If Bridget Jones and Joseph Campbell had a baby, that baby would be a Hallmark holiday movie. And the DNA of each movie is easily cloned. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and intrepid internet-er John Markowski’s guide to Hallmark holiday movie tropes are the double helix intertwined around the axis of each movie. And there is no shortage to choose from.
In fact the only thing more popular this season than Hallmark movies and Hallmark holiday movie drinking games is writing snarky but kind of converted reviews of these movies. From husband-and-wife duos and dads to cranky journalists and bots, everyone has reviewed the Hallmark formula.
These holiday movies, peppermint-flavored two-hour puns, are only getting more popular.
Now if you’re worried you missed out on all the Christmas magic, don’t worry. You’ve still got tonight! If you’re on the west coast you’ve got three hours left — that’s enough time to bake cookies and let one last holiday movie cast its predictable snow-covered spell on you for New Year’s Eve. You’re just in time for a royal wedding. Wink-face emoji. (I can’t stomach using it but I’ll spell it out.)
So skip the moshpit crowds, cover charges and drunk drivers tonight. Stay in and watch Netflix. You know you want to.
In between The Ordinary World and The Special World and back, classic film protagonists from The Godfather to The Goonies have traversed Joseph Campbell’s 17-stage mythological hero’s journey. Campbell wrote his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949 and we have been using it ever since to evaluate everything that was written before it and after. Here I explore Christopher Vogler’s simplified 12-stage Hero’s Journey with Markowski’s hilarious tropes. Below is the full 17 stages if you’d like to let them seep into your subconscious before watching a Hallmark holiday movie, (and compulsively writing your own review.)
Like all opening scenes John Markowski observes, we begin with an aerial scene of a big city, typically New York, (but not always). As he observes we will then see inside an unrealistically large and professionally decorated big-city loft apartment.
There are obligatory ice-skating scenes, “horrific” child actors and the holiday inevitability of bumping into the ex who broke our protagonist’s heart, (despite the enormity of your average big city), rendering them unable to love again. But with the help of a supernatural aid …
There is zero Christianity in these Christmas movie but each has a teaspoon of secular magic.
Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call
In the first of the two holiday movies I watched these stages occurred simultaneously and resolved themselves without pesky details. In one, our protagonist receives a literal call to adventure in the form of a parchment-paper invitation with gilded 80s calligraphy. She dismisses a last-minute international trip as impossible during the Christmas season, the busiest of the year for the small business she owns.
Yet our next scene is a plane landing in a snowy unknown. We enter the special world — in Hallmark terms this is always a small town, making the modern hero’s journey an urban/rural dichotomy.
Crossing the Threshold/Meeting The Mentor
Within minutes of arriving in a make-believe European-ish country where French-ish nobility have fake English accents and dress like Barbara Bush we stroll by some carolers who just happen to be performing in full Dickensian costumes — bonnets and all. Markowski observes that there are always carolers and small-town Christmas productions. It isn’t long before our protagonist literally bumps into The Mentor — could he be the very same mentor she bumped into right after bumping into her ex with his new girlfriend? This second encounter lays the groundwork for the threshold and sets the stage for threshold guardians.
The Belly of the Whale
The bulk of the plot will take us through the tests, allies and enemies that all heroes confront during their journey, often taking the shape of baking challenges or even official baking contests. Markowski observed this with his “overreaction to hot cocoa” trope but it can also include ginger snaps and sugar cookies that slowly make men fall in love with the women they didn’t know could bake LIKE THAT.
Often there is an ally sworn to protect the secret identity of the big city/corporate woman who is undercover (for various reasons of personal growth and development) in a quaint small town or made-up royal kingdom. These allies are crucial as enemies suspect deceit and seek to expose a truth they know to lie beneath a perfectly coiffed surface.
The road of trials is as fraught with external enemies as it is inner demons and past baggage. But it is usually through a confronting of the external that our hero conquers the internal. Whether they’re singing for orphans, badly playing the piano or saving a charity auction from its own demise, our heroines will explore the abyss they find themselves in. Among the many things they will discover during these hard-earned revelations will be themselves — their true selves and the meaning of Christmas.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Our hero is usually rewarded for their inner fortitude that manifests in unexpected and unconventional ways like charming personality quirks that surprise the locals or shock the establishment. Our heroines simultaneously embrace the traditions that reconnect them to their inner values and upend the traditions that have been disconnecting the community from their true values.
Apotheosis is easiest to showcase when you’re saving Christmas for orphans. Or a homeless man or single mother and her children from freezing to death. Or a fundraiser the town depends on from failing.
These highpoints also salvage the virtue of our leading ladies, since they tend to come from the sinful cesspools of urban soullessness. It’s Green Acres for the holidays.
In holiday movies, the ordeals seem to be fish-out-of-water adjustments for our main characters or minor skirmishes where the would-be love interest mistakes our leading lady for shallow. He experiences doubt but there are always helpers throughout the challenges and temptations.
I feel for the male actors, the wholesome hometown boy/friend or the inexplicably single tall handsome man who is as emotionally available as he is financially successful. They are more plot device than actual characters and would likely prefer playing James Bond or a James Bond bad guy or a James Brown backup singer or literally any other speaking role for a male actor besides the dude strolling through a pop-up Christmas card and getting pelted by fake snowballs and pretending to giggle with pretend outrage. It was painful to watch.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Whether our hero wins a contest and is handed a physical award or they find a family heirloom they feared lost, all of the near misses, close calls and disappointments will come full-circle here. This is the key-to-the-city type presentation here where revelations can be celebrated. Any secret identities will be revealed and family secrets will finally be aired.
The Road Back/Resurrection
In The Princess Switch, like the Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call, these stages seem to happen simultaneously.
After the possibly-distantly-related princess-to-be and Chicago baker reveal their switch to their respective new love interests, it is ultimately our big city gal who can’t quite reconcile the possibility of a new life with the reality of her old life. She has been transformed in that the rigidity her loved ones thought stifled her back home are celebrated by the handsome prince. She atones for deceiving him by publicly coming clean.
Return With the Elixir
Spoiler alert: This elixir can be as overt as a beautiful young woman, having been resurrected after the road back to her Ordinary World, catching a bouquet at a royal wedding. The elixir can also be any tradition or cherished physical object whose importance is central to the plot, like an enormous and ornate wooden chest containing annual letters.
If you’re watching a holiday movie tonight or next season, look for the modern amulet. Predictably, there will almost always be a physical token of the transformations that have taken place.
So if these movies are so painfully predictable why are they so popular?
Unlike the vast majority of Hollywood movies women are the main characters in Hallmark movies. These heroines have the most elaborate backstory and the most complex character development. Their story arc follows our female heroes on their journeys, they are not merely the temptress or the helper along a male’s journey.
And despite the drenched in fondue cheesiness of these movies (if the promotional posters are any indicator, they all are), the aesthetic is festive in that crisp White Christmas way we’re predisposed to romanticise. Life looks like a Christmas card, no one is broke and loneliness can be cured by serendipity. What’s not to love? The snow isn’t even cold since we’re watching it on TV.
Our characters have the financial freedom to be spontaneous and to have and explore identity crises. They have the time and money to break down, fall apart, go back home or travel — as destiny dictates. So they follow. No one gets fat from gorging on holiday baking.
This predestined story arc ultimately alleviates our character(s) from the burdensome labor of having to make any decisions and eradicates any risk of making the wrong decision.
Any doubts our character(s) may have along the way are assuaged by a non-denominational Christmas angel who dispenses unsolicited advice in unexpected places but critical moments/crossroads.
These movies reassure us, regardless of religious belief or atheism or pantheism or whatever you believe in, that destiny will take care of everything.
All we have to do is sit on our couch and watch love blossom and life take care of itself.