Great Character: Ralphie (“A Christmas Story”)

December 7th, 2012 by

This month’s Great Character theme: Christmas. Today: Jason Cuthbert’s guest post features Ralphie from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story [screenplay by Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown & Bob Clark, based on a novel by Jean Shepherd].

The season of giving, or in this case – receiving, just does not feel red and green enough until re-watching the definitive American Christmas movie – “A Christmas Story.” But believe it or not, when this winter wonderland was originally released in 1983, it suffered from: a Christmas genre that was “snowman cold”, critics dumping lumps of coal in its stockings, and a box office return that made Saint Nicolas’ naughty list with a meager $19 million. Fast-forward to the 1990’s, the BB gun-begging Ralphie and his mid-Western family have become a Christmas tradition that is so pro-Santa that the Turner Broadcasting cable networks (TBS, TNT, TCM) have had an ongoing tradition of airing a 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathon. This equals 12 consecutive broadcasts, starting on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. Thank God for television and home video.

A Christmas Story plot summary from IMDB:

Ralphie has to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that a Red Ryder B.B. gun really is the perfect gift for the 1940s.

When you consider that Peter Billingsley, who triumphantly plays the grade school Ralphie, was a virtually unknown child actor and director Bob Clark was anything but the family film guy, having just finished a pair of R-rated teen comedies (Porky’s, Porky’s 2: The Next Day) staring bare breasts in the leading roles – the success of “A Christmas Story” seems impossible on paper. But screenwriters Bob Clark, Jean Shepherd and Leigh Brown got the story right – decorating their holiday tale with timeless details. They gave us the most relatable family possible: the innocent, idealistic older son, the adorable yet equally annoying younger brother, the grumpy, stubborn patriarch and the selfless mother with Zen-level patience to glue them all together. All the Christmas movie staples pierce the page as well: a child’s non-jaded point of view, wide-eyed window shopping, picking the perfect Pine, Santa Clause’s prerequisite appearance and mean-for-no-reason Ebenezer Scrooge/Grinches poisoning the holiday spirit. But without caring about Ralphie, we wouldn’t care if he shot his eye out or not.

Normally, I have the incurable habit of mistaking voice-overs in movies for lazy writing that decided it would rather draw itty bitty band-aids over the plot holes in the screenplay. But “A Christmas Story” didn’t just use the voice-over mechanism to do that whole tell-us-exactly-what-is-happening-on-the-screen routine – as if we are all thick in the head. Instead, the genius decision was made to make the narrator Ralphie as an adult, reminiscing about the most important Christmas gift of his life. What makes this screenwriting tactic succeed here is that the older, more invisible Ralphie goes off on cool and interesting tangents instead of sticking to the script.

RALPHIE AS ADULT: [narrating] My little brother had not eaten voluntarily in over three years.

Older Ralphie’s dialogue is consistently age-appropriate and distinctively more sophisticated than the elementary school communication skills of his younger on-screen self.

RALPHIE AS ADULT: [narrating] In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Older Ralphie even lends his voice to amp up the tension.

RALPHIE AS ADULT: [narrating] Only I didn’t say, “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

Older Ralphie is also just plain funny – for the sake of entertainment. He mostly lets the younger, onscreen Ralphie worry about things like plot progression.

RALPHIE AS ADULT: [narrating] My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.

But even though the “all growed up” omniscient Ralphie gets the witty wise cracks and stand-up comedy materiel – younger Ralphie keeps the fight alive for his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. This kid isn’t stupid, so adults don’t have to wear their dunce caps to sink to his level. Ralphie carefully plots out his plans to prove to his elders that he deserves the seemingly dangerous BB rifle. Sure, his toy gun fantasies often backfire, but this is one young protagonist with plenty of creative ingenuity – always thinking of his next manipulative attempt.

After his mother and teacher shut down his BB gun desires, as well as barely getting away with brutalizing a bully and getting his potty mouth washed out with soap – Ralphie’s last resort is asking Santa Clause directly.

For the well-written dual projection of his younger and older self, his crafty imagination and his desire to stay on Santa Clause’s good side at all costs – Ralphie is one incredibly GREAT CHARACTER.

Ralphie is a classic coming-of-age character who discovers the meaning of “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

What do you think of Ralphie as a character? A Christmas Story as a movie? See you in comments to discuss.

Thanks to Jason (@A2Jason) for this terrific analysis.

7 thoughts on “Great Character: Ralphie (“A Christmas Story”)

  1. Always thought it was great this was by the same guy who brought us Porky’s, Black Christmas, Deathdream and my all-time favorite horror movie title: Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

    RIP Bob Clark and thanks for some very disparate movies!

  2. Daniel Smith says:

    Loved this movie. My eleventh-grade high school English teacher showed it to my class in school. That was Christmas 1994 and I’ve been a fan ever since.

    1. Daniel Smith says:

      She also greeted us on Halloween at the door of her candlelit classroom wearing a witch’s outfit. Good memories.

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