10 Great Holiday Movies Adapted From Stories

Die Hard

Image from: Die Hard, 1988 20th Century Fox

Sure, Santa doesn’t make an appearance, but the moment the elevator doors of Nakatomi Tower opened to reveal a dead terrorist sporting a festive sweater emblazoned with “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho,” we knew we were in for an unusual, yet great, Christmas movie. Die Hard made $141M at the box office and, in spite of the artfully choreographed violence, Die Hard is really about Christmas values. John McClane is trying to reunite with his estranged wife and bring his family together for the holidays. Sure, he does it with bullets and C-4, but we all celebrate the holidays in our own way.

Roderick Thorp’s bestselling novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, published in 1979, plays on these themes even more. The detective, named Joe Leland in Thorp’s book, is also trying to save his daughter from the real grinch: terrorism.

A Christmas Story

Image from: A Christmas Story, 1983 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

What would Christmas be without leg lamps, Red Ryder BB guns, and the fire department removing ill-advised schoolchildren’s tongues from poles? Not any Christmas we would want to participate in. When A Christmas Story hit the box office in 1983, it made $20.5M and became an instant classic.

What many people don’t know is that Jean Shepherd, whose voice tells A Christmas Story wrote the book on which it was based. In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, published in 1966, consists of the vignettes told in the movie, plus many more that were not included in the film. Shepherd originally told these stories on the radio, and it was Shel Silverstein who encouraged him to publish them as a book.

The Year Without a Santa Claus

Image from: A Christmas Story, 1983 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Year Without a Santa Claus is one of the many stop-motion animated TV specials that have become a Christmas staple. The story of how an underappreciated Santa nearly cancels Christmas and how two of his elves try to save him is based on the 1957 book of the same name by Phyllis McGinley. The book contains all the beats of the Christmas classic minus, of course, the songs. If you’d like to hear the songs with the book, there is a narration by Boris Karloff that includes holiday tunes with the Beach Boys and others.

Christmas with the Kranks

Image from: Christmas with the Kranks, 2004 Sony Pictures

There’s no place like home for the holidays, and Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis learn that the hard way in Christmas with the Kranks. The film that’s all about trying to skip Christmas to spend the budget on a sunny Caribean Cruise garnered $96.5M at the worldwide box office, helping solidify it as a must-see holiday movie.

Based on the John Grisham Skipping Christmas novel, the title was changed to avoid any confusion with the similar holiday-themed movie Surviving Christmas. Filmmaker Joe Roth made a nod to the original book title by showing it as the headline of a newspaper article in a scene.


Image from: Scrooged, 1988 Paramount Pictures

If you want a retelling of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from, but Scrooged, definitely has the most personality. Audiences in 1988 tended to agree, even if critics were divided, and the movie made $60M at the box office.

Apart from being set in Hollywood with Bill Murray as a movie executive, and a promotion rather than a Christmas goose, Scrooged stays in the spirit of the original.

The Grinch

Image from: The Grinch, 2018 Universal Pictures

The Grinch, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is one of the many successful Dr. Seuss holiday classic Grinch iterations. This gleefully grumpy green tinkerer has been a holiday favorite for over five decades and has even become a common saying for people who are grumpy or don’t have the holiday spirit.

When directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier originally thought of Cumberbatch for the role, they envisioned the character with his natural British deep and booming voice. But when the actor found out his co-stars would be using an American accent, he worked hard to perfect a very American Grinchy tone to make Dr. Suess’ character great again!

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Image from: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, 2018 Walt Disney Pictures

Need a little magic to get you out of your Grinchyness? Well then, Disney’s new adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1816 novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Marius Petipa's ballet The Nutcracker is just what you need. From sugar plum fairies to gingerbread soldiers, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms spices up the original content with all new music and storylines for the big screen.

There have been dozens of various productions of The Nutcracker, but this film perhaps comes closest to Hoffman’s original storyline. From the epic battles to the romance, directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston kept what we love about the fantastical world, including the fiercely independent female heroine, whose nerve is challenged at every turn.

The Polar Express

Image from: The Polar Express, 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures

In 2004, Warner Bros. Pictures updated the Christmas tradition of stop animation by using 3D computer animation to capture the story of a magical locomotive that takes children to the North Pole. The film was a success, grossing $310.5M at the box office.

Like many feature films based on beloved classics, the studio felt the need to include several extra plotlines and action sequences that weren’t in Chris Van Allsburg’s original. In spite of this, the movie goes down like a mug of hot cocoa, warming the heart and bringing to life childhood nostalgia that, like the sleigh bells in the story, many adults forget.

An American Tail

Image from: An American Tail, 1986 Universal Pictures

There is a serious lack of Hanukkah movies in Hollywood. Even so, many forget that An American Tail begins with a Hanukkah celebration in which Fievel is gifted his father’s hat. This story of an immigrant family of Jewish mice made $84.5M at the box office and “Somewhere Out There” received a Grammy.

While An American Tail was not directly based on a book, Art Spiegelman believed that it may have been plagiarized from his award-winning graphic novel, Maus, which was serialized from 1980 to 1991, perhaps because the author rushed to get the first installation out before the movie hit theaters. The similarities are there, but the movie does not focus on the Holocaust.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Image from: It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946 Paramount Pictures

It’s a Wonderful Life has been called the greatest Christmas story ever told by those who can’t stomach Die Hard, and we have to admit they have a point. The movie takes the audience with George Bailey to the edge of despair, before immersing us in unadulterated Christmas joy. Its 1946 audiences tended to be more cynical in their appraisal. It made $3.5M at the box office, which, even for that time, was not what the studio expected. Since then, it has not only been called the greatest Christmas movie, but one of the greatest movies of all time.

The film was based on The Greatest Gift which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and published privately in 1945. The story tells of George Pratt, and has a mysterious stranger who may or may not be an angel. Rather than guiding him on his journey of discovery, the stranger simply revokes his life and sends him on his way. Despite the differences, the lesson of goodwill is the same that sends audiences returning to the movie every Christmas.