The Polar Express in Print and Film

Grandfather and children reading

The Polar Express is a magical story of a child's journey to regain his belief in Christmas. It has touched the hearts of millions of readers and viewers.

The Polar Express in Print

Chris Van Allsburg wrote and illustrated The Polar Express, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985. In 1986, the book was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children's literature.

Although it is a picture book, it is not a book designed exclusively for young readers. Adults and older children are also enchanted by the story. In a National Public Radio program aired in 1986, one child reviewer said, "I really like this book . . . even though I am twelve years old." You can read more reviews at Good

Van Allsburg based his illustrations of the steam engine that pulled the Polar Express on an actual locomotive. Engine 1225 was originally owned by the Pere Marquette Railway system. It was later part of a display at Michigan State University, before being restored by a group of enthusiasts at the Steam Railroading Institute. The locomotive is currently owned by the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation.

The Polar Express as Film

While the text of The Polar Express can be read aloud in about three minutes, the film expands the story into a 90-minute movie. It is directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Tom Hanks in six separate roles. The film was released in November 2004, and was an immediate hit.

The film is entirely computer animated. It uses a novel "performance capture" technology, based on real-life performance, to provide natural movement for characters. The image and sound of the film locomotive are based on footage and sound recordings of Engine 1225. A DVD version of the film is now available.

A 3D version of the film was released in IMAX theaters at the same time as the main flat release. The IMAX version was a huge financial success, outperforming the flat version at a rate of 14 to one. It was re-released for the 2005 holiday season and made another $7.5 million.

Also of Interest


You can find out more about Chris Van Allsburg at the author's website.


Several railways offer rides aboard their versions of the polar express during the holiday season:

  • In New Hampshire, the Polar Express Event is a major fundraiser for the the "Believe in Books" Literacy Foundation.
  • In Arizona, passengers boarding the Polar Express at the Grand Canyon Railway Depot are encouraged to donate toys and food to the local food bank.
  • Hobby train manufacturer Lionel Trains released a limited edition Polar Express train set.


A video game based on the film can be played on the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, and Nintendo Game Boy Advance. The game was developed by Blue Tongue Entertainment.

The Polar Express in Print and Film