George Bailey: ‘A Wonderful Life’ Lesson for Writers

Considering that my little post The 5 Secrets of Marley and Scrooge resulted in a 2500% increase in visitor traffic to this corner of the web, it seems prudent to publish another fun and light (and hopefully enlightening) exploration of a Christmas classic.

By the end of this post we will have connected It’s a Wonderful Life to Nicholas Cage. Can you guess how?

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, we are shown a beautiful character arc. This arc is of the ‘revelation’ kind.

George Bailey (poor, poor, rich George Bailey) does not experience a change in his life station or circumstances, and yet the revelation at the end that he is ‘The richest man in Bedford Falls’ is a prime example of a story arc—and we as writers could learn a lesson from his story.

3 Questions about the Wonderful Life

To fully understand the account from a writer’s perspective, we must ask ourselves:

  • Who did the character change?
  • What do audience members learn about themselves?
  • Why did the character himself change?

So, who did George Bailey change? Whose lives were affected—for better or for worse—by his actions? As Clarence, angel-second-class, noted, all the men aboard that troop transport died, because Harry Bailey was not there to save them, because George was not there to save Harry when Harry fell into the ice as a child. (What did all those other boys do, just watch little Harry drown?)

Because George wasn’t there to stop him from buying up everything, old man Henry Potter was free to turn Bedford Falls into Las Vegas, aka Pottersville.

Ah yes, if I could buy up my town’s properties, I would end up calling this place Buckelsville for sure. Can’t blame Potter. The man is a classic antagonist, without a single redeeming character trait, and yet I loved watching him and listening to his besmirching growl of a voice.

In effect, George Bailey touched every single life in Bedford Falls—and beyond. It is interesting to note that even though he never got to travel like he wanted, George Bailey still had a positive effect on the outside world.

What does the audience learn about themselves from watching George’s sad tale? A great moral: Each life touches so many other lives, even when we don’t see it at first. And no man is a failure who has friends.

Which suggests that if you don’t have friends, you must be a failure. Crazy, how dangerous positive quotes can be if you look at what they intimate at the other end of the spectrum.

And finally, why did the character of George Bailey change? How could he go from two extremes, from attempted suicide to tears of joy? It wasn’t the saving of yet another life (that of Clarence). It wasn’t his seeing how miserable everybody was without him around to do things for them.

No, it was because he was finally shown the same level of sacrifice that he always showed to the people of Bedford Falls. Throughout It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sacrifices one dream after another, constantly postponing his hopes by giving of himself, for the betterment of others.

It’s not until the end that the miserable ingrates of Bedford Falls at last show him their gratitude and offer up money to cover the $8,000 that the silly stupid old fool Uncle Billy gave to Potter.

At that moment George Bailey finally understands what true riches are. He has friends. He need not suffer because of other people. Though up to that point he had suffered for others, for his entire life!

This is why some Christian radio stations like to promote the movie; its sacrificial and Christ-like overtones resonate on a deep level with love and the divine sacrifice.

So, in the end George Bailey’s lot in life has not changed. He still hasn’t climbed the highest mountains or seen the Louvre. But he is now happy, because he has realized what he failed to see during all those long years of depression and darkness: he is loved. This is shown by having his example of self-sacrifice returned to him.

Another Christmas movie took the general idea of It’s a Wonderful Life and yanked it around to pull a 180.

Nicholas Cage’s 2000 The Family Man, is about a rich man being shown how poor he is. This is done through a Glimpse, a sort of Scroogian view into an alternate reality where he made different choices, as shown by Don Cheadle.

While I enjoy the typical Cage antics and can certainly see the appeal of Tea Leoni, the movie simply does not resonate in my heart the way that It’s a Wonderful Life does.

This may be due to a number of factors, but I think the main reason The Family Man is not as effective a heartstring-puller as George Bailey’s wonderful life, is because on an emotional level we prefer the story of a poor man being shown he is rich, to that of a rich man being shown he is poor. On paper and on the big screen, the former just looks and sounds more appealing, more compelling, and more necessary.

Then again, Dickens pulled off this very thing with Scrooge; he showed a rich man how poor he was (because he didn’t have any friends, maybe?), and we are still eating up the tale, nearly 175 years later. Alas, very few of us are Charles Dickens.

In your books, you might want to remember these points:

  • It is often a good idea to pull on your readers’ heartstrings—just be gentle about it
  • A character’s station in life does not need to change for him to experience an ‘arc’
  • Revelation is a subtle art best served slowly—not as a punch in the face
  • A character is shaped—for better or for worse—by those whose lives he effects

I hope you have found something enlightening or entertaining in this little digression. What is your favorite Christmas movie? Can you find something useful in it for your writing? I bet you can. You might want to check out 7 Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life, by theweek, here.

(Side Note: I’d like to wish my brother a happy birthday. Wherever you are, just know that we love you and you are always welcome here. Happy Birthday, D!)