The Nightmare Before Christmas: Tim Burton’s original poem, narrated by Christopher Lee

By on December 22, 2015

In 1982, more than ten years before director Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas opened in theaters in 1993, Burton had originally written a three-page poem of the same name, providing the rough outline for the feature-length tale about Jack Skellington’s attempt to take over Christmas, because it gets more attention than his holiday, Halloween.

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Here we have the great Christopher Lee reading the poem for release on a 2008 Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD release. The poem featured just three characters: Jack, Zero and Santa. Burton has said he was inspired after seeing Halloween merchandise display in a store being taken down and replaced by a Christmas display when he wrote the poem.

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At the time he wrote it, Burton was working as an animator at Disney, and pitched the idea to his bosses at Disney of adapting the poem into a half-hour TV special; he says he was inspired by holiday TV specials like the Rankin-Bass production Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1965), How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Disney weren’t interested at the time, and it was originally deemed “too weird,” so it was put on the back burner by the studio, but within a year, Burton would achieve success with his puppet-animated film “Vincent,” about a 7-year-old boy who dreams of being Vincent Price. In 1984, Burton also made “Frankenweenie,” a weird 30-minute live-action short is about a young boy who brings his dog back to monstrous life after it’s been struck by a car, but that project also remained unreleased for many years.

Eventually, Disney began to consider developing Burton’s poem into either a short film or 30-minute television special, as he had originally intended, with the narration spoken by Price, who was Burton’s favorite actor. He also considered turning it into a children’s book. Eventually, he began storyboarding the short film in collaboration with sculptor Rich Heinrichs, who helped Burton flesh-out his fantastical characters.

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By 1990, Burton had made a development deal with Disney — he’d been achieving success with films like Beetlejiuice and Edward Scissorhands — but he was busy working on Batman Returns at the time, however, and he had another film (Ed Wood) in pre-production, so by the time production on the feature-length stop-motion animated film began in July 1991 in San Francisco, he’d handed over the director job to fellow Disney animator Henry Selick, staying involved only as a producer with his name above the title.

By this time they had released the theatrical trailer for The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Disney studio — then headed up by then CEO and Walt Disney chairman Michael Eisner — decided that the picture might actually be “too dark” for children, and so they moved it over to their Touchstone Pictures company instead, where it was a huge success, earing $50 million in box office receipts.

There have been several DVD versions and two runs of 3-D releases (Disney would re-claim the film in 2006 by re-releasing it in 3-D under the Walt Disney Pictures banner). There has also been a few book releases or the original long poem, including a pop-up book.

Incidentally, Vincent Price was originally cast as Santa Claus in the 1993 Nightmare film before his health began to fail after the death of his wife (the vocal tracks he’d recorded had to be scrapped because his voice wasn’t strong enough).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.