It’s a Wonderful Life—what it means

Remember Christmas? As part of our Christmas viewing Kimmie and I watched the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and in a first post and a second post I offered up my earlier search for the controlling idea or theme of the story. To tie up that loose end, I’ll finish the train of thought and reveal my final version of the controlling idea.

I’ll continue by inserting edited extracts of my document from 2010.

TUE 23 MARCH 2010

He wants to see the world—he wants adventure, not to be stuck in Bedford Falls, even with a girl who loves him.

George learns that love and helping are a two-way street. He’s not just a martyr to responsibility. He is also a recipient of love and kindness. In becoming this, he gains perfect emotional fulfillment—more than any he could have hoped for in adventuring alone. (For it was alone that he was to go adventuring—key point.)

He thought the world and its marvels would provide the thrills of his life, but it is not exotic marvels that will do this—it is local people. The humdrum neighbors he takes for granted and who are such a burden to him.

Clarence shows George that, far from being worth more dead than alive, as Mr. Potter put it, he has been indispensable to everyone around him all his life. All their enjoyments and achievements have been due to him. He has been a happiness-creator. This is fulfilling enough on its own, but the kicker is that when he returns he discovers it’s a two-way street. All those people—every one of them—help him too in his turn, completing the circuit. This is what turns it into an ecstatic moment for George—of total realization, total fulfillment. He has been a linchpin of everyone else’s success and happiness—but they are linchpins of his happiness too, when the time comes.

It’s a paradox: by becoming nonspecial, a member of the group who needs help in his turn, George discovers the intensity of being truly, totally, cosmically special. It’s as though as part of the community, you lie low and do your bit for others, then, when your turn comes, you enjoy the sum of everyone’s specialness and fulfillment—more than any individual could accrue on his own. And knowing that you’re providing this experience for others is a joy to sustain you in the meantime, when you’re not receiving the bounty personally.

For George, only his moment of crisis, of weakness, of failure, was the opportunity for his friends to show him how much he meant to them. Before that he had been the strong one—the responsible one, there to help others get what they wanted in life. In this way his crisis and catastrophe are the best things that ever happen to him. He has love, friends, and a good life, but he doesn’t appreciate them. He never got to do what he wanted. Instead, he got something vastly better than what he wanted.

He hankered after excitement, exoticism, adventure. His belief was that these things could be found only in unfamiliar places. He wanted novelty. It’s the old Zen story: he’s searching for the lost cow—by riding on it.

Bedford Falls provides him with plenty of excitement and adventure: love, sex, death, enmity, heroics, sacrifice, temptation, fury. George’s mettle is tested plenty—probably more than by any adventure in the wide world. But he doesn’t see it as exotic, and so he doesn’t value it. He feels cheated.

WED 24 MARCH 2010

George’s situation has roots: he has history with these people, and this history is what gives their relationships depth. The wanderer lacks such history, and will move on from one fleeting relationship to another in his quest for novelty. The Eiffel Tower and Samarkand might be exciting, but experienced alone, these things will pall. It’s sharing that gives experience its preciousness.

This is a story about sharing. Potter does not share. (A potter’s field is a burial place for unknown and indigent people.)

Final draft controlling idea of It’s a Wonderful Life:

True fulfillment is born when you give up the search for your own private joy and recognize that the greatest joy lies in sharing life with the people around you.

So there it is. That, in one sentence, is what I believe this excellent story is saying.

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