The Polar Express has been a Christmas favourite in my family for years. Ever since primary school, it became a ritual to watch this cosy festive classic at the dawn of every December. However, the past few watches have gotten my brain ticking as to what the whole thing means. I don’t know if it’s because of the nameless characters (except Billy and Santa) or mythical themes of belief and dreams, but I couldn’t help feel the film was trying to tell me something. But what?
It only struck me this year, like a ton of bricks, what it could be. The narrative appears so symbolic and allegorical because it is simply a metaphor for God. Believing in God, to be specific. The protagonist acts as the ‘doubters’ of society, taking a spiritual journey (made physical by the train) to find himself and thus find God. The Scrooge puppet, mastered by the Hobo, dubs the hero as a ‘doubter’ in attempt to frighten him. This nickname may be a reference to ‘doubting Thomas’, the Apostle who refused to believe in Jesus’s resurrection on the Third Day. Until he physically saw it, that is.
This is an almost exact replica of the films plot: ‘Hero Boy’, as the screenplay dubs him, is unsure in his belief of Santa because he hasn’t seen him. This is why the Conductor states ‘sometimes seeing is believing. And sometimes, the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’ A clear message derived from the Biblical passage of Saint Thomas. Even the nickname ‘doubting Thomas’ is now a common term for a skeptical individuals, according to the dictionary.
The most potent symbol adapted by author Chris Van Allsburg, and later director Robert Zemeckis, is that of the Holy Trinity. The Conductor acting as Jesus/the Son, the more tangible of the three in his connection to the real world; The Hobo as the Holy Spirit/Ghost, himself being a literal ghost only Hero Boy can see; and Santa, the omniscient characterization of the Father/God, dwelling in a different realm to the rest of the world (Heaven/North Pole). Through this Evangelical concept, the protagonist is allowed to explore the Almighty figure that many find difficult to comprehend. The Conductor and Hobo almost act as the baby steps into believing in the ‘big guy.’
One thing I did struggle to understand was the representation of Billy. He is the only named character, with the others remaining blank to allow the different parts of society to fit their moulds. I felt him significant due to emphasis being put on his strange tendencies to choose solitude. Whether it’s sitting in the empty carriage, at first not queuing to see Santa until persuaded, or living on ‘the other side of the tracks’, he causes his own loneliness. But why? What does this mean?
Well, after pondering the question I came to the conclusion that Billy could represent Atheism at its simplest; the film criticising those who immediately choose to disregard God or ‘Santa’ saying ‘[Christmas] just doesn’t work out for me.’ In that sense then, the protagonist would exemplify Agnosticism and the girl one of true faith. Again, the story promotes this faith as the girl appears the happiest and kindest of them all, even being allowed to drive the train for the Conductors trust in her leading the right way (the way of God). Billy continually rejects Christmas which consequences in his melancholy loneliness in life– the opposite to the girl, one of joyous belief.
The story however, isn’t about converting those of Billy’s disposition as such. There is more focalization being pinned on people who are unsure and in need of a boost before their discontented state is solidified. ‘No photo with a department store Santa this year, no letter to Santa’ signals Hero Boys fragmented beliefs. When the Conductor urges him to ‘seriously consider climbing aboard this train,’ it is a metaphysical journey to save his soul. Obstacles constantly present themselves along the way in forms of iced tracks, caribous blocking the path, the breaks being broken and detaching the carriage at the North Pole. This is not just for screen spectacle but examples of how the path to God may not always be easy.
But the ultimate test of faith comes in the sign of the bell.
Ah yes, the bell. The obvious embodiment of faith and belief…but not just in Santa Clause. The protagonist only hears the sound of the shining silver bells ring once he trusts in Santa enough to see him (not the other way around). In loosing the ‘first gift of Christmas’ his spiritual achievement is tested. Does the boy still believe once the magical adventure is over and he stands, no longer in the numinous world of the North Pole, but in his own home? Yes. The bell still rings for him.
The religious experience ingrains a divine acceptance within him, even if he will never fully understand what happened. Both parents, and later his sister as Tom Hanks narrates, all are deaf to the ‘sweet sound’ of ‘Christmas spirit.’ Probably due to age causing doubts about what they ‘can’t see.’ But the films obvious promotion of Christianity is clear in its closing message that the ‘bell still rings for all those who truly believe.’
Note: This is just a personal theory. It isn’t necessarily how the creators intended it to be read!