This past weekend, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life for only the second time. I watched it once sometime during my childhood, and though many say it’s a holiday classic, I have not really had an interest in watching it more than once. Honestly, I probably would not have chosen to watch it had it not been on my movie bucket list.
I couldn’t really say why this movie didn’t appeal to me, so I thought I would give it a second try and see if my opinion would change at all. Maybe watching it as a young adult instead of as a child would allow me to understand what generations of people saw in this film. Maybe as a child, I just didn’t enjoy movies in black and white.
Nope. I still don’t get it.
Financial difficulties. Horrible people who get away with their wrong-doings. A daughter named Zuzu. Suicide. It’s all kind of depressing. And somehow it’s redeemed by the town pooling their money together and an angel who gets his wings. Yeah, I know. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Whatever.
I also had mistaken expectations about the movie’s pacing, which set me up for disappointment. I thought I remembered the bridge scene happening much earlier in the movie and thought the majority of the film would be spent in a George-less alternate universe, much like in A Christmas Carol, another “let’s see what the world is like without you” movie. Instead, I sat through two hours recapping 30 years of George Bailey’s life followed by a brief crisis and 10 minutes with Clarence. About an hour into the movie, I was tired of waiting for George to try killing himself.
What makes It’s a Wonderful Life a Christmas movie anyway? Is it just the timing of George Bailey’s fateful plunge? Is it because a bunch of people get depressed around the holidays and try to kill themselves? Because the generosity of Bedford Falls is somewhat miraculous? Because there’s an angel?
I think the crux of the story is the opposite of the true meaning of Christmas. The turning point of It’s a Wonderful Life is when Clarence shows George how important and significant his life is to the people of Bedford Falls. George sees how the world would go to ruins if he were never born and how, despite what Mr. Potter might say, he truly is worth more alive than dead.
But Christmas reveals our own insignificance. Instead of a story about our own importance, we find the story of Jesus – Immanuel, God with us – who “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7, emphasis added). Yet in spite of our nothing-ness, God came to us anyway, sacrificing everything to save us from our own sin. Here we find the story of God’s love and grace, a gift that we do not deserve and did absolutely nothing to earn.
And THAT, my friends, is why it’s a wonderful life – not because of all the important things we have done or how horrible the world would be if we were never born. It’s a wonderful life because of who God is and what He has done.