Movie Marketing Madness: Christmas with the Kranks

In 2001 John Grisham took a break from the legal potboilers he had become famous for – first with the novel “A Painted House” and then with what could probably be called a novella in “Skipping Christmas”. “Skipping” was the story of a man who decides to opt out of the shiny and glossy trappings of the holiday season, much to the dismay of his wife, who reluctantly goes along with his plan, as well as his neighbors. You see, his participation is needed if the street is going to win an annual decorating competition against another neighborhood.

Far from being motivated by Grinch-type hatred of the season, Grisham’s protagonist is an everyday guy. He now simply feels going through the motions of decorating the house and preparing an elaborate meal is unnecessary since their only child is away from home for the first time. If it’s just the two of them in an empty nest why bother? Eventually, through a series of plot contrivances, he does get swept up and comes to realize that he can do all the traditions (no matter how hokey) and still enjoy himself.

So how the hell did Grisham’s low-key story get turned into a slapstick-ridden movie featuring, as one of its comedic centerpieces, Tim Allen (who really was moderately funny once. Seriously. There was about 15 minutes in the early 1990’s when this happened) hosing down a cat and turning it into an icicle? I suspect the author didn’t come to a revelation in the last three years that what his story really could have used was the husband sliding down an icy roof or having water drip out of his mouth after receiving Botox injections.

Instead what I think most likely happened was an ambitious (and partially brain dead) studio executive felt he or she knew best what formula to follow to create a “holiday classic”. Take one part John Grisham name recognition, extract and discard all character development and generous portions of the story. Add Tim Allen, who has a proven if critically suspect track record in Christmas-themed films and add a splash of jokes recycled from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For garnish and to completely remove all flavor have Chris Columbus (who desperately needs a fatwa to be issued, not against him personally, but his career) write it and Joe Roth direct.

Christmas movies as a genre have suffered multiple slings and arrows over the last decade or so. Beginning with the first Home Alone and running right up to this years Surviving Christmas, the holiday has been used as an easy out for screenwriters to put a character in a situation where they change their life or see the error of their ways because of the general good feelings that abound in late December. Whether they are trying to get home (I’ll Be Home For Christmas with the kid from “Home Improvement”), trying to reconcile with their family from beyond the grave (Jack Frost with Michael Keaton, who also deserves better) or do the right thing for a lonely kid (last year’s horrible Bad Santa), the characters in Christmas movies are always trying to better themselves.

Just last month the inspirational Christmas movie club got it’s newest member in Surviving Christmas, the widely panned Ben Affleck vehicle (which I haven’t yet seen). You may notice the similarity between Affleck’s flick and the source novel for Christmas With the Kranks. The title of the latter was, no doubt, changed to avoid confusion in the minds of the public (we are exceedingly stupid of course). But why change the name of an existing property? I can only guess at the legal brinksmanship and deals that resulted in a decision that, to my mind, makes no sense.

I know that movies are often misrepresented by their marketing materials. I’ve been writing a column for another site for a few months now specifically devoted to the marketing of movies and have gotten burned badly in the past (I’ll never forgive the people who convinced me to see Nicholas Cage’s Snake Eyes) so I am often wary whenever I see a new trailer. However, taking Grisham’s book and selling it’s adaptation on the basis of pratfalls and slapstick humor seems to be the wrong call to make.

They have taken the pains of changing the name, so why not actually present The Kranks as an actual alternative? If physical humor and Allen’s antics aren’t the centerpieces of the move, then leave them out of the trailers and such. Play up the similarities to Grisham’s book instead of highlighting portions of the movie bearing no relationship to the movie. Then you can actually appeal to the same group that enjoyed the book. For all I know 90% of the movie may adhere to the story Grisham laid out and these scenes are culled from the 10% where Columbus and Roth exercised their “artistic license. Audiences stayed away in droves from watching Ben Affleck get hit in the head by a shovel. If the makers of The Kranks have misrepresented the movie and it meets the same fate, they have no one but themselves to blame.

So my recommendation to everyone is to seek out the book (without the lame movie tie-in cover if you can find it). Spend a few hours reading it. It’s short and not exactly up there with Dickens, but well written and despite the sap that does bleed through charming. The time you spend reading will certainly be more enjoyable and better for you than watching Tim Allen act, well, cranky.

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