The 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline | Setting The Scene In The Bleak Midwinter |
Storyline - During midwinter, the protagonist must confront a personal crisis brought on by seasonal events or conditions.
 
In this storyline, a physical setting of snow, ice, frozen ground, broadleaf trees bare of leaves is apt – nothing is growing, it’s a dead season in terms of nature, it’s cold, wet, windy, uncomfortable, often miserable, the season of coughs and sneezes and general depression, perhaps with fogs and mists blocking the sky and the normal view of landscape and nature. Regardless of the particular geographic locale, the midwinter landscape provides a suitable physical setting for a protagonist who is depressed, frustrated, lonely, and so on. It's the "bleak midwinter" in an existential sense as well as a weather one. (The familiar phrase, from which we take our page title, derives from an 1872 devotional poem by the poet Christina Rossetti, which became a Christmas carol and made its way into The English Hymnal in 1906. Its usage in secular culture is quite different from the original, of humble devotion, and is perhaps more akin to the mediaeval "dark night of the soul" devotional-anguish phrase picked up on by writers like Scott Fitzgerald for artistic purposes.)    

It's A Wonderful Life [1946], long a Xmas-tv perennial: A personal crisis comes to a head on a snowy Xmas Eve, as the protagonist (James Stewart) contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge into the icy waters below.

 

The pre-Christian era had its gods of winter darkness who had to be overcome or appeased at this time of year, particularly in the Nordic countries where at midwinter it can be dark most of the day, and some of our midwinter feasting and holiday rituals are relics of these. Folktales sometimes preserve this notion of winter as a blight on the kingdom, as can be seen in modern dramatisations of such tales. In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles Of Narnia (1950-), his talking-animal fantasy land of Narnia [accessed via a bedroom wardrobe] is a frozen snowbound setting, which reflects a century-long curse by the White Witch that makes it "always winter and never Christmas."

Right: Stills from the 2005 film of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

In the fairytale world of Legend [1985], written by American author William Hjortsberg (1941-), the freeze-up is similarly a curse, in this case by the Lord Of Darkness, on the above-ground realm where mortals also live. (Pictured below). The plot has various fairies helping the folktale hero Jack free the land from its frozen-wasteland curse, by redirecting rays of sunlight.

    
 
 
Legend [1985]
 
 

The climate downturn called the Little Ice Age had begun by Shakespeare’s time, and his plays and poems merely touch on what must have been normal winter weather in his lifetime. However, the 1973 play Bingo: Scenes Of Money And Death by playwright Edward Bond (1934-), televised by the BBC in 1990 with David Suchet as Shakespeare, features a snowbound Warwickshire in the final year of his life, 1615-16. Set in a time of utter misery – forced enclosures, revenge arson attacks, vagrants being hanged, it ends with the ageing playwright, despondent to the point of speechlessness, committing suicide.

Right - Bingo: Scenes Of Money And Death by Edward Bond was televised by the BBC in 1990, but is not available on home media. The still shown here is from the recent stage revival with Patrick Stewart.    

       
 

The development of printed literature and drama coincided with an era when winter freezeups were common in Europe: the Little Ice Age. The still-popular 1869 historical romance Lorna Doone: A Romance Of Exmoor by R. D. Blackmore (1825–1900) has 5 chapters [41–46] set in what may have been England’s snowiest-ever cold spell, The Great Winter of 1683-4. Though the various film-tv versions made so far don’t feature it for logistical reasons, these being all made pre-CGI, the next version may well do so.

Right: [1] A screenshot from the 1990 Thames Television version, which was actually filmed south of Glasgow. There are grey wintry skies throughout, but no snow. [2] (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.) Illustration from the original novel [online here].

Though the story is set over a number of winters, Christmas celebrations are absent. Like the Great Winter itself, this is historically authentic, Christmas celebrations having been banned by the Puritans a generation before. Snowy freezing winters nevetheless remained common: London would hold an annual 'Frost Fair' on the frozen Thames from 1683 to 1814.

   
 

The climate downturn ended in the mid-19th Century, in the lifetime of England's major novelist of the time, Charles Dickens, the man credited with popularising (or even inventing) Xmas as we know it. In his work, Christmas is white, which his biographer Peter Ackroyd ascribed to “8 unusually cold, happy boyhood winters”. The last Frost Fair held on the frozen Thames had been in 1814, when Dickens was 2. But there were still snowbound conditions after that. In the winter of 1836, when Dickens published his first bestselling work, The Pickwick Papers, a satire about a gentleman's club travelling around England by stagecoach, over a dozen Royal Mail coaches were blocked by snows and had to be abandoned.
Dickens really established the 'midwinter crisis' story with his 1843 magazine serial A Christmas Carol, which has never gone out of print and is the basis of an uncountable number of screen and stage adaptations. The original takes place one night in freezing conditions, with ice and snow mentioned, and screen adaptations nearly always depict a London with snowy streets.

Right: A pair of exteriors from the most popular screen adaptation, the 1951 Scrooge. The London streets shown are real (not studio sets), though it is not clear if the snow is.

 
 
 
 

Left: Main title image and screenshot from the 1970 musical version. A snowbound London is the keynote image for screen adaptations of Dickens's classic. (This is something that rarely happens in reality due to all the heat being emitted from industrial and human sources across the capital. The London street scenes for the widescreen 1970 version had to be dressed with fake snow. (Mouse over image to see 2nd illustration.)

 
  In America, the first half of the 19C was the era of the fur-trapping 'mountain man' who endured long winters in pursuit of their lifestyle. Man In The Wilderness (1971), written by Jack DeWitt, was inspired by the real 1823 incident of Hugh Glass being mauled by a grizzly and left to die by his companions. In the film, the fur traders are trying to get out of the mountains before they are snowed in and the Missouri river level falls too far for their riverboat [illustration right].
In the more recent dramatisation of this incident, The Revenant, written by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, from Michael Punke's 2002 novel, winter has aleady arrived, as seen below.

 
   
 
  Below: Jeremiah Johnson (1972), scripted by John Milius and Edward Anhalt from Raymond W. Thorp & Robert Bunker's biographical Crow Killer and Vardis Fisher's poetic novel Mountain Man, depicts a life of bleak hardship amidst the snows of the Rocky Mountains foothills. Its sense of melancholy is mooted in the final dialogue scene, below, where the protagonist, who has lost everything, encounters Bearclaw, another mountain man.   
  Bearclaw: Cold up here.
Jeremiah: What brings you up so high?
Bearclaw: Griz. Avalanche took the cabin. Lost my mule. We swum out of it. But no matter. Weren't no griz left anyway.
Jeremiah: Would you happen to know what month of the year it is?
Bearclaw: No, l truly wouldn't. l'm sorry, pilgrim.
Jeremiah: March. Maybe April.
Bearclaw: March maybe, l don't believe April. Winter's a long time going, huh? Stays long this high.
  
 
 
Above: Cold Mountain (2003), scripted by director Anthony Minghella from the 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, set in North Carolina during the US Civil War, mainly in its final winter.

The 1969 film of Charles Portis''s 1968 novel True Grit had no snow until the final scene, but the 2010 film reflects the novel's setting of early winter [November], as the final line puts it, 'when snow was on the ground.' (Given the narrator's piety and sense of self-importance, this may be meant to evoke the traditional carol 'When the snow lay on the ground.')
 
 
Above: The 1971 'revisionist' western McCabe & Mrs Miller ends with a protracted showdown, a shootout amidst a heavy snowfall which proves a force majeure.

Another 'revisionist' western, The Hateful Eight [2015], written by Quentin Tarantino, uses the 'snowbound' plot setup where complete strangers are confined together overnight by a snowstorm in the mountains. This does not lead, as with many Xmas films, to reconciliation, but to a bloodbath as disguised identities are revealed. 
 
 

Europe too had its share of winter hardships reflected in its literature. A much-filmed adaptation of a 19C European 'family' Xmas story was Ouida's 1872 novel A Dog Of Flanders. In the original, both boy and dog freeze to death on Xmas Eve in the doorway of Antwerp cathedral; most film versions abandon this as too grim and change the ending, via a supernatural intervention. In the 1999 adaptation pictured right, the boy returns to life at his own funeral, which proves to be a near-death-experience type of vision, where he meets his dead family.

The literary shift towards psychological realism in the early 20C and move away from the sentimentality of the Victorian Era meant that the protagonist's midwinter crisis became more of an internal one, with no need for the ghosts, nightmares or lonely deaths in the snow common to the more old-fashioned Romantic school. Midwinter became more of a time for quiet reflection.

A transitional, seminal work here was James Joyce's lengthy short story The Dead, which concluded his 1914 collection Dubliners. Returning to a Dublin hotel room after the annual New Year's getogether party of friends and relatives, a middle-aged husband reflects on life and death. His wife confesses to him that in her youth in Galway she loved a young man, Michael Furey, who stood in the rain under her window to court her and died broken-hearted, of pneumonia. For the 1987 film version [pictured below], the visuals are of the snowfall the newspapers report is 'general all over Ireland,' and the protagonist imagines it falling on the country churchyard where his wife's long-lost beau is buried.

   
 
 
  The story is remarkable for its finale of snowy epiphany (the party itself is on the Feast of Epiphany), set up via a 'looking out the window at the snow' scene used as a key image in the film's advertising [above]: "Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."  
  Snow-covered woods are used for the chilling climax for Il Conformista / The Conformist (1970), adapted by director Bernado Bertolucci from the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia. In the 1930s, an Italian fascist quisling organises the assassination of a leading academic dissident and his young wife in woods outside Paris.  
 

The association of winter snows with death in the form of scenes of graveyard visits, or even scenes of protagonists dying amidst falling snow, has continued since.

Right: Odd Man Out [1947], scripted by R. C. Sherriff from the F. L. Green novel, dramatises the last hours of a wounded IRA man. He dies in a police shootout initiated by his loyal girlfriend so that they will not be taken alive, their bodies being covered in fresh snow as the final shot.

Below: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows [2010 film scripted by Steve Kloves]: Harry and Hermione go to see the graves of his murdered parents on Xmas Eve, in a snow-covered graveyard in the West Country village of Godric's Hollow.


 
 
 
  The association of midwinter snows with death and disaster can also relate to attempts throughout history by wartime commanders to mount offensives around Xmas, when they hope the enemy will be distracted. The major example in the last world war was Germany’s final desperate advance through the Ardennes Forest. The Battle Of The Bulge in December 1944 was planned to take advantage of Christmas weather and personnel absences. For about a week the Allies could not use their air forces because of foggy conditions, until finally the sun broke through on the 23-24 December, allowing supply air drops just before Xmas. (The stalemate dragged on for months, leading to nearly a half million casualties, covered in 2 episodes of HBO's 2001 Band Of Brothers.) This wintry fog is shown in films like Battleground [1949] and Patton [1970], filmed in the Spanish Pyrenees. In the latter, there’s a scene where Patton tells the chaplain they need a prayer, within the hour, to change the weather. He duly reads this aloud [clip here], heard over a montage of night-battle visuals where men and vehicles are lit up against the snow by explosions.
 
 
 
 

The association of winter snows with death or mortality carried over into the postwar output of Sweden’s major nature filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff (1917– 2001). He provided a sardonic juxtaposition of elements in his En Kluven Värld (A Divided World, 1948), which has been described as ‘the simplest of xmas films’.
It is set in a Swedish snowscape after dark in the woods around a country church where an evening service is being held. (We don’t see the humans, just hear them singing hymns.) It is narration-less, a predators-v-prey cycle-of-life-and-death docudrama, with an owl, a fox, a stoat and a rabbit in a three-cornered competition for survival.
It may have inspired the
more idealised hibernation-dream sequence in the 1957 Disney 'True-Life Fantasy' Perri, adapted by Ralph Wright and producer/narrator Winston Hibler from a novel by Austrian novelist Felix Salten [author of Bambi].

Right: Screenshots from En Kluven Värld (A Divided World, 1948). (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)


 
 

As society became more urbanised, snowbound country and small-town landscapes came to evoke a nostalgia for lost youth, and the protagonist's midwinter crisis might begin with a feeling we have lost our way in modern consumerist society. This motif appears in many 'family values' TV movies and Xmas specials, from 50s sitcoms like Father Knows Best to the Xmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). In American culture, a popular romantic image of a Xmas holiday setting is a snowbound mountain lodge or cabin (as in films like the 1942 musical Holiday Inn and the 1954 White Christmas). When characters find themselves there inadvertently, stranded by a blizzard, they usually rediscover a meaning to Xmas which is unrelated and even opposed to material consumerism.

This 'snowbound transformation' setup can be found in the 1951 crime drama On Dangerous Ground, scripted by A. I. Bezzerides and director Nicholas Ray from a 1946 novel, Mad With Much Heart by Gerald Butler, which was originally set in northern England during a snowstorm. Here, a US big-city detective, driven close to the edge by the callous selfishness of the criminals he encounters, is sent 'to Siberia' - upstate into the mountains to help with a child-murder case, and rediscovers his lost humanity when he shelters at the farmhouse of a blind woman. 


 
  A character's 'rediscovering the true meaning of Xmas' after being (briefly) stranded outside his normal comfort zone by a sudden snowfall seems to have become a standard theme in US tv dramas and even sitcoms from the 1950s on.
For example, in the 1954 Father Knows Best episode 'The Christmas Story', the family is stranded overnight in a remote cabin on Xmas Eve after their car hits a snowdrift when they drive up into the mountains to get a real Xmas tree. The 3 rather spoiled youngsters stop whining and sulking, and as the phrase has it, 'rediscover the magic of Christmas.'
(The episode became the central flashback in the followup 1958 Xmas special with the same title.)

Right: A pair of screenshots off YouTube from the 1954 Father Knows Best episode 'The Christmas Story'. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)

 
 
 

Tunes Of Glory [1960], set at a Scottish castle used as a military HQ in Jan-Feb with snow on the ground throughout, is very much a postwar drama, based on the novel and screenplay by James Kennaway, who was inspired by his own experience with a Highland regiment. It is a tragedy where WW2 career still determines status, and a new commanding officer who spent the war in a POW camp is undermined by his 2nd-in-command, who fought in the desert with his other officers. The frosty backgrounds match the frosty reception the new CO receives.

Tunes Of Glory (1960) - Opening and closing shots were filmed at Stirling Castle, where in the novel the unidentified Highland regiment (nicknamed The Friendly One, which is laying on the irony) has its battalion HQ.


 
   
The award-winning Canadian student drama Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), written by producer-director David Secter, Ian Porter, and John Clute, set over an entire winter on the U. Of Toronto campus, almost unintentionally conveys the social as well as physical bleakness of campus existence.

 

The cult indie production that helped launch the surreal side of 60s film comedy, Hallelujah The Hills (1963), written by director Adolfas Mekas, made much of its scenes shot amidst the snowbound landscapes of Vermont as a pair of collegiate youths compete, in vain, to impress a young woman living nearby.
 
 

Set in 1962, the 2013 Polish drama Ida, written by director Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and shot in black and white, has a bleak postwar setting, in the grey world of 1960s Communist Poland. Here the Catholic church survives but the spectre of the Second World War, which brought in the Communist regime, still looms. Before she can take her vows as a nun, novice Anna is sent by her mother superior on a cross-country journey to find her last living relative, from whom she discovers her true family heritage, and real name.


 
  The 'snowbound' plot setup found in various US made-for TV xmas dramas can be used more acerbically, as in the 1969 Erich Rohmer philosophical drama Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night At Maud's). The protagonist, a rather pompous engineer, has dinner with a mutual friend on Xmas Eve at the apartment of the divorcee Maud and stays overnight with her when icy roads make it unsafe to drive home. He is determined to marry a blonde woman he sees at Mass, and the dark-haired Maud represents a temptation he must resist.
It's similar to the plot setups in many 'screwball' comedies where the protagonist's plans are derailed by an 'opposites-attract' accidental meeting. The pompous engineer sticks to his Catholic logic (Pascal's Wager etc), but in an ironic epilogue, he discovers that you cannot control life, or fate, so easily.
 
 

   
Left and above: the Xmas-set 1969 Erich Rohmer philosophical drama Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night At Maud's), filmed in the provincial town of Clermont-Ferrand. Rohmer insisted it had to be shot at the correct time of year.
 
 

In the modern age of central heating, snow has become more sentimentalised, a feature of nostalgic depictions. The 'let it snow' motif (as in 'I'm Dreaming Of A White Xmas, Just Like The Ones We Used To Have') has become a timeless one, re-established for each generation.
This is demonstrated by another so-called "Xmas perennial"
work, A Child's Christmas In Wales, originally a 1952 short story by Dylan Thomas, inspired by his boyhood memories of hoping it would snow over Xmas rather than simply rain.
The 1987 tv version adds a modern-day framework where a grandfather and grandson are looking out the window at the rain, the youngster hoping for snow. The grandfather then recounts anecdotes from his childhood when it snowed at Xmas. Interestingly, the 'flashback' scenes of a snow-covered townscape which make up the bulk of the story were obviously shot amidst real snow, i.e. occurring in 1986, in central Wales.
 

Right: the 1987 ITV version of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas In Wales, filmed in Wales with real snow on the ground. (Mouse over picture to see 2nd image.)

 
  In Bridget Jones's Diary [2001] adapted by by Andrew Davies, director Richard Curtis, and Helen Fielding from her 1996 bestseller, the diarist-heroine meets her new man while both are on the obligatory home-for-the-holidays visit. Their home village is shown beneath a coating of [CGI] snow, and their final romantic reunion almost a year later is set on London streets as unrealistically snow-coated as anything in a Dickens musical.   The 'snowbound transformation'' plot setup continues to be used by many US made-for TV 'heartwarming' xmas dramas. For example, it can be found in a 1999 TV movie filmed in Quebec, One Special Night, adapted by Nancey Silvers from the play A Winter Visitor by English playwright Jan Hartman (1940–2006). A lonely-hearts pair of bereaved mature adults are stranded overnight in a deserted holiday home by a Thanksgiving snowstorm, and spend the time grumping at each other (the poster shown here is misleading), but eventually get back together at Xmas.  
  Groundhog Day [1993], by Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis, elaborated the 'snowbound' setup into a surreal comedy. A self-centred, almost Scrooge-like tv weather presenter is stranded in the Pennsylvania town where he has gone to cover the famous Feb 1st ceremony where the locals use a pet groundhog to predict whether there will be 6 more weeks of winter. (The background to this is real, deriving from a German farmers' tradition about Feb 2nd, the feast day the church calls Candlemas, the approximate halfway point between the midwinter solstice and spring equinox.) He finds he is stranded there not only by a blizzard he failed to predict, but by a karmic time-loop his arrogance has brought on himself, where the same day repeats itself over and over - not so much a nightmare as a daymare. This continues until he evolves with a less callous, selfish attitude. Eventually he wakes up in Feb 3, to a fresh blizzard, which he greets enthusiastically [pictured right].
The film became a cult hit, was remade in Italian, and was turned into a stage musical, with the title becoming a popular expression, a metaphor for being stuck in the same frustrating situation day after day.
 
 
       
 
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