As you may be aware (or not, judging from the box office results), this holiday season saw the release of The Nutcracker in 3D, which updated the classic ballet with CGI effects and Holocaust metaphors. Besides being commercially unsuccessful, the film as of this writing stands at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, proving that some material (the Holocaust, for example) just can’t be transformed into heartwarming family fare, no matter how much you dress it up in mistletoe and sleigh bells. To further demonstrate that point, here are a few existing Yuletide stories that Hollywood probably won’t be adapting for the kiddie market anytime soon:
The figure we now refer to as Santa Claus is based on a third-century Turkish bishop named St. Nicholas. Nicholas was famed for his generosity and is said to have given up all of his own money to help the less fortunate. So far, so good, right? Nothing wrong with giving kids a seasonal lesson in altruism.
The problem with this story only emerges when you start digging into the specifics. According to legend, one of the charitable acts that St. Nicholas was best known for was anonymously delivering bags of gold to a poor man’s house so that the man’s three daughters would not be forced into prostitution. This is still a feel-good tale, sort of, but it’s a bit racy for the elementary school audience. It also casts the whole Christmas gift-giving tradition in a disturbing light. Are we giving little Timmy a PlayStation because we simply want him to be happy, or because we’re afraid of the measures he might resort to in order to obtain it himself?
Santa Claus seems to be a positive-reinforcement kind of guy; he encourages good behavior mainly by rewarding virtuous boys and girls. However, every carrot is usually accompanied by a stick—or, in this case, a stick-wielding horned demon. Plenty of cultures have myths about monstrous beings who assist Santa Claus by tormenting naughty children, and the most fearful example of these creatures is Krampus. Popular mainly in the Alpine region of Europe, Krampus is a large, goat-like monster who spends December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas Day) going around beating up disobedient kids. Like Santa, Krampus carries a sack, but while Santa fills his bag with toys, Krampus fills his with children who are then dragged off to Hell.
Come to think of it, a movie based around Krampus would be pretty awesome—but it would have to be produced by Hammer, not Disney.
In the Netherlands, Santa is accompanied by a sidekick who, while not as terrifying as Krampus, is still troubling in his own way. Zwarte Piet, or “Black Peter,” first appeared in Saint Nicholas and his Servant, a book from the mid-19th century that established much of Holland’s unique Christmas mythology (including the idea that Santa lives in Spain and travels to the Netherlands via steamboat). Piet is the titular servant, a dark-skinned slave who is often depicted as foolish and clumsy—sort of a holiday-themed Stepin Fetchit.
In more recent times this legend has been retconned to explain that Piet is black not because of his race, but because he spends so much time climbing up and down sooty chimneys. Still, given Holland’s history of colonialism, it’s no surprise that Santa’s slave hasn’t shown up in many claymation TV specials.
You know that line about “scary ghost stories” in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? Andy Williams wasn’t just grasping desperately for something that rhymed with “tales of the glories”; in England, ghost stories seem to be as essential to the Christmas season as egg nog and shopping sprees. M. R. James, one of Britain’s most distinguished horror writers, began his career by crafting scary stories to read to his friends on Christmas Eve.
However, James’s ghosts aren’t exactly the kind that go around convincing miserly businessmen to help disabled kids. In “The Ash-Tree,” a James story which was adapted by the BBC as part of their Ghost Story for Christmas series, a woman executed for witchcraft sends demonic creatures to attack her accuser. “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance,” which takes place on and around Christmas, manages to combine brutal violence with a Punch and Judy puppet show. And in “Lost Hearts,” which was also adapted for the BBC series, an elderly occultist attempts to gain eternal life by eating the hearts of orphaned children. Can’t wait to see the Robert Zemeckis motion-capture version of that one!
The Breathing Method is the only novella from the Stephen King book Different Seasons to have not yet been adapted into a movie, and by the end of this article you will understand why. The story uses a framing device involving an elite Manhattan gentleman’s club which gets together periodically to tell strange stories, and when the group meets shortly before Christmas, one of its doctor members shares a tale about a pregnant woman he treated back in the 1930s. The woman was determined to carry her child to term and care for it even without its absent father, and as the doctor taught her the breathing method (which was innovative at the time) he began to feel more and more respect and affection towards her. Sweet, right? Why, this hardly seems like a Stephen King story at all!
That is, until the doctor gets to the part of the story where the woman goes into labor one winter night and gets decapitated in a car crash on her way to the hospital. Things don’t end there, though, because her disembodied head somehow keeps huffing and puffing Lamaze-style until her baby emerges safely into the world. A Christmas miracle, perhaps, but one that probably isn’t going to show up in any ABC Family marathons. Leave it to King to turn our stomachs while he warms our hearts.