The Polar Express: The Train You Need to Ride Every Year

Many of Chris Van Allsburg’s books have been projected into a motion picture film such as Zathura (2005) and Jumanji (1995). Van Allsburg’s most memorable book to film project is The Polar Express(1985) which has gained the status of being a Christmas film played each year like Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). But why?  

The Polar Express (1985) is structured for young children to understand the gist of the plotline easily in addition to the simple, yet magical illustrations Van Allsburg creates himself. The story appeals to children with elements of magic and wonder and to adults as a form of nostalgia reminding every adult of their imaginative days as a child. The simplicity of the book also provides a skeletal structure for filmmakers to explore one’s imagination of Santa Clause and the North Pole to create a world for the audience to further immerse into the story. The film adaptation of Van Allsburg’s work is the rare exception that a film can further elaborate on the readers’ experience more than the book. 

Van Allsburg sets the tone at the beginning of the book to challenge the readers’ belief in Santa Clause and in anything one might find difficult believing due to its credibility. 

“I was listening for a sound – a sound a friend had told me I’d never hear–the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh. 

“There is no Santa,” my friend had insisted, but I knew he was wrong.” 

(Van Allsburg 2)

Although the plot revolves around the idea of children believing in Santa Clause and the spirit of Christmas, the idea of Santa Clause extends to the challenge of believing in someone or something one cannot see nor have proof of its existence to justify one’s choice to believe in it. We see this idea projected into the film when the male protagonist, Hero Boy, is given the choice to take a chance to board the Polar Express train that he is told to believe would bring him to the North Pole. By boarding the train, his actions reflect his interest in believing in the unknown. We, as the audience and readers, follow Hero Boy’s journey to the North Pole and his journey to finding his confidence and courage to believe in something that others may not. 

We join Hero Boy’s journey on the train through sweet and dangerous adventures. Hero Boy drinks warm hot chocolate and experiences the warmth of the spirit of Christmas on the Polar Express train. We observe and imagine the feeling of hope through the bright glow of the train and the steamy cups of hot chocolate that brings comfort to each child’s eyes. This imagery contrasts with the cold, snowy, and dark exterior that the train travels through. Van Allsburg sheds light on the comfort and safety of the train compared to the “cold, dark forests, where lean wolves roam[s] and white-tailed rabbits hid[e] from our train as it thunder[s] through the quiet wilderness” (7). 

More importantly, he uses the train as a representation of time that is continuous and rarely adjusted to the schedule of any individual. Although Hero Boy pulls the brakes on the train a couple of times, the train symbolizes time as it is a vehicle that must move its passengers to their destination following a schedule. During this journey, we follow Hero Boy’s journey to the North Pole and the journey of his character development. 

Hero Boy represents all of us who have the slightest doubt about believing in ourselves and believing in things that our peers may not completely support. Hero Boy’s confidence in believing the unknown when he is asked for his golden ticket on the train. The golden ticket is one of the key symbols in the film that represents the magic of Christmas. The film continuously emphasizes the idea that 

                        “Seeing is Believing” 

                                                (Homeless Ghost in The Polar Express(2004)). 

Hero Boy begins to believe in the idea of magic when a golden ticket mysteriously appears in the pocket of his robe. Hero Boy follows the influence of Hero Girl, who is the “Lady of Decision… Full of Spirit, Christmas Spirit” (Santa Claus in The Polar Express (2004)). When Hero Girl forgets her ticket, Hero Boy tries to save her by bringing the ticket to her. He tries to cross to the other train cart to reach her but loses his grip on the golden ticket and watches it fly away from him. Hero Boy’s efforts to try to ensure that each child holds onto their golden ticket reflects his fight to ensure that everyone does not lose their belief and hope in the magic of Christmas. 

The camera follows the golden ticket’s journey as it flies into the dark forest and upwards towards the grasp of a bald eagle. The golden ticket is then eaten and spat out by a baby eagle and rolled into a snowball before finding its way back to the Polar Express. The brief journey of the golden ticket reflects the obstacles one’s faith travels through when it is rejected by some individuals. At the same time, one’s belief does travel back to them if they keep their faith alive as we observe when the golden ticket travels back to the Polar Express train glowing of hope. 

Hero Boy is continuing his journey to believing in the unknown when he admits to the homeless ghost on top of the train that he “wants to believe” (The Polar Express (2004)). In this scene, Hero Boy reveals his doubts that he struggles to choose between believing what is considered “reality” versus a “dream.” The homeless ghost acknowledges Hero Boy’s fear that he does not want to be “hoodwinked” and be fooled to believing something that is not real. Hero Boy gains the necessary “proof” he needs when he meets Santa Claus at the centre of the North Pole. Hero Boy struggles to see Mr. Claus and thus does not feel confident to believe in Mr. Claus and the magic of Christmas. Despite the magic he observes from his experience on the Polar Express, Hero Boy continues to doubt the magic of Santa Claus when he cannot hear the ring of the sleigh bells. When he takes a moment to truly give into his beliefs, regardless of what others believe, Hero Boy hears the ring of the bell. This moment marks Hero Boy and the audiences’ realization that 

“Sometimes the more real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” 

The Polar Express (2004)

Hero Boy finally learns to trust in what he believes in when he is told by the Conductor that he does not need to share what his golden ticket says to him. Each golden ticket is personalized with a word or phrase for each child. Hero Boy is given the word “Believe.” Hero Boy and the audience learns that you should learn to feel confident in your own choices and beliefs and you do not need the approval of others to justify your decisions. Hero Boy continues to understand this idea when the narrator says that “though [he’s] grown old, the bell still rings for [him] as it does for all who truly believe” (Van Allsburg 29). 

We learn that as we grow up, we tend to lose faith in the ideas and people we once imagined to be our version of reality. The Polar Express book and film continuously show audiences of all ages to be courageous and to not fear one’s beliefs despite being “different” from our peers. Chris Van Allsburg encourages everyone to keep our child-like spirits throughout the year when times get cold and dark and believing in yourself is the first step toward the journey of caring for ourselves. Playing this film every year reminds children and adults to continue believing and keeping a positive spirit throughout the winter holidays and into the new year. 

“Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believes.” 

(Van Allsburg 29)


Works Cited:

Van Allsburg, Chris. The Polar Express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985. Print. 

The Polar Express. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, performance by Tom Hanks, Warner Brothers, 2004.


Believe via The Polar Express Wiki; License: Warner Brothers;

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