Today, we’re going to talk about culture. Or, more appropriately, I’m going to write about culture, and you’re going to read it.
And by you, of course I mean the bots and archivists of the Internet. And you, random Moldovan person (or non-Moldovan person on a VPN connecting through a server set up in Moldova)…
“We’re” going to talk about culture, and we’re going to do it through the lens of the famous and beloved Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Since I like to jump right into things and then work backward at times, here’s the punchline.
Basically, everything we know and love is dying.
Not dead yet. Dying.
The bottom line is, in this figurative sense, the lack of society’s reaction to the man who only cared about the bottom line in the literal sense: Mean Old Man Potter.
See, It’s a Wonderful Life ended abruptly. Protagonist George Bailey – a paragon in any age or era – is saved by the virtue of the townspeople. That virtue had been cultivated throughout the movie, by George, and was a direct consequence of the man’s immovable and honest good nature. It was the wellspring of goodness that resulted from the intersection of George’s nature, and the nurture that he had given freely to the town, encompassed by all the times when his self-sacrifice ended up with his dreams and goals on the alter of Bedford Falls. Sacrifices which notably kept it from turning into Pottersville.
But the real modern takeaway that deserves reflection is in the finale itself.
See, George got completely fucked over by Mean Old Man Potter and his endless, insatiable greed. Yet, It’s a Wonderful Life ends exactly where it needs to, not with Potter getting what’s coming to him (by George!), but in George gaining back what he’s cultivated all through the years.
When I watched it this past Christmas with my significant other, I couldn’t help but think that something was missing. After plenty of reflection and a little bit of Laphroaig, I realized what it was.
Modern storytelling, or at least the audience’s need for certain satisfactions, have forced most stories – film, print or otherwise – to not only make sure the hero wins, but also that the villain loses.
Think about that for a minute. It’s a Wonderful Life, and the culture that gave the story to us, didn’t need Potter to lose. His needs became irrelevant immediately after the town rallied to George’s cause. The townspeople, in learning that the man whose solid character figuratively (perhaps metaphysically) held up the foundation of the community, banded together to give of themselves and return sacrifice that had been freely provided to each of them. Evil, in this case personified by the reckless greed and open corruption of Potter, was defeated.
More importantly, we didn’t need it to be explicitly shown on-screen.
And now the important part. The reason for the reflection and the central question to this piece: If made today, would It’s a Wonderful Life have had the same ending?
My argument? Not a chance. We’ve become so used to not only ensuring that the good guy wins but that the bad guy loses (as big as possible) that if the movie were remade today (please gods, no), then we would have an extended montage after the “Townspeople Rally to George” scene where Potter is shown in a perpwalk, in a courtroom, and in prison with a large inmate looming menacingly behind him.
Because these days, it’s more important that the bad guy loses – which is why in a modern remake that would be the final scene. Unless it was a Marvel movie, in which case there would be two additional scenes during and post-credit. The first would be Clarence using his new wings and associated powers to free Adam Warlock from the Sovereign’s service. The second would be the Hulk and Thor sitting down to a nice spaghetti meal at Martini’s.
Here’s how it ties into our culture (It’s a Wonderful Life, not the Marvel Universe). Storytelling is always a reflection of what audiences want. Storytellers, whether they partake in any version of the oral or written tradition (that’s film and print to you moderners), only have their stories become known if the stories appeal to the audience. So the audience is a central construct to how the story plays out, if the storyteller wants the story to be widely accepted.
It took a minute for It’s a Wonderful Life to catch on. The timing of its release apparently made for a lot of competition. But, there are stories that defy their initial telling and audience reaction, with subsequent tellings or viewings bringing them to wider cultural significance. And well, that’s just not my opinion, man.
The main reason for this particular story’s interaction with society and its inclusion into our collective holiday catalog is that it is a simple moral tale. It has immense relatability because even though most of us are not George Bailey, we all aspire to be that kind of person sometimes, in our own ways.
But this yearning for more stories like it means that we no longer have these types of stories, or they’re too few and far between. While modern stories typically aren’t letting the bad guys get away with things, there always seems to be a punitive element that overshadows the moral of the story: “Good guy wins… but let’s cut away for a few minutes to see just how bad the villain loses…”
There’s a problem with that. We don’t need to see Voldemort turn to ash to know that Harry Potter wins: Harry’s continued existence and the destruction of the horcruxes ensures that. Yet we get that scene. We don’t need to see Double-Oh Six get smashed/burned/obliterated by a falling, burning satellite. We didn’t need to see the T-1000 fall into the molten steel… Okay that’s a bad example, we needed that one because Terminators just don’t stop.
But you get the idea, and it deserves to be repeated: At what time did arts reflect culture (or vice versa) to the point where our storytellers determined that Hero Wins The Day just wasn’t enough? When did it become Hero Wins The Day, But Also Villain Fuckin’ Loses!
If the hero wins, typically that means the villain’s schemes didn’t pan out. Sometimes, that should be enough. It was for George Bailey.