Every year for the past 5 years Ovation TV has a Battle of the Nutcracker’s wherein they play 5 different versions (rotating some out annually) of the ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s most renowned work. While I definitely qualify myself as an enthusiast rather than a savant of dance, this is a piece I know well enough such that I find it interesting to watch the different versions and pick a favorite.
Now within the ballet there are many variations for while Tchaikovsky’s music is the standard each choreographer has their signature while it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov who originally choreographed it, it’s perhaps Balanchine’s that’s most well known.
What’s most interesting to me about this “competition” where the viewers are invited to vote for their favorites is that it gets me thinking about adaptation. One could do quite a lengthy case study on The Nutcracker alone. While there are many either “filmed ballets” or cinematic versions based on Tchaikovsky there are many based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Just the fact that you have these two available sources available to freely adapt makes this quite a notable story.
However, a narrative as flexible as this wouldn’t suffice for a post for one could argue that “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft are more malleable pieces of fiction based on the films they’ve spurned. What makes The Nutcracker a unique tale, is not only the fact that I personally would put it on a list of ‘The Great Stories’ meaning classic narratives I could watch re-interpreted any number of ways but also the fact that it does have two potential origins as a source material either in literature or in dance.
In honor of this great story and the novel idea by Ovation I thought it’d be good to have some suggested Nutcracker-related film viewing for the holiday season.
Here are perhaps the three most well-known (the ones I’ve seen) cinematic versions to get you started.
The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)
During its all too brief cinematic run it was referred to as The Nutcracker in 3D. Now with 3D being the cinematic boogeyman du jour home video is the way to check this film out. I won’t give too much away but this version is most definitely different and based on the story rather than the ballet. This allows the storytellers to have a lot of latitude and there are few if any safe decisions and this film will likely cause divisive reactions all around. Partially musical and very allegorical it’s a film that refuses to be ignored. It also features Elle Fanning (Super 8, We Bought a Zoo) and Charlie Rowe (Neverland).
If you’re one who prefers your references and adaptations a bit more oblique then you need look no further than Disney’s pet project Fantasia. Along with many numbers from The Nutcracker you will of course see interpretations of may other classical pieces. This film is definitely all about Tchaikovsky’s music rather than the ballet though there is dancing too as you may well know.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)
Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lynn Cohen in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (Warner Bros.)
This was the first place I was able to complete viewing the complete story of The Nutcracker ballet. My first attempt to view it live at Lincoln Center was interrupted halfway through. There are a few things that are interesting about this film not the least of which is that you have within it an encapsulation of George Balanchine’s choreography. You also have the fine narration of Kevin Kline. However, of course, what most will note is that it features Macaulay Culkin in the lead. The only major alteration is that the choreography, which for the nephew/nutcracker is rather minimal is diminished further here. While some may not even know this film even exists you might be further surprised to learn that this film is really perhaps the biggest power play Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s father and perhaps the most notorious stage parent in modern times, ever pulled off. Macaulay’s participation in The Nutcracker was really a case of living vicariously through your child. Though he speaks of it earnestly now of his distaste for the project it really doesn’t translate very much on film. Furthermore, Kit tried to influence the final cut of the film removing said narration and when it wouldn’t happen Culkin didn’t publicize the film so it was another Nutcracker box office bomb.
The Ovation block certainly made me want to look for other versions on film and I hope you enjoy these as well as seeking out others.