A Boy Named Christmas
Bringing the magic to Sky Cinema this Christmas, A Boy Called Christmas is the
origin story of Father Christmas from director and co-writer Gil Kenan
A Modern Christmas Classic
Published in November (naturally) of 2015, Matt Haig’s same-titled book was heralded an instant classic. The origin story of Father Christmas, it follows a 12-year-old boy, Nikolas, as he sets off to the Far North to look for the fabled settlement of Elfhelm in an effort to restore hope to the world. It is a tale that is full of adventure and excitement, optimism and magic, but it also knows that there is no light in the world without darkness, dealing with loss, financial hardship and divisions caused by misunderstanding and fear. A Boy Called Christmas is a throat-tightening, heart-swelling adventure that offers up elves, pixies and a faraway kingdom, marauding bears, flying reindeer and a loquacious mouse. But weaved into this vibrant tapestry is poverty, fear and grief, making the moments of joy all the more special and the starbursts of magic all the more dazzling. Filmed on location in Lapland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and London, the film boasts an all-star cast including newcomer Henry Lawfull, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins, Stephen Merchant, Jim Broadbent, and the legendary Maggie Smith.
For director and co-writer Gil Kenan, it was essential to have some hardscrabble reality to offset the punch-the-air thrills and glee. “I think it’s critical,” he states. “One of the things that I realised when I lifted the hood on the idea of what a Christmas story is – never mind a Christmas film; a Christmas story – is that the entire concept of Christmas as a tradition that we celebrate... the idea is that in the bleakest, darkest times of the year, in the time when the sun rises at noon and sets at 3pm, when your fingers are numb to the bones, when there’s no crops growing in the field and you’re eating the last of the turnips that you had put up for jarring in the waning days of summer, you turn to a tradition that allows you the opportunity to bring light and hope. There is a reason that we celebrate Christmas, and it’s to bring
light to the darkness.
“If you think about what Matt did with his book, it creates a name and a face to that need,” he continues. “And that face belongs to Nikolas, a young man who has lots of reasons to despair and to give up hope, through fate and circumstance and misdeeds all conspiring to make him one of the most tragic cases in modern literature. And yet, perhaps because of all of that weight stacked on his shoulders, he finds a point of bright light. And that point of bright light was a story that was told to him about a place called Elfhelm. It’s a place that he chooses to keep aiming for. And that choice, and that hope, and that belief, and that animating spirit – they keep him alive in the bleakest times. They give him joy, and a sense of adventure and discovery in the greatest moments. They give him empathy and hope and love, and all of these things felt so supremely well-designed to pin the Christmas legend of this particular world on.”
Making a Christmas film that will delight families and stand the test of time comes with its own particular set of pressures. But how do you ensure that your movie becomes one of those tried-and-trusted classics, a family favourite that’s as sure to light up living rooms as the blinking bulbs wrapped around the Christmas tree?
“I would be lying if I said that it was a stated goal to make an immortal classic,” says Kenan. “That’s a dangerous way to approach telling a story. I think you’re lucky if it’s coherent, and you’ve got the luck of a lifetime if it’s actually good.” He laughs. “And for people to want to come back to it? I almost think it’s impossible to plan it. So I would say that, for me, the goal was to be able to have a story that did justice to Matt Haig’s book, which I did feel was a classic Christmas story, and one that actually caught me off-guard. Like a lot of Matt’s writing, it’s entertaining at first glance, but also soul-fulfilling or life-affirming. There’s an uncommon depth to his stories – an emotional and thematic depth that I don’t think you are prepared for. With A Boy Called Christmas, what I was excited about was doing justice to that breadth of theme, and capturing the human experience, on the back of a holiday that we can take for granted, because there are so many movies that come out every year that try to push very familiar triggers, and do it in ways that sometimes are good, sometimes are bad.”
So, what are some of Kenan’s favourite classic Christmas films? “A Christmas Story is an absolute, stone-cold classic of the form, and A Nightmare Before Christmas has to be up there, in terms of dismantling the myth and putting it back together. It’s a glorious film. And I would have to say Home Alone – it reallysneaks up on you by reminding you how important family is at this time of year, by the absence of family. It’s an incredible conceit that works on lots of levels. And I do think there’s a reason Elf has made it up to the pantheon. It’s because it’s found a way to entertain while landing an emotional gut punch. And Gremlins is right up there!”
Kenan is far too modest to even begin to suggest that his own film deserves mention in the same breath. But who knows? Perhaps in 20 years’ time, when the generation of children who will this year enjoy A Boy Called Christmas with their families have grown up, they will perhaps namecheck A Boy Called Christmas alongside all of the classics listed above. Now that would be magical.