“I haven’t lost my senses, Bob …. I’ve come to them!”
– Scrooge to Bob Cratchit, upon raising his salary (from A Christmas Carol)
Every year at this time, I have the very good fortune on at least several evenings to find myself comfortably settled into my living room sofa in the company of my wife and our children, watching classic holiday films on DVD or – in the case of some long-ago purchases – on videocassette. This year, as it happened, we selected on consecutive evenings first Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and then the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol featuring Alistair Sim’s definitive portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge. Viewing these two films in such rapid succession made me aware of some striking similarities – and some equally striking differences – that I had never taken note of before.
First the similarities.
Both stories revolve around a central character’s experience of personal transformation. In both cases, the transformation is brought about through the intervention of otherworldly beings – in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is befriended by Clarence the angel in his hour of need, and in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited in succession by the specter of his dead partner Jacob Marley and then by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Both characters arrive at their respective moments of transformation only after sinking to the absolute depths of despair and anguish – George on the bridge he had intended to jump to his death from, crying out “Please, Clarence, I want to live again!”; and Scrooge on his knees in front of his own tombstone, begging to know from the ghost of the future if “these are the things that must be, or only those things that might be if nothing is changed”. And finally, after each has been miraculously returned to his normal state of existence with his new resolve to live differently, both films conclude with memorable closing shots underscoring the felicitous outcomes of the personal transformations we have just witnessed – George standing in his living room, surrounded by nearly the entire population of Bedford Falls, one arm around his wife Mary and the other holding his beloved daughter Zuzu, winking up toward his angelic pal as the ringing of the ornament bell on their Christmas tree denotes the awarding of Clarence’s wings; Scrooge walking through town dispensing good cheer to his neighbors and alms to the beggar he once shooed away, suddenly surprised by the now crutch-free Tiny Tim, and the two of them skip-walking happily down a snow-covered street, off to what will surely be a lifelong bond of friendship and mutual affection.
Now for the differences.
George Bailey has grown up surrounded by a loving family and supportive community. His father operates his banking business primarily as a service to the townspeople and only secondarily as a source of livelihood – as opposed to Bedford Falls’ other banker, the evil Mr. Potter, such a Scrooge-like character that Dickens himself would probably have trouble distinguishing between the two of them. We see the young George rescue his drowning brother and save his employer from accidentally mixing poison into a medicine prescription. We see the young Mary privately pledge to love him forever as he mixes her a soda behind the drugstore fountain. We see George and Mary’s romantic adolescent courtship, followed shortly by their even more romantic wedding-night celebration in their still unfinished wreck of a dream house – serenaded in the rain by the town’s lone policeman and lone taxi driver. If such idyllic beginnings tax our belief nearly to its limits, they also tease out a bit of envy as well. Up to this point in the story, George certainly seems to be having a wonderful life.
In stark contrast, we first encounter young Ebenezer sitting alone in his classroom – his school mates gone home for the holidays, he left to fend for himself by his uncaring father. And then unexpectedly (and inexplicably, in rather typical Dickens fashion), his beloved sister Fen arrives to announce that their father has become “so much kinder”, and that Ebenezer is now welcome to come home for good. At first, things go well for him – employed by the kindly Mr. Fezziwig and betrothed to the poor but beautiful Belle. But then the vicissitudes of life – Fen’s death in childbirth, Fezziwig’s failing business – take their toll. Scrooge enters into his ill-fated partnership with his fellow-clerk Marley, and embarks upon the all-consuming pursuit of wealth that eventually deprives him of Belle’s love and consigns him to the self-absorbed and completely friendless existence in which we originally found him at the start of the story. Far from idyllic, the events of Scrooge’s early life revealed in the “Christmas Past” episode might actually evoke our pity, if we had not already been introduced to the ogre who utters the despicable sentiment about those among the poor who would rather die than go to the public shelters, “then let them die and decrease the surplus population”.
The tales diverge even further when we get to the onset of each character’s moment of crisis.
After the untimely death of his father, George puts aside his lifelong dream of world travel and adventure, agreeing to take charge of the Bailey savings and loan in order that its board of directors will not sell the business to Potter. Happily married to Mary, father to four adorable children, respected pillar of his community – all still seems wonderful in his life. But when Uncle Billy’s carelessness allows Potter to steal an $8,000 deposit and then to accuse George of bank fraud for the missing funds, he is faced with the loss of everything for which he had sacrificed his own dreams so many years before. He sinks rapidly into a state of utter confusion and panic, culminating in the desperate moment on the bridge when, believing Potter’s scornful remark that he’s “worth more dead than alive” (because his insurance policy will cover the debt that his available assets can’t), he prepares to jump to his death. At this critical moment, the heavenly guardians dispatch Clarence “to help this good man”, by making him aware of something he has always known but has temporarily forgotten – how much he cares for his family and friends, and how much of a difference his love and sacrifices have made.
Scrooge’s situation could not be more different. Far from contemplating throwing himself off a bridge on a Christmas eve, we find Scrooge closing his business promptly at 7:00pm sharp, making his annual complaint to Bob Cratchit about “having his pocket picked every 365 days”, going off to his solitary meal, and retiring alone to his chambers with nary a thought or a care about the misery all around him. He is undergoing no crisis, and in fact is not even aware of anything awry in his life – until Marley’s ghost appears unbidden. His dead partner’s mission of mercy, and that of the three Christmas ghosts, is one of awakening Scrooge, of making him aware of something he has never known – compassion and concern for his fellow beings, and the realization (as Marley wails so plaintively with regret at his own wasted life) that “Mankind was our business!”
One of these characters is truly a lost soul, the other a good soul that has merely lost its way.
And it is this critical distinction that renders these two otherwise equally inspiring holiday tales so different in what they have to teach us.
Scrooge, our lost soul, accomplishes his transformation literally overnight. He goes to sleep the self-centered miser he has always been, and wakes up a few hours later the purest example of compassion, generosity, and joy that we could ever hope to encounter. Nothing he has done in his life up to this point has paved the way for what occurs during his fateful evening; the four ghosts do all the work for him, by confronting him with his own past failings and his eventual lonely demise. It is the terror these visions strike in his heart that prompts Scrooge to promise to change his ways. Fear is what motivates his transformation.
George, our soul who has lost his way, likewise accomplishes his transformation rather quickly, in the course of one very long trying day. But unlike Scrooge, everything George has done in his life before this day has paved the way for the realization he will achieve as a result Clarence’s scheme to show him life as it would have been had he never been born. If it’s fair to say that Scrooge’s four ghosts do all the heavy lifting for him, it’s equally fair to say that George’s angel – after setting the wheels in motion with his inspired idea – merely goes along for the ride, while George himself does all the work. What strikes terror into his heart is not his own demise, but rather the damaged lives of his neighbors and his loved ones that Clarence’s vision allows hims to witness. George does not have to changes his ways, merely return to them. And when he asks Clarence to give him back his life, it is love – not fear – that motivates him.
It strikes me that, while it is Scrooge who utters the words quoted at the top of this post, it is George Bailey who can more justly declare that he has come to his senses.
So, as the holiday season comes to an end and I put away our DVDs and videocassettes until next year, I wish all of you reading this post a happy new year! May 2013 be filled with ample opportunities to pursue your own particular path of transformation – and like George Bailey’s, may your steps along the way lead you ever closer to the ones you love and ever further away from the things you fear.