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A Christmas Redemption Comparison

 (Or, why I don't Like It's a Wonderful Life)

 Every Christmas Eve, for as long as there has been TV or video or DVD's,  one of my most revered Christmas traditions has been watching "A Christmas Carol," on Christmas Eve — the fantastic 1951 movie of the Dickens' classic with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. The family tradition started in the 1960s when the movie  began appearing as special programming in the week before Christmas, often scheduled on Christmas Eve.

My father would say: "The Alastair Sim one is on the TV!" ( the only one really worth watching, but Bill Murray's Scrooged  does come close )  and the whole family would gather around our RCA Zenith console in the living room to see the dour, grasping, bitter Scrooge go through his ordeal of past and future compression to become redeemed at the end.

The final scenes were worth it all. The giddy, ecstatic, wonderfully-enlightened Sims stands on his head, fluffs his hair, hails the boy in the street to buy a goose ( looks for a label, label, label!) and alarms his housemaid with his utterly changed persona. His portrayal is so infectious with true joy of redemption, of transformation from a grasping miser to a generous enlightened soul,  that one cannot watch it without being a tiny bit redeemed oneself.

Of course, as I had a family of my own, watching A Christmas Carol became part of our tradition every Christmas Eve with my own children. I truly love that film and have seen it likely 40 times, if not 50. I can recite whole passages of dialogue ( "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" "I don't deserve to be so happy.") You know, as he strides of with Tiny Tim at the end, Scrooge is truly changed for life, and he and the world are better for it.

But I don't feel the same way, at all, about It's a Wonderful Life.  Everyone in the whole world seems to love It's a Wonderful Life  and with this blog post I risk exposing myself to flames of criticism and condemnation for my confession that it irks me.

Let me explain: (Every Christmas I have tried to explain, to anyone who would listen, why I don't like It's a Wonderful Life, ( IWL) but it is reduced to jokes now in my household: "Mom, your favourite movie is on, har, har.")

Let's go back a bit, first, to how I first came to see IWL.  I grew up in a classic movie-loving household. My father loved good films. I was exposed to multiple viewings of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,  Bridge on the River Kwai, All About Eve, The Wages of Fear and more  —  great character-driven films, all before my 10th birthday. But I never saw IWL. My Dad said he didn't like it , but never said why.  I was almost 30 when I first saw it.

I wanted to like it —I had heard so much about it for years and as a movie buff was eager to add this to my film lexicon. I knew the  plot line, of course. I love redemption films ( Central Station, the Argentine film is another terrific redemption flic) IWL sounded like a great redemption flic of a fallible human character who eventually sees the light.

When I finally saw it, I watched with open mind but I remember being distinctly uncomfortable as it unfolded. At first, I didn't know why it did not fill me with joy. Now that I have seen it many times, I understand why: it is not true redemption. The main character George Bailey is ego-driven throughout and rather than being redeemed at the end, his earlier self is validated.  

Let me deconstruct, if I may. In early scenes George delights in humiliating his future wife Mary when she is naked in the bush ( any young man treating me in that disrespectful way would be dispatched forever with no chance of reprieve! And I hope any young girl, like my daughters,  would say likewise.)  He repeatedly states that he is better than his small town and is going to build bridges and airports and basically "blow this pop stand."  He is increasingly bitter that unlike his medal-winning brother he is stuck in his small town running the Savings & Loan. When the money is lost at the bank he yells ``Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool?" to his doddering uncle and then later, as everything is unravelling, yells abusive threats at the innocent school teacher about ignoring his daughter's sore throat. Worst of all, his proposal to his lovely wife Mary as he is on the phone, is frankly horrible -  a man incapable of declaring true intimate feelings, but instead with his own inability to to be real negates her and his feelings for her. (Why she said yes to him is beyond me, after he left her naked in the bush.  'Come back when you can say you love me to my face, and treat me with respect,' I would have told him!!)

 He is, to me, in the early parts of the film, a good man but an inauthentic man who has leading an inauthentic life of role-identity that he resents and rails against yet does not have the courage or gumption to change.  Of course, as this persona he does do a great deal of good in the world -- he saves his brother's life, he saves a woman from prostitution, he builds houses for the poor and gives them self respect. He contributes to the greater good. He is a good man at heart doing good work. (This is what we all latch onto.)  He hates what he is doing. He thinks his life is worthless because he has not won medals or built monuments ( been acclaimed in other's estimation.)  He is full of inner conflict. Resentment, bitterness, regret define him.

And then his crisis hits, the money is lost, and when he is unable to face the consequences of that loss of face, loss of role and status, he decides to commit suicide - an ego-driven act of someone whose self-identity is completely constructed of what others think of him and what he thinks of himself.

Of course these revealing scenes of self-worth and identity completely tied to external validation would be fine if through angel Clarence he sees his fallibility and becomes truly enlightened about a better way to be and live. But NO! He is shown how, as that inauthentic, ego-driven self all these years, his actions and self-sacrifice have changed the town for the better and how many lives would have been ruined or lost but for his forfeit of his true ( perhaps ego-driven) needs. His inauthentic self is celebrated!

Okay, I admit, that now in my 50s,  that message of "your sacrifice has been worth it" hits a chord. Like most, I have seen some cherished dreams turn to dust, things I held dear that have never come to pass and now likely never will, and so part of IWL  does reaffirm that need we all have to know that our giving up on our dreams, they way our life has unfolded,  has been worth it for the greater good of our children or our society.

But still, at the end when he comes home to friends, they are re-affirming that old, ego-driven self, not a new enlightened one. They don't know he has spent hours with the angel. They don't see the new him and he does not show a changed persona to them. If the husband of the teacher he bitterly scolded only a few hours earlier came through the door, he would still beat him up! And worse, Old Mr. Potter has gotten away with stealing thousands of dollars; Wrongness prevails.

Yes, his sacrifice is acknowledged and it is valued by his community and his friends, but he has not distanced himself from his earlier acts. He is frankly unchanged except for seeing that his sacrifice has had purpose and done good in the eyes of others. ( I believe true good is doing the right thing when no one is watching and no one will ever see. Then your self-belief is internally driven and imutable to the winds of societal approval.)

And as an uplifting Christmas fair,  it rings hollow to me.  I think given six months or a year, or as soon as his world does not validate him yet again, George would be in crisis once more and unlike dear old Scrooge, will not be skippingoff into the future as a truly joyous, liberated, authentic self who does not need things or other people's views of him to make him happy or make him do good for good's sake. Scrooge of course started off a very bad, evil man who becomes good. George is a good flawed man at the start and a still good flawed man at the end, with the only change that he has been recognized by others -- for now.  This is not redemption, it is ego validation.

But I am open to discussion. What do you think?





Posted on Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 12:55AM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Hi Anne
I only ever watched IWL once, and it seemed like enough. But after reading your thoughtful trashing I think I should go back and watch it a few more times to appreciate the subtext. It turned me off for reasons I never really thought through. I also love Christmas Carol - Mickey Mouse version is the favourite.
December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie
Hi Anne,

I totally agree with you. I can't watch it...just too painful. He's really mean to all his kids except Zuzu. What father singles out one to spoil and is mean to the others? I found him just so abusive. His temper tantrums, especially at home, are just too puerile.
December 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLin

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