It’s a Wonderful Life—still

In a recent post I mentioned that Kimmie and I watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, and I started talking about my impressions of it. In that post I mainly talked about what happens in the movie; now I’d like to explore the meaning of the story a bit more. Again I make a spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about what happens in the story, including the ending, and indeed may be providing even bigger spoilers than that.

When I talk about the meaning of a story, I refer to what Robert McKee calls the controlling idea, which he defines thus:

A CONTROLLING IDEA may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.

Sometimes this idea has been called the theme of the story, sometimes its premise, or even its moral, but the essential idea is to summarize the point of the story in one sentence. Why one sentence? Because a single sentence makes a single assertion, and until you have boiled down the meaning to a single assertion, then you have not got to the end of the line in thinking through the meaning of that story.

Another way of saying this is that the singleness of the sentence reflects the underlying unity of the story. A single story is one thing, made up of many parts, to be sure, but nonetheless possessing an overarching unity. If it did not have this unity then it would not feel like one story, but two or more—or simply a mass of incoherent pieces. I contend that the better the story, the more readily its meaning can be expressed as a single coherent sentence. When I say readily, by the way, I don’t mean that discovering this meaning is easy; rather, I mean that this meaning, once found, is capable of brief, forceful expression. Finding the meaning, the controlling idea, of a story is a difficult task of reflection and consciousness even for those who are experienced at it. If you’ve never tried it before, I think you’ll be surprised at just how difficult it is, even for a simple story.

(Incidentally, Edward P. J. Corbett, in his excellent text Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, which I am now reading, says that this ability to summarize any discourse in one sentence is an essential skill of the serious reader, and of course of the writer, but that this skill is the hardest of all reading skills and is generally the last skill learned by the reader.)

All right, so how to find the controlling idea of a story? Where do you look?

The first place to look is at the story’s ending. In a well-constructed story the values at stake come to the surface at the end, and one value prevails over the others that have been contending for supremacy in the course of the narrative. The meaning of the story is essentially an assertion of that value.

But that’s not all it is. As McKee describes it, the controlling idea of a story is not just an assertion of what value triumphs, but also how it triumphs. What caused this value to prevail? In a story about cops catching a criminal, the value at stake might be justice—but how has it been realized by the protagonist? Did he catch the crook through his keen deductive powers? Or was it more through dogged determination against odds? Or was physical or moral courage a more important element? Each of these leads to a different meaning; each is making a different assertion about how justice is realized.

As a writer and storyteller, I regard the study of controlling ideas as part of my ongoing training. In March 2010, having watched It’s a Wonderful Life for probably the 5th time in December 2009, I sat down to analyze its story to discover its controlling idea. I’ll share some of what I came up with. Here’s the entry I made when I created my document:


This story seems clearly to be about coming to appreciate your own life as it is. The ending of the story has George returning to his own world from the world-without-him (a variant on what happens to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) and feeling relief and euphoria. The value of his own personal life to those around him has been made vividly manifest, and he is delighted to discover this.

Having seemingly lost everything—his own life, and with it all that was familiar and good in the people around him—he has it restored to him. (His hearing loss is perhaps his lifelong “deafness” to the messages coming to him about the value of his life. When his hearing is restored by Clarence in the alternative world, it means that now George will have “ears to hear with.”) He is giddy with gratitude and delight.

Back home he finds his family, and now all his friends, the whole town, shows up to offer support in his hour of need. They make it tangible with cash—the life-blood of his savings-and-loan. George hits the jackpot in every way.

George finally comes to see himself through others’ eyes, and in so doing he comes to see them more clearly too. In thinking himself alone and friendless, George was underestimating his friends. He had been kind and helpful to them all his life, but as a bearer of responsibility and lone knight defending the town against the depredations of Mr. Potter, he had imagined that others viewed him with the same harsh, critical, doubting eyes with which he viewed himself. Now, in his hour of need, his friends pay him back his kindness and support—with interest.

The community really is a place of mutual relationships—not just the one-way, I-help-you relationships that George has thought himself to be participating in. George discovers that he’s not an island, and this discovery is one of intense joy that puts away his lifetime of wistfulness and frustration. No Alaskan glacier or tramp steamer or Arabian desert can offer him this.

Mr. Potter is selfish and grasping. George has contempt for him, but Potter is his own shadow. They are both frustrated—and both “warped.” Potter is frustrated because there is an asset he cannot acquire—the savings-and-loan. George is frustrated because he cannot fly away to the life he craves, a life of freedom and adventure. He is shackled by duty to the town and to his father’s S&L.

At the end there is an outpouring of love, appreciation, and giving—all aimed at George. To him it’s all gravy, since he was simply delighted to be back in his life, and was eagerly looking forward to going to jail, because jail was part of that life. That’s how much he loves his life. It was lost, but now it’s found, and he really treasures it. Being showered with love, appreciation, and cash is just a giant bonus.

It’s as though the preexisting fact is love, and the instrumental benefits that come from that are purely secondary and derivative. Potter’s worldly success seduces George into thinking that you have to be worldly and tough and maybe heartless to succeed, to be wealthy.

All of George’s “wealth” at the end was present all along—but he was blind to it. Not entirely, for he did love his wife and family and friends. But he saw these things as compensations, he took them for granted and focused only on the goals and wishes he could not fulfill. His frustration caused him to denigrate what was excellent about his life. Clarence, by providing a tour of a different kind of “unattained world,” shows him the value of his own world. George wakes up and smells the coffee.

George comes to see himself as a recipient of love and help as well as a giver. He’s taking his turn at receiving others’ generosity, and discovering the ecstasy of true belonging.

George has always dwelt in a glorious future, never in the here and now.
He’s always known that people liked him, but he didn’t realize their power to love and help him when he really needed it. As the Responsible One, George has fantasized about an irresponsible life as an adventuring free agent. And he has been responsible, and responsibility is important—but it’s not the whole story. We’re responsible for a reason. In exactly the same way that people save at the S&L so that their neighbors can have houses too, we live with discipline—responsibility—so that our neighbors can benefit, and so that we can benefit too. Their prosperity is my prosperity—just at a different moment. We take turns.

Potter doesn’t take turns. His prosperity is his alone—and it comes at others’ expense. From his point of view, it’s always his turn, and never yours. For him, life is a zero-sum game, and his sum is not going to be zero—yours is.

George saw his life as a sacrifice—one that he resented. Life was a zero-sum game for him too! But he was getting the zero. It was thrust upon him unasked, and out of duty he sacrificed his own wishes and dreams. Like Abraham offering up Isaac, only this time God does not reprieve Isaac, he takes him! In this way George and Potter do think alike.

Thus is born bitterness, resentment. “I didn’t ask for this—but got it anyway!” Others have their dreams fulfilled, their desires met. George is a martyr; their dreams and desires are fulfilled at his expense.

But you can enjoy the game even when it’s not your turn. . . .

That was the end of my first entry, and I felt I’d made good progress. I picked it up again the next day, exploring further the idea of “taking turns” as an important notion for this story. Some extracts:


Thought: dwelling in the glorious future means that “your turn” lies in the future—not in the present.

The sum of community is greater than its parts. Life is a positive sum for all, if you’re willing to take turns.

To share means to take on different roles at different times. Today I’m the giver and you’re the receiver; tomorrow it’s vice versa. When we willingly assent to this, we form a true community. We take turns and thereby we all prosper better than we would alone.

It’s like the trust game: you fall backward, and someone catches you. George was doing all the catching, and could not do any of the falling himself. He thought he couldn’t afford to fall—there was no one to catch him. But there was—everyone, acting together, catches him! Individually they could not, but together they can—and do. Together they can undo the forces of Potter and the law. Just when George needs the full focused power of his community, it’s there for him. If this isn’t divine intervention, it’s indistinguishable from it.

The issue of taking turns feels central. It’s like that image of hell and heaven: hell is the banquet table with long spoons that people can’t use to reach their own mouths, while heaven is the same hall, but the diners are feeding each other. Two elements have to be present to turn the hall into heaven:

  • the focus on serving others, not oneself
  • taking turns

For no matter how many other diners you feed, you still need food yourself. And in this heaven, only they can feed you. If you don’t let them, you’ll starve. You may also feel resentful—and you’re robbing them of the joy and good karma of generosity.

It’s not enough just to give. You have to open up and receive, too. This means relinquishing your sense of specialness or exceptionalness.

None of us is special by nature. We feel special when it’s our turn.

The community is a parabolic mirror, and each of us takes turns being at its focal point, receiving the full intense rays of the Sun. The community has to be structured, organized, functioning, in order for the rays to be focused. When you try only to be the mirror and not be at the focus, you’re actually disrupting the whole thing.

This story points to the mystery of individuality and the group. The mystery of membership.

Taking turns brings in the element of time, and the element of a game: something done for fun. Life is a game. And the game is fun even when it’s not your turn, if you play it with the proper attitude.

A game has an object and a purpose and rules, but it’s entered into only for fun. Enjoying a game means taking it seriously, but not too seriously. You’re playing it properly if you’re having fun—that’s how you know.

In the game of life, Mr. Potter is obsessed with winning (playing too seriously), and George is obsessed with making sure it’s always someone else’s turn. Or maybe better: he’s “letting” others win. Both he and Potter are missing the fun of the game.

The climax of the movie is playful, fun. People are singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” suggesting that Heaven wants life to be fun. They’re making jokes and throwing money into the pot. There’s a rush of gladness that’s more important and deeper than any of the physical or social issues at hand. . . .

And that was it for my second entry. Again, making good progress—but I wasn’t there yet. You can see that I’m assembling ideas, looking for what the values in the story are.

But this post is plenty long enough. I’ll pick this up again later.

Happy New Year.

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