Tom Hanks: ‘Polar Express’ Author Chris Van Allsburg Surprised Him

Tom Hanks has been in many movies based on books. Forrest Gump was a novel by Winston Groom. He played Robert Langdon in three Dan Brown movies. Road to Perdition was based on a graphic novel, but The Polar Express takes the cake. The classic Christmas movie was based on a 32-page children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg.

Polar Express star Tom Hanks raises his right hand
Tom Hanks | Junko Kimura/Getty Images

The 2004 movie brings Van Allsburg’s pages to life and Hanks plays six of the author’s characters. At the 2004 press conference for The Polar Express, Hanks recalled meeting Van Allsburg. 

Tom Hanks was a fan of ‘The Polar Express’ before the movie

Hanks’ kids — Chet, Colin, Truman and Elizabeth — are all grown up now. In 2004, reading The Polar Express to them around the holidays was still fresh. 

The book itself is a haunting, very effective story, and you really can’t quite put your finger on it. I’ve been reading it to my kids, I think, since it was published. And as you get closer and closer to Christmas you read it more and more. There’s something very stunning, quite frankly, about Chris Van Allsburg’s paintings. They’re not drawings. They’re impressionistic versions of this child’s house and what it was like to be on a train and all the aspects of the adventure that they go on.”

Tom Hanks, The Polar Express press conference, 2004

The movie was the first of three animated movies Robert Zemeckis directed using performance capture technology. Hanks and costars would act out their roles, and animators would transform them into Van Allsburg’s artistic impressions.

Tom Hanks at the Polar Express premiere
Tom Hanks | Yui Mok – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

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“It was always a very tactile feeling that I got from reading the book as well as a very elegant, simple, but complicated, sophisticated story about what Christmas means to each and every one of us,” Hanks said. “The idea of maybe that turning into a movie is a complete X-factor. You have no idea if that’s going to be possible or not, which was why when Bob and I first started talking about it it was really only from the perspective of, ‘Well, what do you think? Is something possible here or not?’”

‘The Polar Express’ fit into the Chris Van Allsburg canon

Van Allsburg also wrote the books on which Jumanji and Zathura were based. Hanks read those and others which haven’t been adapted yet.

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“Particularly Jumanji, that’s almost like a scary book to read for me because it’s black and white, stark,” Hanks said. “It’s about these kids alone in this kind of Manhattan apartment. And The Garden of Abdul Gasazi is much the same. There’s this incredible mystery. You can almost be afraid. They’re like little miniature Twilight Zone episodes that are more benign than Twilight Zone episodes, but are still wrought with this kind of danger and power and jeopardy that is inherent into what all of his stories were.”

Chris Van Allsburg was not at all what Tom Hanks expected

Given Hanks’ harrowing relationship wtih Van Allsburg’s work, the actor was prepared to meet an eccentric artist. 

Chris Van Allsburg stands next to a Polar Express poster
Chris Van Allsburg, | Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic

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“And yet you meet him and he kind of comes off as this buttoned down [guy],” Hanks said. “He’s not like a kooky artist who wears a beret and says, ‘Yeah, man, I’m wild about them trippy wolves.’ He actually is kind of straight laced, but understands what he was going for and in this case was very open to the ideas. ‘Look, it’s a 29-page [sic] picture book. You’ve got to do something other than what I did there.’ So I think he’s a brilliant man.”