Reframing the Story

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.” —George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the premise since it’s been recycled many times. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, a man whose life hasn’t turned out as he planned, wishes he had never been born. In response to his wish, an angel appears to show him what the world (or at least a small slice of it) would have been like if he never existed.

Along the way, viewers are shown what events led to this low point and how his absence would have changed the lives of others for the worse. Of course, the movie concludes with George taking back his wish, everything being restored to status quo, and his community coming together to bail him out of his current dilemma.

It’s presented as a heartwarming tale where George is shown the value of his life as “the richest man in town” as his younger brother, Harry, puts it. Figuratively speaking, of course, since his lack of money is an ongoing issue and the crux of the dilemma that opens the film.

The first time I saw this film I took it pretty much as intended, albeit with a little side-eye at the writers for imagining the worst fate that could befall George’s wife, Mary, in the alternate universe would be ending up an unmarried librarian. With each subsequent viewing, though, the story started unraveling for me.

The dilemma George’s neighbors and friends save him from isn’t one of his own making, but it is one he would have taken the fall for had they not stepped in. Their saving him is less a selfless act of generosity than one that ensures he’s still around to take advantage of in the future; he wouldn’t have been much use to anyone in jail. And on December 26, everyone will return to their lives doing what they want, asking George to save them when they need rescuing—and George will still be stuck in Bedford Falls.

George wanted to travel, to go to college, to build bridges and tall buildings. He didn’t want to get married (or get rich quick selling plastics). Instead, he never left the small town he grew up in, ended up married with four kids, and spent his life trying to keep the family business afloat out of a sense of duty to everyone around him. Which is not to say that any of those things are inherently bad, but none of them were what he wanted from life.

And so the heartwarming tale turns out to be a horror story of a man who is trapped by invisible shackles. Each time he makes plans to leave, something intervenes to make him stay, to keep him there, in his small-town prison. It’s okay for everyone else to leave—Harry does, Violet does, Sam Wainwright does, even Mary does for a time—but not George. George must stay. Staying—or returning in Mary’s case—to the small town of Bedford Falls is proof of their goodness.

The It’s a Wonderful Life storyline has become a pervasive trope in our culture. In one of the most common variations, a protagonist who has achieved great success in their career after moving to the Big City (evil), returns to their small hometown (good) for some reason. They are either single (and therefore their life is incomplete) or in a relationship with some unfortunate city person who will soon be dumped. They quickly reunite with someone from their past who has never left town, and decide to stay and pursue a warm fuzzy scaled-down version of their previous career while raising a family. And even if most of us really do live in cities not quaint small towns and our lives are nothing like this, the power of storytelling is such that, at least for the duration, we find ourselves going along with the premise that this narrative is the one path to true happiness.

Storytelling is more powerful than any lecture. Stories have the power to convince you not only that this is the way things should be but make it seem like this is the way they are, an incontrovertible truth, not just one possibility. As writers, it’s our challenge to step far back enough from the familiar story to see alternative ones. One change can change everything. What if instead of George wishing he’d never been born and seeing a world where everything fell apart in his absence, an experience that cemented him even more deeply to the status quo, he wished he’d done the things he dreamed of and saw that things turned out okay for everyone else anyway. Subvert the sad librarian trope and show Mary thriving in her career as a librarian in the city. A wonderful life can take more than one direction.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]

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