It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra‘s 1948 Christmas classic is not immediately striking as a piece of Sci-Fi. However, I want to explore the paradox of George Bailey’s wish that he had never been born, and the consequences of this alternate fate for his friends, family and home town if he had never existed.

On Christmas eve, George (James Stewart) is contemplating taking his own life after an series of misfortunes led him facing imprisonment and public ruin. He bitterly realises he is worth more dead because of his life insurance.
The audience is shown moments that have shaped his character, and George has sacrificed for duty, community values and his family’s stability. His own ambitions, such as travel and education, have consistently come second. Some key incidents include rescuing his younger brother from drowning, and negotiating the Wall Street Crash  by giving up his honeymoon to prevent panicked citizens from being exploited by magnate Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
George’s nobility stems from his role as the average man, modest in his deeds and simply striving to do the right thing. His life in itself seems unremarkable: in sleepy Bedford Falls he is scraping together a living, sacrificing his time and money to help others, he has a wife, children and a work-in-progress home.
It is only when George sees what the world would have been without him that he realises what a wonderful life he has (film title, roll credits!). To me, it’s reminiscent of John Donne’s “No man is an island“; each person’s life is entwined with those around them.
His metaphysical self observes the chaos, but is unable to change anything until he asks angel Clarence (Henry Travers) for his wish to be undone and declares he wants to live. The paradox occurs in that George is walking around in a world where he doesn’t exist, but his actions are affecting this world. An interesting question arises where he is being pursued and shot at by police, could he die? Technically he has ceased to exist, so can you kill a non-existing entity? This doesn’t become an issue in the film, but it’s an interesting question to consider. What counts as existing? Would his physical self be harmed? It appears not, as his cut lip heals once he wishes to never have been born.
Now I must take issue with the alternate fate for George’s wife Mary (Donna Reed).  In the world where George exists, she often tells her husband she was resolved not to marry anyone else if she couldn’t be with him. Whilst this is a touching notion, it’s not only unrealistic but also hinders gender equality. In the alternate world, Mary chose to become a librarian spinster (the horror!)
Although the paradox serves to make George Bailey realise his life’s worth, I think it raises fascinating questions about tampering with time and the malleability of the past. The individual seems insignificant, however ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ proves that each person makes their own mark on the world and hopefully tries to improve it. And whilst that may seem maudlin, if you can’t be sentimental at Christmas, when can you?

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