Not just any films, of course. I have standards, I do. So I’m afraid Alvin and the Chipmunks fare is out, as is much other drivel that inexplicably passes as Christmas entertainment. If we’re viewing Christmas films in my class, we’re watching stuff a little more deserving (sorry, Alvin and Chipmunks devotees), and something I can use as for teachable moments. Which I did --- and is the point of today’s literary epistle. What’s in, then? you ask, rolling your eyes. Well, two of my favourite Christmas films are: Scrooge, the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney (I’m not usually a huge fan of musicals, but Scrooge is extremely cleverly done, and well worth your time); and It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 classic starring Jimmy Stewart. Scrooge we can talk about another time; today I want to discuss something that arose watching It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL).
First, a word or six about the film. The amusing thing about IAWL is it really wasn’t originally a Christmas classic at all. Sure, its climactic events are set at Christmas, and it premiered in December 1946, but it was initially a financial disappointment no one expected would become an enduring classic. The film’s protagonist, George Bailey, is a decent man who’s discarded his own ambitions --- travelling the world and working in architecture --- in order to run a decrepit building and loan firm following his father’s death. Bailey Building and Loan is the only bulwark of compassionate humanity standing against the town’s evil bully, the wealthy Henry Potter, whose twisted bitterness would, if he had his way, see the community of Bedford Falls reduced to little more than a slave camp, with the inhabitants its inmates.
And he almost succeeds. When George’s partner, the inept Uncle Billy, misplaces $8000 of the Building and Loan’s money --- a princely sum in 1946 --- it looks like financial ruin, criminal charges and prison for George. Uncle Billy has, in fact, unwittingly/accidentally given the money to Henry Potter, who discovers the mistake but, in true villainous fashion, says nothing about it. This triggers the film’s climactic sequence: George running into the night, crashing his car, then pausing on a bridge, ready to commit suicide by hurling himself from it.
At this juncture, God intervenes (quite literally) by sending an angel-in-training named Clarence to save George. (We’re given the impression Clarence isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, so God must obviously have great faith in him to get the job done.) Clarence seizes on an offhand remark George makes about being worth more dead than alive (with his $15000 life insurance policy) and decides to show George what Bedford Falls would be like had George never existed. (Notwithstanding the fact that this plot device, or variations of it, has since been employed many times in many different films and books, it’s a clever idea.)
Turns out that, without George’s compassionate presence, Bedford Falls --- now named Pottersville --- is kind of a neon, amoral, secular hell on earth (kind of like--- no, no, never mind, it’s supposed to be the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all). Given free rein to do as he likes, Potter has made it that way. One of the main points of the film is that each of us can positively influence all kinds of people in our life journeys, and without George there to do that, Bedford Falls has gone to hell in a handbasket. Once George has graphically witnessed the Dante-esque landscape of Pottersville, he’s more than ready to go back to the ‘real’ world and face prison, as long as it means he’s back among those whom he loves.
Of course, the film ends happily, with the grateful citizens of Bedford Falls coughing up the missing cash and then some. The curtain falls as George basks in the love and admiration of everyone in the community …except a single person…
And it was this which sparked one of my classes. Sure, they said, the missing cash is replaced by the people of Bedford Falls, and sure, things end well for George, but… what about Henry Potter? He hasn’t ‘fessed up, still has the missing cash, and remains as odious as ever. Where the hell is the justice in that? they wanted to know.
What I told them --- and it’s equally applicable in both stories and real life --- was this: justice doesn’t always necessarily look like what we want it to, or think it should. Frequently, it doesn’t even occur in the time scale we want, either. But George does get justice: he receives very tangible love and support from the people he has loved and supported. And Potter gets justice too, as evil does when it is forced to confront the unpalatable truth that the forces of Light are stronger than the forces of Darkness: despite all his petty, evil machinations, Potter is thwarted by the puny forces he has tried so hard to steamroller. If you seek a deeper theological explanation for this very situation, I heartily recommend C.S. Lewis’ terrific work The Screwtape Letters.
And ultimately, if you believe in those forces of Light, Potter will face judgement of a much more exacting sort. That can be cold comfort to some who want hellfire and damnation to rain down on the forces of Darkness right now, but it is a far more final judgement than anything humans can deliver.
And ultimately, that’s good enough for me.