My girlfriend came home last week with some not-terrific news, so she put in It’s a Wonderful Life as a pick-me-up. It’s one of her perennial favorites, devotee of the Christmas season as she is, and I never mind having it on because I somehow managed to avoid seeing it until a few years ago (Christmas at my house was celebrated with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and Ernest Saves Christmas, and the only other Christmas movie I’ve seen with any regularity is the back half of Scrooged from HBO reruns in the early-to-mid nineties). I’m not going to virtually stand here at my internet podium and try and pretend that a billion words haven’t already been written about this movie, but something struck me while I was watching it, and that is this: the movie doesn’t end at the bridge.
“No shit,” I can hear you all saying. “We waited four weeks for this? Fuck this guy.” (What can I say, work got crazy. Shouldn’t have left you without a dope beat to step to, though.) But this is how my mind works. Maybe I watched too much Back to the Future in my youth, or maybe my brilliant and sophisticated mind just isn’t sufficiently satisfied by the already-overwhelming complexity of modern life, but whenever I’m watching something for the first time I’m guessing where it’s going to go, and when I’m rewatching my mind is twisting through the endless permutations of where it could have gone. And so it was when I was watching It’s a Wonderful Life last week and I found myself considering where the film ends.
Adaptations fascinate me because they’re as much about the creators as they are about the original work. Life differs fairly significantly from its source material, Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift.” Stern’s story starts on the bridge, when a man appears and offers to show him just what Clarence shows George Bailey in the film, but the story is a little more laid-back, since its protagonist, George Pratt, is far less desperate than Bailey, and instead of an increasingly mad dash through the streets of Pottersville, Pratt is able to view the changes his absence makes in the lives of his loved ones under the assumed identity of a brush salesman. Capra, in adapting the story, makes a far more dramatic and cinematic choice, befitting the change in medium. George Bailey is facing financial ruin and prison time: real, immediate and pressing difficulties that could, especially after a lifetime of regret, compromise and dreams deferred, drive a man to stand on a bridge and think concretely of throwing himself in.
Only a maniac would end the movie here, and this isn’t what I was referring to at the beginning. What struck me, watching this latest time, is that there is a movie to be made of this story that ends when George comes back to the bridge. There is a movie to be made about faith and the sanctity of life that ends with George pleading with God for his life back, hardship and all, with Bert asking if he’s all right, with George discovering the blood on his face and petals in his pocket. Structurally speaking, Mary would need to appear, from Bert’s car or otherwise, having gone out to seek her husband. There would be a tearful reconciliation, George would apologize for his earlier behavior, and they would pledge to love each other no matter what. At some point Jimmy Stewart might, or might not, turn slightly towards the camera and say, “Gosh, Mary, it sure is a wonderful life!”
I’m not bothering to make it sing because I think the idea is inferior to what we got, because I think Capra’s storytelling priorities are in the right place. It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie by default; any movie that shows a man running through the snow shouting Merry Christmas is going to play in December until the Network gets sick of all of us and wipes out all our electronics. But it’s also a movie about class, about poverty and work and how much dignity you can really have in this world if you’re indebted to men with hearts of stone. If we’re putting movies in columns with major religions as the headers, IaWL goes in the Christianity column (there’s probably a denominational argument about the sub-heading to be made, but I have neither the expertise nor the interest to engage in it). Some of its values are universal, notably “it’s better in the long run not to be an insufferable prick to people”, but one of God’s angels runs around trying to save George’s life, and George’s plea at the end is to God. But the most important and powerful action in the movie doesn’t belong to God, and that’s why it would have been a catastrophic mistake to end it on the bridge and make that true. The most important and powerful action in the movie is George’s friends and neighbors coming through his door and offering not just well-wishes and pledges of friendship but a tangible lifeline in the form of cash money on the table, and a credit line of nearly double what George needs in the first place.
I feel like there’s a great deal of fatalism in our political climate; certainly there is a certain strain of evangelical Christianity that seems to see the end of the world coming and which views that as something to celebrate instead of to fight against. As a sometime-practitioner of Zen I understand a certain degree of fatalism; the First Noble Truth is, after all, that suffering is an unavoidable consequence of life. But it is also a truth that, just as we can experience the most wretched and horrible grief just after experiencing the most beauteous and transcendent joy, so too can we have this in reverse. George Bailey would never have had the joy of seeing his friends demonstrate their love for him, would never have had the vindication and reward for his life of sacrifice for them, if he had chosen to give up on the bridge, and that is his lesson, and that is why the function of God, and Clarence, in the story is so important. His lesson is also our lesson, that we not give up in dark times, but the movie has another lesson beyond that for us that George already knows.
George Bailey lives his entire life for other people, has always taken action during the dark times of others to bring them light, and life, and this is our lesson, when we see his friends come through that door, because this is the only way to build a better world, a world worth living in, a world where Potter doesn’t get his way (and if you think men like Potter don’t exist as a destructive force in the world right now, you haven’t been paying attention). God, or religion, or morality, is our shield on the bridge, our shield in matters of the soul; we are each other’s shield against the vagaries and the uncertainties and the realities of life on this earth. The bridge is a dark, solitary affair, and everyone has to make the choice to step off themselves. After that choice is made, it’s our job to come in the door.