Or a Comparison between 2 Christmas Classics
Christmas is a magical time of the year. There is a quality to the season that opens hearts and inspires a generosity of spirit that we as a society would do well to prosper the entire year. Christmas is also a time of traditions though, and one of my family’s favorite yuletide traditions is movies. Every family should hit the theater Christmas Day and enjoy a journey through a visual story. So what happens when the magic of the season has a chance to spawn in the wonderful world of film? We are blessed with two classics imbued with the powerful spirit of Christmas.
If you ask a cross-section of people what is their classic Christmas movie I believe 90% of them would say It’s a Wonderful Life. Some people so love the film they watch it every year as a precursor to the Christmas season. As a child growing up in the 80’s I remember a similar but updated version of the story, called One Magic Christmas. This Disney knock-off has a rather generic name but it packs as good a classic punch as the 1946 story.
Both plot lines have angels, utilize the past, present and future of their protagonists and at their core showcase heartwarming families. It’s where the stories splinter from one another though that makes them equally classic. Can differences between sex, personified villains and possible realities, really make such a profound statement? Let’s compare the movies and examine how the differences highlight the power of the Christmas spirit.
Angels with Possible Realities
I love the inclusion of angels. Invisible creatures with magical powers, whether sent by God or Santa, who can manifest to humans when they want to help them – what’s not to like? In both movies angels make grand threshold guardians who strongly suggest the protagonists, George Bailey and Ginny Grainger, not continue forward on the path their life is taking as it only leads to unhappiness.
It’s believable to the audience that an angel would have the power and the goodness necessary to give these two this second chance. An angel is, technically, a spiritual being who is a celestial attendant of God. And that’s what makes the “possible reality” ability a good fit with angels. With God (or Santa, another “need to see them to believe in them” being) we know he can do anything. Thus the angels become the foreshadow to George and Ginny getting to rewind back to the start of the movie or the “present” if you will, all so they can apply what they just learned to their life.
For George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life angel Clarence showed him life in Bedford Falls as if he were never born. This shows him the importance of the life he’s lived and that to end it would end his positive effect on the world.
For Ginny Grainger in One Magic Christmas angel Gideon works with Abbie, her daughter, to show her that the possible reality meant for her family does not need to be their real future. She can change her attitude now and thus change others actions for everyone’s better.
Angels and their gift to reveal possible realities made George and Ginny’s second chances very believable in our eyes. This is essential to our relating to the story and it’s outcome, and makes the story a classic.
Past, Present & Future Villains
Our past, present and future are all tied to one another, you yank anywhere in the chain and they are all effected. This is especially true when it comes to redemption stories. While these two movies aren’t your classic “atoning for past mistakes” stories they are about changing their actions so their future isn’t marred by bad choices. So in order to understand our protagonists, George and Ginny’s, present situation we have to understand their past and their possible future.
If life were all sunshine and roses then there would be very little struggle. We would live peaceful, satisfied lives with those we love. That isn’t life though, there are pressures and obstacles that constantly challenge us to rise to the occasion. At times these pressures are brought to bear on us through the actions of a specific person, a villain if you will, built up over time until they come to a head. Thus we rehash the past of our protagonists, as much or as little as we need in order to understand the current situation and how these villains’ pressures will affect George and Ginny’s futures.
In One Magic Christmas a major plot point I remember fondly, was the Christmas lights going out to signal the start of Ginny’s future if she didn’t change her attitude. When the lights come back on the audience is signaled that yes, she had learned her lesson well. Gideon is able to freeze time and show Ginny a possible reality that will be her future if she doesn’t quickly learn the power of a Christmas spirit. This is shown in It’s a Wonderful Life with the same technique – it stops snowing. (Notice how at the start it’s not snowing but as Ernie drives up it starts to snow heavily.) I love when visual mediums use their strength – visuals – to alert the audience to major plot points. Even as a child I understood the snow stopping and the lights going out were vital moments in the story.
Mr. Potter is George Bailey’s pressure in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s in the background for much of George’s youth as he struggles against what he wants from his life and what others expect from him. We view past moments from George’s life in real-time, see his real effect on others and how while not perfect he acted the best he could manage. In the present situation we see that Mr. Potter was able to maneuver George into a place that favors his aims – which are to remove the man who has been standing in the way of his total domination of Bedford Falls. Cracking under his imagined future George has to be shown the very real future if he hadn’t been in the gap between Mr. Potter and the town.
The economy is Ginny Grainger’s pressure in One Magic Christmas. Harry Dickens is as close as we get to a personified villain but really he’s a victim too. The faceless bad economy that lead to her husband being laid off, and their need to move, the stress of being the sole bread-winner and her husband’s desire to risk everything for a dream. All this combines to wear away any heart Ginny held for Christmas and for life. We understand these pressures and how they lead to her cynical views of others. So instead of showing us how Ginny is meant to beat those stresses or even the personified villain, Harry, we are shown how she used to be. We already understood from Jack, the easy-going, lover of life that he wouldn’t have deliberately married a “Ginny Downer.” We further learn through her son and daughter talking to their grandfather that, in fact, Ginny used to love Christmas. Given an opportunity to see where her cynical view leads her life, Ginny rekindles her heart and remakes her future with major changes to her attitude and actions.
The past, present and future of George and Ginny informs us as to how they got to their need for redemption and how they need to overcome the very real villains pressuring their lives. This battle between opposing forces is at the heart of all classics.
Heartwarming Families and Matters of Sex
As human beings we rarely act without a good motivation to do so. What does it matter if we are happy if we have no one to share it with? That’s right, happiness doesn’t particularly matter when we are alone. That’s why we all strive to find that special someone. Families make great motivations. When we are exploring stories about redemption, change and life our hearts are warmed at the idea we are going to all the trouble for those around us, those we love.
In both movies our protagonists have families, George is a husband and father while Ginny is a wife and mother. Much of both movies is spent showing us their relationships with their loved ones and how no matter how the pressures have come to bear on George and Ginny they are still loved. The matter of each protagonist’s sex informs these relationships, their struggles, and how each resolves their current situation. Could each story work with the opposite sex?
I can say with confidence that yes it could. BUT it wouldn’t be as powerful.
In It’s a Wonderful Life the best thing about going over George’s history is we see how important his family is to him from his brother and uncle to his wife and children as well as his friends and their families. As a man George is expected to lead and guide his family; to provide for them and to handle difficult matters when they crop up. And sometimes the male species forgets they aren’t alone, that they aren’t going through life with the world solely on their shoulders. After George returns to the present he sees that his family is as large as the town, and that they are willing to help him shoulder his burdens. How can a life filled with so much love be worthless?
One Magic Christmas updates this lesson into one that better fits a modern woman’s way of life. As women sometimes we are so busy handling the day-to-day that we lose perspective. Ginny is so focused on the misery in her life that she couldn’t see the blessings. The fact they even had the savings to risk on Jack’s bike shop said a lot about the way they lived their lives. Sometimes the worst of times sets us up for the best of times. This is hard for women to imagine in the moment and so fit with Ginny’s struggles better than one where she handles all the burdens herself (like with George). She learns that through small and simple actions she can make a major difference in her family’s future as well as other’s (Harry Dickens’) future.
George and Ginny are motivated by their loved ones, by their heartwarming families, but how they perceive society, their situation and their difficulties was informed by their sex. A classic story uses the details of their characters to show us how this fake person has a very real effect on our own lives.
The idea of showing a character a possible future is found at the heart of the Christmas classic, Scrooge. We travel through a character’s past and present so as to see why their future is or isn’t right for what has come before. We are a sum total of our past, right? And our present is only the beginnings of our future. Well except for the fact we all have the ability to change. Be different. Not react but act. If only we all had the opportunity to see where we went wrong and make adjustments to avoid that future. We don’t, but that’s why we love exploring the lives of characters who do.
It’s the details that made the individual stories in It’s a Wonderful Life and One Magic Christmas uniquely classic. Together George and Ginny find a Christmas power anyone can impart but each takes us on a journey we are able to travel only through them.