basically yadda, yadda, yadda passed all the bad stuff. Now, cynical capitalism automatically realizes that invariably reduces the number of markets where any such movie will make sense. Granted, every society has similar occasions which are such common knowledge it’s easy to forget foreigners might not instantly understand what they are. For instance, Ōgata Renkyū (a.k.a. Golden Week) may make immediate sense to a Japanese audience while leaving Canadian viewers bewildered, but the goal in Hollywood is to make as much coin as possible, not spread cultural awareness.

To that end, films are kept within the broadest brackets possible. The simple logic being more countries know about Christmas, for instance, so make a movie about that in order to include them and their wallets. Though that isn’t to say there haven’t been Thanksgiving films.

Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning, and Cynthia Stevenson at the dinner table in Home for the Holidays
Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning, and Cynthia Stevenson in Home for the Holidays

Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays, and the John Hughes classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles have all orbited the occasion. Pieces of April is about a dysfunctional family going to a black sheep’s house for a traditional dinner, while Home for the Holidays is similarly about a strained family, though it handles its subject more comedically. The point being neither feature needs the holiday to tell its story. Furthermore, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles doesn’t focus on the day so much as the traffic complications typically associated with it as thousands attempt to simultaneously travel over the long weekend.

In other words, these are movies about family and togetherness which don’t require the holiday. Each could use several other occasions, including Christmas, to tell the same stories.

As Jason Diamond wrote, “If there’s a Thanksgiving feast involved in a film’s plot, chances are good that it’s there to heighten the story’s conflict.”

Something evident in films like Hannah and Her Sisters as well as The Ice Storm. So, with no real reason to zero in on the holiday, filmmakers often opt to make a movie about Christmas. It’s better known abroad and releasing any such feature in November means cashing in for weeks. Consider how Giftmas movies like Elf and Love, Actually came out on November 7th, 2003. Now try imagining a Thanksgiving movie encroaching on spooky season. The goths and I simply won’t have it.

John Candy and Steve Martin driving a burnt-out car in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
John Candy and Steve Martin driving a burnt-out car in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

So, we have a holiday that is only pertinent to the United States which involves a, shall we say, complicated history, wherein most stories, even comedic, tend to be about dysfunctional families. It’s not that there isn’t material to mine, but what comes up is not for everyone. That scares the business side of Hollywood making production problematic. Films like Home for the Holidays and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles only got the greenlight thanks to the celebrities at their helm, Jodie Foster and John Hughes respectively.

Still, there’s potential for films like historical dramas, or fish-out-of-water comedies about folks from abroad experiencing their first Thanksgiving. Although that well isn’t bottomless, it’s got something potentially refreshing. Perhaps more Thanksgiving movies are simply waiting to be made. After all, so far the films haven’t been about the holiday, its meaning and purpose, so much as the stories it can help tell. Those feature real heart hitting moments even when they are comedies. It’d be nice to see more.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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