It's a Wonderful Life—Frank Capra’s ode to appreciating what you’ve got—chronicles the life and near-death of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), an all-around good egg who keeps delaying his personal dream of escaping Bedford Falls, the sleepy little hamlet where he was born and raised, in order to help the town's downtrodden denizens. He shoulders their burdens for years—financial and otherwise—until the weight of them sends him to the bottom of a bottle and the top of a very tall bridge.
After watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year for a half-century, America has gotten loopy about what’s really going on in the story. You don’t obsessively watch this thing year in and year out without reaching for the corkboard and red string.
So here are 8 rather dark and twisted interpretations about the saddest happy Christmas movie of all time.
1. Mary’s love for George is what caused The Great Depression.
In the most pivotal early scene in It's a Wonderful Life, Mary (Donna Reed) and George throw rocks at the long-abandoned “Granville House” and make wishes. George wishes to see the world, but Mary keeps her wish a secret, only telling him after they’re married and settled down that that is what she had hoped for that night.
So Mary's wish came true but, as Redditor JiminKY points out, the reason they’re still in Bedford Falls is because George sacrificed their honeymoon money when the Great Depression hit. So, technically, Mary’s wish created an economic catastrophe. George was so close to escaping the town that fate had to throw the entire nation a financial curveball to ensure that he’d stay right where he was.
2. Mary’s secret wish was what caused everything bad that happens to George.
A handful of fan theories are pretty harsh on Mary's wish in a let’s-blame-Eve kinda way—including another Reddit gem, which is an extrapolation of the last one. In this case, the Redditor blames Mary's wish not just for the Great Depression, but for essentially every bad thing that later happens in George’s adult life. In fact, right after the wishing scene, George learns that his father has had a fatal stroke that ends up keeping him in town instead of going away to college.
George’s wish to see the world doesn’t come true, but Mary’s hidden wish kills George’s dad, causes the 1929 stock market crash, and sends an angel down to prevent George from killing himself so that he can never, ever escape Bedford Falls. Mary even helps raise the $8000 at the end of the movie that saves George from going to jail—presumably somewhere far away from his hometown (and wife and kids). Yet again, it's Mary who prevents another one of George's near-escapes.
3. Bedford Falls would have been better off without George Bailey.
George’s plea to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is to have never been born, and the Scrooge-esque vision Clarence grants him shows the tragedy of his family and the town. But Pottersville—the town that would have been Bedford Falls had George not stood in the way of greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)—is actually pretty great. It’s got bars and theaters and all the big-city excitement George had been dreaming of his entire life.
That’s why, in 2008, The New York Times writer Wendell Jamieson suggested that maybe things would have been better had George Bailey never been born. Or at the very least, he should have left the town to Mr. Potter's devices.
Jamieson even talked with an economist to provide real-world proof that a tourist destination like Pottersville would have fared better than an upstate New York manufacturing hub like Bedford Falls. Sorry, George.
4. Donnie Darko is a reverse version of It's a Wonderful Life.
Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s cult tragedy of a young man coming to grips with his own doom, may very well be a mirror image retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life. Redditor DaOverseer explained that, instead of a middle-age man meeting an angel who convinces him that he should live, “Donnie Darko is about a teen who gets visited by a ‘demon’ who tells him that the world will end and everyone will die if he doesn’t die first.” The bunny suit-wearing demon convinces him, of course, by showing him an alternative reality.
5. The film's "happy" ending is actually incredibly depressing.
Everyone celebrates the final moments of It’s a Wonderful Life because George realizes just how much meaning his life does have, the townsfolk come together in a grand gesture of friendship, and an adorable little girl tells a cute story about angels getting wings. It seems joyful and life-affirming ... unless it’s an unmitigated disaster of depressing proportions.
As That Film Theory points out in the video essay above, all George ever wanted to do was get out of Bedford Falls. And the film's ending is yet further proof of his cosmic inability to do so. Everything from a gift from his brother (who was able to escape their hometown and become a romanticized war hero, thanks to George) to the horrified look on George’s face prove that the ending everyone thinks is happy is actually profoundly tragic. Nothing, not even actual prison, will let him leave the prison of his humdrum small-town existence.
6. George is a socialist.
Selfless, thoughtful, generous George’s personal ethos borders on Socialism, argues one theory. He wants to give loans to everyone regardless of their work requirements, builds affordable housing for his entire town, redistributes his own wealth when an unregulated banking industry causes a depression, and generally represents President Roosevelt’s New Deal idealism. Mr. Potter, on the other hand, represents the anti-New Deal Republicans of the pre-WWII era.
7. George is an ultraconservative.
Another way to look at the film: selfless, thoughtful, generous George’s personal ethos is of bedrock Conservatism. Despite his personal wishes to explore the world, he hews so fiercely to a small community that his absence from it would have driven it into ruinous inequity. He volunteers himself outside the machinations of government to make his community better, builds a family life wherein he runs a business while his wife tends to the children, gives Ernie the cabbie (Frank Faylen) a considerable loan that wouldn’t have been allowed by modern bank regulations, and operates within an overtly Christian framework leading to a finale at a Christian holiday (“Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”). It turns out every side wants to claim George Bailey as their own and Mr. Potter as the enemy.
8. George is stuck in purgatory after killing himself.
Of all the theories out there about this ubiquitous holiday movie, I was surprised not to see this one, so I’m offering it up as my own. George jumped off the bridge that evening. No one saved him. As punishment in the classical, Dante sense, George experiences an otherworldly vision of a world without him that frightens him to his core, but his soul is already in purgatory. Which is why, when he returns to “the real world,” he believes he’s alive with a second chance at happiness.
But George Bailey's dead soul is actually still being punished for committing suicide—stuck permanently, and on repeat every year for our viewing sadism, in the very place he always wanted to leave: The Twilight Zone.
This story has been updated for 2020.