Today, I am going to break down the structure of the 1990 smash hit, Home Alone. Although it was written by the famous John Hughes, Home Alone wasn’t expected to be the highest grossing comedy of all time (until The Hangover took it’s placed years later.) Home Alone was directed by Chris Columbus and starred Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. Below, I’m going to break down the movie and it’s structure, outlining how John Hughes wrote one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
Act 1: Set-Up
Home Alone takes its time with setting up every possible character, character personality, setting, the plot device in very little time that it is simply impressive. In order, let’s see what’s set-up.
The House: we see the setting of where our main story will take place. Christmas lights on the house, plus the beauty of John William’s score, suggest Christmastime.
Character Introduction: Harry Lime: the first character we see is this man, dressed like a policeman. He tries to pin down one of the many kids that are running around.
Character Introduction: Kate McCallister: A well-dressed woman who is doing two things at once; packing and talking on the phone. Her talking to her friend provides us with exposition as to why the house is so crowded; her brother-in-law and his family are here.
Character Introduction: Kevin McCallister: the main character, who when we are first introduced to him complains to his mother that the big kids are watching a movie – Angels with Filthy Souls – but he is not allowed to watch it, as told by his Uncle Frank. She dismisses him.
Character Introduction: Peter McCalister, the father, comes out of the bathroom and introduces two aspects about Kevin that we will see later on; he left micromachines on the floor, and his aunt almost tripped over them (i.e. the traps) and he was trying to make ornaments out of his fathers new fish hooks (i.e. his craftiness)
Character Trait Revealed: Kevin cannot pack his suitcase because he doesn’t know how. This reveals that he is helpless, as is confirmed verbally by his two older siblings, Jeff, Megan, and Linnie. “You’re what the French call Les Incompetent.”
Character Introduction and Plot Device Revealed: We are then introduced to Kevin’s oldest brother Buzz. Buzz is the meanest out of his siblings and owns a tarantula (which is a Plot Device that will be seen later.)
Character Introduction: Old Man Marley is introduced to the audience, and most importantly, to Kevin. Buzz tells the tale of how their old neighbor is a serial killer, thus scaring Kevin.
Character Introduction and Plot Device: Little Nero’s Pizza Boy pulls up, delivering pizza. Pizza boy will come in later.
Character Trait Revealed: The Pizza Boy asks Harry, “You just around for the holidays?” Harry replies, “You could say that.” What does that mean?
Harry asks Peter about his home security. Peter reveals all of his home securities.
The climax of the set-up; the kitchen scene. Kevin and Buzz get into an argument about pizza, resulting in a mess being made and general chaos. In the chaos, Peter accidentally throws away Kevin’s ticket/passport. Everything is blamed on Kevin as a slow-pan of the camera shows every member of his family glaring at him.
Harry asks Kate about family. Kevin notices Harry’s gold tooth. Kate reveals that the whole house will empty as they will be in Paris. Harry says as the bandit’s musical motif plays, that her house is in “good hands.”
Kevin is banished to the third floor, alone. Kevin states that he doesn’t want to see Kate, or his family, again. Kevin states; “I wish they would all just disappear.”
The theme is introduced in the set-up, and it’s family. There is nothing complicated or philosophical about this.
Act 1: Catalyst
While the McCalisters sleep, a storm knocks out their power, thus knocking out their alarms – they get a late start. As cousin Heather count heads outside, she mistakes the neighbor Mitch Murphy as Kevin from behind as he peers into the van. As Kate loads herself into the van, the construction man states that the phone lines are down due to the storm. She ignores it, but she shouldn’t; this is a character obstacle put in her way.
The McCalisters make it to the airport in time. But they forgot one thing: Kevin. He is left by himself in the house.
Act 1: Debate
Character Trait introduced; Kevin is scared by the heater in the basement and runs away. This introduced that not only is he helpless and dependent, but he is easily scared.
He thinks it is a joke until he remembers what he wished for. He is astonished at first, but remembering how his family treated him, he rejoices in freedom. He runs around the house and invades his brother’s room.
In the Debate, the protagonist must answer the call to adventure? Now in his celebrating, it is clear that Kevin has answered the call to adventure, but can he make it on his own?
Kevin runs around the house in joy, thinking his family genuinely disappeared. Meanwhile; Kate has a funny feeling that she forgot something. Then she remembers; “Kevin!” They forgot him.
Plot Device Introduced: As Kevin looks in his brother’s trunk, he finds firecrackers. Why would Kevin take them and say “I’ll save this for later”? Because he will.
Plot Device Introduced: Kevin takes Buzz’s BB Gun and practices shooting. Again, this will be introduced later in the movie.
Plot Device Introduced: As mentioned in the Set-Up, Kevin watches the tape of Angels With Filthy Souls. He is scarred by the film and calls for his mom. This is a prime example of the protagonist trying-and-failing – Kevin thought he could watch this and not get scared, but he does.
Kevin slides down his stairs as Kate is on the plane in self-pity. This is a good part to break away from them and introduce…
Break into Act 2. The Transition from Act 1 to Act 2A
Kevin realizes he might be in danger. His decision to ward off the danger, i.e. Harry and Marv, is Plot Point 1. Though being forgotten was out of Kevin’s control, his decision to ward off the burglars – however small turning on the lights were – is a decision that he actively makes. See more description of scene below.
Act 2A; Fun and Games
Character/Antagonist Introduction: In Act 2A, we introduce the characters of the bandits, Harry Lime (who we saw earlier, but disguised) and his younger partner in crime, Marv Merchants. They sit in a plumbing van outside of the McCalister house and are about rob the house. Harry demonstrates how he has the block locked down by predicting the timing of the lights of the empty houses. This would be called the C-Story.
This is the part of the screenplay/movies where we are following multiple stories now. The main story, which I call A Story, is following Kevin. His goal is to make it on his own without anyone else. B Story follows Kate as she tries to get in contact/get home to her son – the relationship between family and Kevin is important, because it’s the emotional core of Home Alone. C Story follows Harry and Marv as they rob Kevin’s neighborhood. A fourth plot line can also be included: D Story is the rest of Kevin’s family in the Paris apartment, which is only seen once.
A Story. Inside the house, Kevin is asleep as the Grinch plays. He wakes up when he hears the bandits about to enter. He scares them away by turning on the lights.
B Story. Kate tries to call everyone she knows at the airport in Paris.
A Story. After scaring away the bandits, Kevin hides under the bed. He comes out of the bed and scolds himself for being scared. As he shouts outside that he’s not afraid anymore, Old Man Marley walks by. He screams and retreats to his parent’s room. Another try-and-fail.
B Story. The family states that they couldn’t get through to any neighbors. Kate tries to call the local village police. Both officers she talks to puts her through a hassle, but after a while, they agree to send an officer to check on him. Try-and-succeed!
A Story. A policeman knocks on the door. Kevin is too scared to answer.
B Story. Peter wants to go back to the apartment, but Kate needs to get home. As her family leaves, she is on standby for a plane seat back to the USA.
A Story. The next day, Kevin imitates his dad with putting on aftershave. He screams as it burns his skin. Try-and-fail. Kevin climbs Buzz’s shelves as he tries to get money. Though he falls and the shelving falls on him, he gets the money. Try-and-succeed! Plot Device, the tarantula is let loose!
C Story. Harry and Marv rob the Murphy’s, the house across from the McCalisters. Marv hears that the McCalisters are out of town from the answering machine. This scene also sets up their villainy by not only stealing but destroying the house.
A Story. Kevin goes to buy a new toothbrush with Buzz’s money. As Old Man Marley scares him in the store, Kevin runs out of the store with a toothbrush he didn’t pay for. He is chased by the police but is able to get away. He walks with the toothbrush with guilt. “I’m a criminal.”
C Story: Marv and Harry leave the Murphys, but Marv floods the house as he leaves. “Harry, it’s our calling card. All the great ones leave their mark. We’re the Wet Bandits.” Their calling card will come up later in the plot! As the bandits argue, Kevin walks into the path of their incoming van. (This also sets up the character’s personalities more; Marv is dimwitted but mischevious, and Harry is the smarter, more serious one. They are likable in their dynamic but just villainous enough so we don’t feel sorry for them when they walk into the traps at the end.)
A-C Story: Kevin’s first run-in with the bandits. After almost hitting them, they advise him to be more careful. Harry wishes him a Merry Christmas; Kevin recognizes the gold tooth, and gasps. It’s the same man who was in his house. Harry notices Kevin’s suspicion and they follow Kevin. Kevin recognizes the danger as they look for him, and then Kevin remarks, “When those guys come back, I’ll be ready.”
Act 2A-Act 2B Transition: The Mid-point
“The Switch” Kevin now goes from his goal to see if he can be independent to now trying to keep himself safe from the burglars. His first attempt is by creating a fake party, in which tricks Harry and Marv. Try-and-succeed!
Act 2B: Tensions Rise
D Story: Peter, in the Paris apartment, tries to get a flight home. Buzz remarks to Megan how nothing bad will happen to Kevin since they live on a “safe street.” (Note: This was the only time the family was shown in Paris. We would have had more D Story, as I call it, but test audiences didn’t like it so it was cut
A Story: Kevin uses the tape of Angels with Filthy Souls to trick the Pizza Boy. He runs away in fear as he hears gunshots. Kevin uses this to get his pizza, but also practice this trick – who knows, the tape could be useful in the near future?
B Story: Kate tries bargaining with the Grandma from Sixteen Candles in order to get a seat on a plane. She offers her physical goods, but it doesn’t work. After she begs, “from a mother to a mother,” she gets on a flight home.
A Story: As Kevin is in bed, he starts to miss his family as he looks down at a picture of them. The next morning, we see some of Kevin’s character development. MAJOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AHEAD: As he sings during his morning routine, it’s evident he has become more confident. When he shops in the grocery store and talks with the cashier who questions him relentlessly, it’s evident he has become more independent. This is especially clear with the handling of his money; “Wait, I got a coupon for that.” As Kevin washes his clothes in the basement, the scary furnace is there. It growls at Kevin, but he tells it to “shut up” thus showing he is less fearful than how he was in the beginning.
C Story: Harry is confused by the house. Marv goes and checks it out by trying the back door.
A-C Story: Kevin realizes Marv is trying to break in. He immediately turns on the gangster movie, tricking Marv (Plot Device Activated! – and for a second time!) Marv starts to panic and is finally scared away when in lieu of just the sound from the movie, Kevin uses the firecrackers (Plot Device Activated!) for the sound of bullets.
C Story: Marv relays what happened to Harry. Marv wants to leave, but Harry sees an opportunity. He wants to wait and see who it is. Harry thinks that in case they get caught, they should know who the other criminals are. They wait and watch…
B Story: Kate harrases a Scranton airport for a seat on a plane. He can’t do anything but is overheard by Gus Polinski, a cheerful polka band member – played by the talented John Candy. He offers a ride back to Chicago in their van, and Kate accepts. Try-and-succeed for Kate!
C Story: At sunset, Harry wakes up to see Kevin in the backyard cutting a tree. He realizes something and goes to investigate.
A Story: As Kevin sets up his own small Christmas tree, he sees Harry behind him outside. He tries to trick Harry, but Harry doesn’t fall for it. Try-and-fail. Kevin runs up to the third floor and listens to them.
C Story: Harry wants to rob the house. Marv is against it with Kevin there. It’s non-negotiable to Harry; he wants the house. “We’ll come back around 9 o-clock.”
A Story: Knowing the burglars are coming back, Kevin visits Santa and tells him that he wants his family back. Even the relatives he doesn’t like. Kevin then walks into a house that is filled with family. He looks at the family enjoying Christmas Eve, reminding him of his own family. He then walks to the Church; after some hesitation, he enters and sits.
But Old Man Marley is there! To Kevin, all of this time, he has seen the man as a villain. But As Marley sits down and talks to Kevin, he realizes that the man isn’t mean at all; just misunderstood. Kevin tells Marley about how he’s been bad this year and that he loves his family. “Deep down, you always love them [family.]” Marley confides in him that he is there to see his granddaughter, but he has to leave soon because he doesn’t want to see his son because of a falling-out. Kevin gives Marley advice; call your son. Marley states that you’re never too old to be afraid.
Act 2B-Act 3: Plot Point 2
Kevin makes the decision to run home and to start setting up traps. “This is my house, I have to defend it.” This decision is Plot Point 2. Kevin could have easily made the choice to not do anything, but since Kevin’s character has changed since the beginning – developing from a scared, dependent kid to a brave and independent “man of the house” – if Kevin chose not to defend the house, there would be no character development.
Act 3: The Finale
A Story: Kevin sets up a variety of traps. Some of them have been introduced at the beginning of the story.
CLIMAX: The traps
C Story: Harry and Marv decide to go in. They try talking to Kevin first, urging him to open the door, but Kevin starts with his traps. Though a viewer could miss it, we see a little bit of uncertainty in Kevin – but he starts the traps anyway.
Trap #1: Kevin shoots Harry and Marv with Buzz’s BB Gun. Plot Device Activated: BB Gun was introduced in the beginning.
Trap #2: Harry slips on the ice, falls in the driveway.
Trap #3: Marv does the same, but with the cellar steps.
Trap #4: Harry makes it up the icy stairs, only to be burnt by the knob and have the letter “M” burned into his palm.
Trap #5: Marv pulls on what he thinks is a light switch, but is actually a rope connected to an Iron. The Laundry chute the iron goes down is introduced earlier.
Kevin celebrates as he sees that the first part of his traps is working.
Trap #6: Marv steps on tar – and a nail.
Trap #7: Harry tries the back door again, only to have his head catch on fire due to a blowtorch.
Marv retreats. Harry busts through the door in anger. Marv finds an open window.
Trap #8: Harry walks into glue and feathers after being tricked by Kevin.
Trap #9: Marv cuts his feet on ornaments as he enters through the window. Festive.
Harry and Marv meet up in the foyer where they are both now in a lot of physical pain – and it also doesn’t help the protagonist that the villains are now more motivated to get even.
Trap #10: Harry and Marv, in unison, slip on the micromachines. Plot Device Activated, as this trap was mentioned in the first beginning minutes of the movie.
Trap #11: Harry and Marv are bombed with paint cans.
Harry loses his gold tooth (interesting character design introduced in the set-up); he’s now furious. Meanwhile, Kevin calls the police and sends them across the street to the Murphy’s.
Trap #12: Harry trips over the wire. But Marv doesn’t.
Marv catches Kevin. Plot Device Activated as Kevin grabs the loose tarantula and puts it on his face. As Kevin gets ready to escape the house, Harry and Marv bicker over the spider and continue up to the attic. Kevin glides over to his treehouse, and then temps Harry and Marv to come over – “I’m calling the cops.” With Harry’s direction, the bandits climb on the rope over to the tree house. When they are halfway across…
Trap #13: Kevin cuts the rope; Harry and Marv go swinging into the house, hitting it hard and falling.
Kevin races across the street. Harry and Marv follow in pursuit. Kevin, thinking the bandits will follow him, goes through the Murphy’s cellar. Instead Harry and Marv go through the front. They corner him and start to go over their revenge. As Harry is just about to hurt Kevin, Old Man Marley comes in and knocks the bandits over with a paint can.
Act 3: Epilogue / Falling Action
C-Story: Harry and Marv are arrested by the police. The police also mention that because of Marv’s calling card by flooding the houses, they know each house they have robbed – an insult to injury.
A-Story: Kevin lays out presents and cookies for Santa.
B-Story: Kate is close to being home. Gus tries to comfort her, but it backfires as he tells her about the time he forgot his kid at a funeral parlor.
A-B Story: Kevin wakes up and calls for his family. They’re not there. Kate arrives just in time, and they embrace.
The family arrives right behind Kate, and everyone has reunited again. Kevin wins the respect of his family as well.
But what about Old Man Marley? Kevin peaks out the window to see Marley is reunited with his son and his son’s family. Marley and Kevin wave at each other. And then Buzz, “Kevin! What did you do to my room!?”