In about a month’s time, one of the most boring conversations in social media discourse will begin (assuming Elon Musk hasn’t taken Twitter away from us out of pique). “X is a Christmas film.” “X is not a Christmas film.” And so on, as keyboard warriors angrily debate whether the eclectic likes of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Love, Actually qualify for this designation, as purists claim on endless Reddit threads that a Christmas movie can only be so-called if the plot and events are entirely driven by the festive season itself.
Even for those of us who would argue that Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life make the perfect Christmas double bill — wider designations of the term be damned — there is considerably less debate as to what makes a Thanksgiving film. In truth, there are very few classic pictures that have anything to do with the season itself. Instead, those that have a specifically Thanksgiving-related plot are slighter and more ephemeral: one thinks of Jodie Foster’s 1995 Home for the Holidays, with a pre-fame Robert Downey Jr. and a post-fame Steve Guttenberg, or the Keanu Reeves-Charlize Theron romantic drama Sweet November.
Bizarrely, one genre that comes into its own in terms of Thanksgiving is that of horror. Unfortunately, most of these pictures are remarkably poor. There might be someone out there who takes delight in watching Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (a family is terrorized by aliens while celebrating Thanksgiving), The Last Thanksgiving (a family of cannibals slaughter all those who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving) or ThanksKilling (a demonic turkey hunts down a group of students over Thanksgiving), but they are likely to be in a very slim minority. Although I am intrigued by the sound of the simply named Thanksgiving, an Eli Roth-directed spoof trailer for an as-yet unmade film in which a serial killer stalks his victims while dressed as a Pilgrim Father.
There are far better films that are set over the Thanksgiving period, whether in whole or in part. One thinks of the Steve Martin and John Candy comedy classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which the two men take increasingly desperate steps to ensure that Martin’s advertising executive can make it home to spend the holiday with his family. Or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, set over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973 and exploring the social and sexual mores of two wealthy Connecticut families.
Both are highly regarded to this day, though, judged by the standards of the social media gatekeepers, neither would qualify purely as a “Thanksgiving” movie, given that the setting is largely immaterial to the action itself. And countless pictures, from You’ve Got Mail to Brokeback Mountain, feature scenes, often pivotal ones, set at Thanksgiving, but nobody would ever claim them as holiday films.
Perhaps the reason why Thanksgiving has never excited filmmakers’ imaginations the way that Christmas has is because it is inherently a less dramatic occasion. Short of making an earnest historical picture about the origins of the event, no doubt featuring a Hemsworth brother as a Pilgrim, there are few films to be made about families assembling, eating too much turkey, getting drunk on eggnog and arguing about whether or not Donald Trump is the savior or the curse of the Republican Party. And for many of us gathering with our loved ones — or nemeses — this week will provide enough drama without it needing to be reflected on a big screen.
Even then, it’s always tempting to see the most popular Thanksgiving film of them all, 1973’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Sometimes, simplicity is best.