Holiday Travel : Comedy about holiday travel was inspired by an actual storm
The snow storm in the movie was likely inspired by the 1979 Great Chicago Blizzard.
FARGO — "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a 1987 comedy film written and directed by John Hughes. The film stars Steve Martin and John Candy and Neal Page and Del Griffith. Both men are on board Flight 909 from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving when a strong winter storm shuts the Chicago O'Hare Airport down, causing their flight to be diverted to Wichita, Kansas. The duo is left to find a way back to Chicago on their own in time for Thanksgiving.
While the film is certainly a work of fiction, Chicago native John Hughes did not have to exaggerate as other Hollywood films when it comes to the weather. Chicago is no stranger to hefty winter storms, and all across the Midwest people know that these storms can easily disrupt any travel plans. What makes this film unique, is that unlike other Hollywood films, this one is fairly accurate in its depiction of such a weather event.
During the mid-winter months, strong areas of low pressure can often develop down in Kansas and Oklahoma. These systems are then pushed to the northeast via the jet stream and into the Midwest. As they move, they draw up warm and moist air from the southern states while also pulling down colder and drier air down from Canada. The warm and moist air is often forced up and over the colder air in place north and west of the low pressure, and this in turn produces heavy snowfall totals that can span for hundreds of miles.
The snow storm in the movie was likely inspired by the 1979 Great Chicago Blizzard, which produced over 18 inches of snow at O'Hare and snowfall totals of up to 3 inches in and around Saint Louis. However, the air mass needed for such a blizzard would be rather unlikely for the month of November in the Midwest. Regardless, Thanksgiving snow storms can and do happen in the Chicago area. Most recently, a late-November snow storm in 2018 brought up to 8 inches of snow to Chicago land, and over 12 inches in other parts of northern Illinois.
November 2018 was an unusually cold November across the Midwest, and this allowed many places to not only see very below average temperatures, but it also allowed many to see above average snowfall. Wichita received 3.0 inches (well above the average of 0.8 inches) and was 5.1° colder than average. Saint Louis saw 5.2 inches of snow (well above the average of 0.9 inches) and was 7.7° colder than average. Chicago picked up 12.7 inches of snow (well above the average of 1.8 inches) and was 6.7° colder than average.
Many places depicted in the film do in fact show snow, whether on the ground or in piles. Interestingly, these locations match up with many of the snowfall reports from the November 2018 snow storm.
Though purely a work of fiction, the movie which was written and directed by a Midwesterner unintentionally depicts the weather surrounding the snow storm fairly well. While the movie was set during Thanksgiving, on a normal year the conditions would have better suited the film had it been set around Christmas time. Yet, as we saw with November 2018, the conditions depicted in the movie can actually happen.