His comic look at life in the '50s formed the foundation for a seminal Christmas 'Story'. But there is more to Jean Sheperd than little boys and BB guns.
A Christmas StoryPublisher: Broadway
Subtitle: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film
Author: Jean Shepherd
US publication date: 2003-10
When talking classic holiday films, it’s not unusual to hear A Christmas Story mentioned in the same breath as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Every holiday season it’s hard to miss - nay, avoid - little Peter Billingsly playing Ralphie Parker, the nine-year-old bespectacled towhead dreaming of a BB gun for Christmas (despite the chorus of adults who caution, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” )
The 1983 film, directed by Bob Clark, is a fixture on television every year. Beginning early in the season and shown on and off until Christmas, it's everywhere. Even Ted Turner's TBS Superstation favors fans with an all-day marathon. On December 25th, Ralphie’s dewy-eyed expression graces living rooms across the country. It's as common as mistletoe, garland, or a wreath.
Despite its present popularity, the movie didn’t start out as an instant classic. When it was first released in 1983, it flew under the radar. In fact, some considered it a flop. Yet in the years since, the wide exposure from television combined with the undeniably witty sense of humor have won it many fans. The result is the establishment of a new Yuletide tradition.
The movie’s success makes it easy to forget or even overlook the fact that it’s based on five short stories by radio personality and writer, Jean Shepherd. Three of the five tales were originally published in Playboy between 1964 and 1966 and all subsequently ended up in two of Shepherd’s short story collections: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. In 2003, the stories were republished in one book titled, A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film.
The original tales include the familiar anecdotes that later wound up in the film, such as the infamous leg lamp; the war between Ralphie’s father (“The Old Man”) and the family furnace; Ralphie getting his Little Orphan Annie Society decoder pin and discovering the secret message is just an advertisement for Ovaltine; the next door neighbors’ vexatious dogs; and Ralphie’s legendary fight with neighborhood bully, Grover Dill (known as Scut Farkus in the film), which causes him to spurt forth an “unbelievable tornado of obscenity”.
The film has added content that is missing from the book, and vice versa. For instance, the next door neighbors with the horrible canines have their own story titled “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds”. This hilarious yarn revolves around the family moving in next door to Ralphie and taking over their neighborhood with their “sea of wreckage spread like a blight onto the surrounding yards.” This story alone makes the book worth buying. I found myself wiping tears away as I read about the clan who Shepherd describes as “so low down on the evolutionary totem pole that they weren’t even included in Darwin’s famous family tree.”
As in the film, the stories are narrated by Shepherd from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood. In the book, however, we actually get to read about Ralphie as an adult, navigating his way through more mature situations. An example can be found in the beginning of the story about the leg lamp titled “My Old Man and The Lascivious Special Award That Heralded The Birth of Pop Art”/ Here, we witness our matured hero chatting up a fellow art fan at the Museum of Modern Art. Just as he thinks he’s about to land the girl, she’s whisked away by her lesbian lover, whom he describes as “a tall broad-shouldered figure wearing black cowboy boots and tight leather pants. . . her cheekbones topped by two angry embers for eyes.”
The short stories also aren't limited by season. They take place throughout the year instead of only at Christmastime like in the film. In the book, the Bumpus’ hounds run off with the family’s Easter Ham instead of the holiday turkey, and Ralphie’s scuffle with Grover Dill takes place on a “hot, shimmering day” in late spring.
Despite the time and seasonal differences, Shepherd (who wrote the screenplay along with director Clark and Leigh Brown), manages to weave the tales together seamlessly. He also added scenes that fans of the movie have come to know so well. Besides writing and narrating the film, Shepherd also has a cameo as the man who directs Ralphie and his little brother to the back of the line in the department store while they wait to sit on Santa’s lap.
The actors also augment Shepherd’s already lively characters. Billingsley, the face of A Christmas Story, is pure and defiant at the same time, capturing the essence of what makes little boys special. Ian Petrella gives added life to Randy, Ralphie’s “kid brother”, who makes sculpture with his mashed potatoes and repeatedly topples over after his mother bundles him up in a snowsuit that could double as wall insulation. Melinda Dillon is excellent as Mrs. Parker, the doting mother and understanding wife, and last but not least Darren McGavin is spot on as the infamous 'Old Man'.
As I read the book, I kept picturing McGavin’s face twisting up and his eyes rolling as he ran into the obstacles of his everyday life -- the unruly furnace, the Bumpus’ dogs. When I got to the part of the book where he receives the leg lamp in a box stamped “fragile”, I distinctly heard McGavin’s voice in my head say, “’frageelay’ it must be Italian.” Interestingly, Clark actually considered Jack Nicholson to play Mr. Parker but wound up going with McGavin in the end. Although I’m sure Nicholson would’ve been brilliant as The Old Man, I can’t imagine anyone else playing him.
Although Shepherd died in 1999, his story lives on in film and in print. If you’re looking for something to summon the holiday spirit this season, A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film is an excellent choice. The slim volume is a quick and fun read, chocked full of the same hilarious witticisms about a middle American family that make the film so amusing and memorable. No wonder it's become a new Yule tradition. Shepherd's stories definitely bring joy to the world.