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The Problem with First-Person Narrators–or, Why *November Christmas* Didn’t Work for Me

Monday, November 29, 2010

Watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame Christmas movie on CBS the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend is something of a tradition in our family—mostly because it preempts the shows we usually watch at that time and on that channel, and we’re too lazy to see if there’s anything else worth watching on (probably not).

So we watched November Christmas last night. (Caution—spoilers below. Stop reading now if you DVR’ed this last night and haven’t watched it yet.)

A young woman drives down a snowy two-lane road. She stops and takes a picture. She drives into the town and pulls up in front of the library. People there greet her as if they know her. She hurries over to a circle of waiting children and picks up a book—a book entitled November Christmas. She starts talking about the book to the children.

And I turn to my dad and say, “I guess we know the little girl with cancer survives.”

Which pretty much spoiled the rest of the movie for me, because it removed any jeopardy, any emotional investment I might otherwise have made in the characters/movie. Yes, the characters came together and pulled off an early Halloween and an early Christmas for this little girl with cancer (I assume leukemia, though it’s never specified). But because I already knew that the little girl went on to live and grow up, it didn’t really mean as much as it could have it the child’s survival had been in question. There was no reason to frame this movie with the grown-up version of this child reading the story to other children fifteen years later. It would have been so much better if they’d started out in the “fifteen years ago” time frame, then gone up through Vanessa standing in the snow with her snowglobe and gone to a dark screen there; then, they could have flashed “Fifteen Years Later” and shown her as an adult returning to town for a joyous victory after leaving us wondering if she lived or died.

And this is the problem I have with most books written in first-person narrative, especially those that have any measure of suspense or threat to the life of the main character. Because, with the exception of books narrated by “ghosts” (e.g., The Lovely Bones), if an “I” narrator is telling the story, as a reader, I know that the main character survives everything thrown at him/her.

I have to admit, I watched this movie primarily because John Corbett and Sam Eliot were in it—and I love watching both of those actors. And they did great jobs in their roles (but, again, knowing that the little girl lived stole the emotional resonance from their scenes—though when Sam Eliot’s character talked about losing his son, I did choke up a little).

I have to compare this to another little-girl-with-cancer/Christmas movie I’ve watched recently, and that’s The Ultimate Gift. I didn’t choose this one—it’s one my parents got from Netflix. It’s a combination of an inheritance-with-lots-of-strings-attached story and a little-girl-with-cancer-plays-matchmaker-for-her-single-mom story. And it actually works. It was an engaging movie. They don’t come right out and let you know the little girl has cancer (I knew from seeing the previews for the Hallmark movie that the little girl had cancer) but it’s revealed as the guy gets to know her and her mom better.

Here’s the rub—The Ultimate Gift, with the way the cancer was revealed and progressed and how the story moved along in it, should have had enough emotional resonance to have me blubbering by the end of it. But I sat through it dry-eyed. November Christmas could have also had me blubbering, if they hadn’t spoiled the ending of the movie within the first three minutes. But, still, both are pretty good movies.

Have you seen either or both of these movies? What did you think of them?

30 Comments
  1. Monday, November 29, 2010 5:32 am

    I have never liked first person and maybe this is why! Part of it is because I absolutely love getting into the hero’s head and see/hear how he feels for the heroine and you definitely don’t get that with first person.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:28 pm

      First person definitely doesn’t work for me in the romance genre, which is one (and only one) of the reasons I never got into chick lit when it was popular. I definitely want both the heroine’s and the hero’s POVs in a romance novel, because I want to see how the relationship develops from both people’s viewpoints.

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  2. Monday, November 29, 2010 5:50 am

    I had the same “well, I guess we know how this ends” thoughts when the movie started, Kaye. But I’d guess the “prologue” showing that the girl survived was very intentional. I think Hallmark knew they’d lose too many of their typical audience if people thought there was a chance it was going to end badly. At this time of year, especially, I think people only want to cry at a happily ever after ending, and too many might have turned this show off if they didn’t have a guarantee it would end well. I’m one who doesn’t mind a Nicholas Sparks ending (if it’s satisfying) but even I gave a tiny sigh of relief and relaxed to enjoy the show once I knew for sure she wasn’t going to die.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:31 pm

      For me, a Hallmark movie is just like a romance novel—I know it’s going to have a happy ending, after all, that’s what Hallmark has built their name on with the 240+ movies they’ve produced. Plus, they made a point of saying in the previews that the movie had an ending that would “leave you smiling.”

      This came across to me like picking up a romance novel that started out: “Let me tell you a story about how John and Mary met, overcame all their obstacles, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.” I know when I pick up a romance novel that’s how it’s going to work out. I don’t need it spelled out for me on the first page. I guess that’s why I found the “framing” of this movie unnecessary. Because it was a Hallmark Christmas movie, I went into it assuming it was going to have a happy ending.

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  3. Monday, November 29, 2010 7:29 am

    Awww, c’mon now, Kaye! First person POV ain’t so bad. (Says she who can’t seem to write anything else…)

    It comes with its own set of problems, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t any ‘easier’ to write than third. I like it because I feel, even with people who truly nail close third, there’s still just that little bit of emotional distance when you’re talking about ‘him’ and ‘her’ that you lose when ‘I’ is actually telling the story. Maybe that’s just in the writing, though, and not the reading; as a writer, I feel I get a better handle on the protagonist when I become him/her rather than writing about him/her in third person.

    That said, I can totally relate to the annoyance over knowing that everyone will survive in the end. But I’m someone who’ll read the book or watch the movie (again and again and again) even if I know how it’s gonna end, so even that’s not that big a deal to me, to be honest.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:34 pm

      The one genre I really prefer first person in—and they aren’t written much anymore, if at all—are gothic romances, in which everything needs to be experienced only from the protagonist’s viewpoint so that the conduct of everyone, especially the romantic interest, comes into question.

      But, of course, it’s a romance, so I know going into it that the heroine must live because otherwise it wouldn’t be a romance! 🙂

      (And I’m also one of those who can watch a movie or read a book over and over and over again—I just don’t want to know the ending before I’ve gotten all the way through it the first time.)

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  4. Leah permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 7:36 am

    I haven’t watched November Christmas,but I have seen The Ultimate Gift. I really liked it!
    I thought the guy was kinda cute:P

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:35 pm

      When he first came on screen, I thought it was Jonathan Rhys Meyers, from The Tudors and August Rush, but then I realized it was “Trevor” from Army Wives.

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  5. Monday, November 29, 2010 8:17 am

    I didn’t watch November Christmas – was at my parents’ house and mom and I just decided it didn’t sound terribly interesting. I ended up reading and she & dad watched “Call Me Mrs. Miracle” on the Hallmark Movie Channel, which I’d already seen – and was really, really cute and funny as far as made-for-TV movies go.

    First person narration can be hit-or-miss for me. It really depends on how well it’s done, the type of story, etc. I recently finished “She Walks in Beauty” by Siri Mitchell, written in first person, and it’s the most recent example I have in my own experience of first person narration done exceedingly well.

    BTW, I have seen “The Ultimate Gift” and I remember being rather surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:38 pm

      I picked up She Walks in Beauty because of the gorgeous cover—in spite of the fact that I had to force myself to finish reading A Constant Heart because the two first-person narrators in that book gave me a headache trying to keep up with who was whom. So I’m now looking forward to reading She Walks in Beauty.

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      • Friday, December 3, 2010 12:25 pm

        I know you were disappointed by A Constant Heart, so thanks for giving me a second chance. I hope you enjoy She Walks in Beauty.

        I think first-person can be wonderful in romance if it’s done right. The contrast between how world is and how the heroine thinks the world is can be shown so subtley. That’s one of the joys of the POV. You can allow the reader to know exactly what the hero thinks of everything while allowing the heroine to see it all completely differently. I know that can be accomplished in any POV, but I especially like how first-person allows us to see how we can lie to ourselves so convincingly.

        As a writer, third never seems to come alive for me. I just finished writing a book in omniscient. For me, at least, that seems to provide the best of both POVs: the reader nevers gets confused about who is speaking, but the writer doesn’t have to sacrifice any intimacy.

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        • Friday, December 3, 2010 5:09 pm

          There are so many elements I did enjoy about A Constant Heart, I wouldn’t say I was “disappointed” with it—it was just a struggle for me to get through it because I had to read it in short snatches as I could between my own projects, so having two first person narrators was difficult for me to keep up with, since, whenever I picked up the book, I was never quite certain whose POV it was in.

          And I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to tell you how impressed I am with how you balance research and emotion in your books. It’s awe inspiring!

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  6. Anita Smith permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 9:51 am

    I didn’t see the first few minutes, so I was still wondering…but then part-way through the movie, they show her in the library again. And that was a spoiler. But we have friends going through this NOW, and we don’t know the outcome. So I was still quite teary. A touching story, even with the spoilers.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:43 pm

      I did still get caught up in some of the emotion of the movie—but more with the secondary characters than with the main storyline. I loved the subplot of the two older men reconciling their relationship. That’s one of those “little town” types of stories that I love.

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  7. Anita Smith permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 9:53 am

    Forgot to add that we saw “The Ultimate Gift” two years ago in a motorcoach, traveling back from NYC with about 45 other people. We all loved it!

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  8. Lyndie Blevins permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 11:06 am

    Wasn’t watching movies so much easier before we knew so much about about writing? I didn’t see November Christmas, I forgot it was on.
    The Ultimate Gift is a movie that one of the mentors in my writing group recommends we study for it’s plotting. Since her recommendation I’ve been thinking about why I had not liked it. Instead of head hopping, it scene/locations hops. Where I am in life, I don’t like that much movement, it left for little character development, except for the main character. I resented the Grandfather attempting with the game to make up for what he had not been able to achieve in life. It made me wonder how much he had tried to reach his grandson while he was alive. How much difference would there have been if he had taught him the lessons in person?

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:44 pm

      I didn’t realize until I read your comment that the jumping around from scene to scene and lack of character development is probably the reason that, though I enjoyed the writing and humor that was in The Ultimate Gift, I didn’t become emotionally invested in the story.

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  9. Monday, November 29, 2010 11:07 am

    I saw them both. I came in late on the Christmas movie last night, and didn’t catch on that it was the little girl w/ cancer reading. So no spoiler for me. I loved them both. I am a fab of Hallmark movies, even if they are sometimes dripping with sappiness.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:47 pm

      Some times, the “dripping with sappiness” movies are just what we need, though! 🙂

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  10. Monday, November 29, 2010 12:13 pm

    I’m not a huge fan of first person narration either. Nine times out of ten I put the book back if it’s in first person.

    The exception to that is mysteries. I don’t mind it so much there, though I prefer the book to come highly recommended from someone who knows my tastes in books. I’ve just started John Dunning’s Bookman series that I’m borrowing from one of those friends and so far I’m loving it.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:52 pm

      I probably don’t give enough books a chance, because, like you, I’ll put them back on the shelf if they’re written in first person, even if the story concept sounds interesting.

      There are a few that have worked for me. I really enjoyed John Grisham’s book The Rainmaker—which is not only written in first person, but in present tense. And I didn’t even realize until halfway through the book that it was written in present tense, that’s how immediately I got drawn into the story!

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  11. Bill Kerr permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 3:16 pm

    Just wanted to say, the November Christmas progam was outstanding. Mr. Sam Eliot as usual captures the public/audience in this program. My wife and I both shed some tears while watching this program Thanks to all that participated in its making, its showing, and to all of the people that gave of themselves to make it a heartfelt and heartwarming program. And again, a special thanks to the actors especially Sam Eliot. There are people that still care about each other in this world, and this progrm brought out the love and feelings good honest folks have for each other.

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    • Monday, November 29, 2010 4:53 pm

      It was wonderful seeing a whole town pull together for one sick little girl. I only hope that depth of love and caring for others does truly still exist in the world.

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  12. Lizard permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 6:07 pm

    I watched November Christmas last night – like it not loved it.

    The other movie that I watched yesterday was the 12 men of Christmas (on Lifetime I believe). It started Kristin Chenoweth so I had to give it a chance. I laughed a lot and enjoyed it. I keep getting pulled out of the story though because there were several scenes very much like Pride and Prejudice. Without getting too much into the story there is a scene were a male lead says that he likes her (KC character) despite himself, the same man warns her away from another man who turns out to be very Wickham-like. There were some other instances where P&P came to mind. They changed the story enough so it wasn’t a Christmas version of P&P, but it was a Christmas story with some P&P scenes. Has anyone else seen the movie and saw this as well?

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  13. Kav permalink
    Monday, November 29, 2010 7:05 pm

    I’ve seen both movies and LOVED them both. But I have to admit I missed that opening part so I didn’t clue into the young woman reading until near the end of the movie and I thought the little girl was going to die so I was crying heaps. I’d just gather myself together and then one of those Hallmark commericals would come on and it would send me off again. I LOVE their commercials. I think I must have been in need of a good cry and I indulged last night. LOL. I will admit that it was a bit anitclimatic (though a relief) when I clued in to the reader being the little girl. It kind of threw me for a loop and faltered the story a bit. Still loved it though. Adored the farmer. Is that Sam Elliott?

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  14. Monday, November 29, 2010 8:29 pm

    I didn’t see it but if Sam Elliot is now playing the grandfather roles, I’d rather not know.

    Meanwhile, I caught up on your ankle news and it sounds like things are going well. Hurray!

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  15. Sunday, October 30, 2016 11:51 pm

    I agree. We all know she will probably survive, but it’s always better not knowing. They still could of opened with a girl reading a story in the library, there was just no need for her to announce it was about her life. It would of been great to find that out at the end. Actually, I’ve seen it before and that is what I thought they did. I didn’t remember her saying it was a story of her life. I think I missed the beginning, which was better that way. Even when you watch movies multiple times it really makes a difference the way.you get emotionally involved.
    Do they ever say how Sam Eliot’s son dies? Was it cancer too, or something else?
    Great cast! Sam Eliot and John Corbett.

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  16. Thursday, December 8, 2016 1:33 am

    In a movie of this kind, shown on channels like Hallmark and Lifetime, is there ever the slightest possibility that the little girl will die at the end? Even when the little girl is NOT the narrator. Also, your argument. By extension suggests that it is not possible to enjoy watching a movie for a second time, since you know what’s going to happen at the end. I have watched November Christmas several times and never stopped enjoying it.

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  17. Deanna permalink
    Wednesday, November 29, 2017 11:35 pm

    Can anyone tell me where i could buy a snow globe like the one in the movie November Christmas

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