I wrote this alternate ending to It’s a Wonderful Life for The Sentinel in December 2005, but it turns out that my words are just as timeless as the movie itself. As you will see, I was reading a lot of Victor Hugo at the time.
It’s a Wonderful Life, a Real-Life Ending
As depicted in the holiday classic, George Bailey ran amok after his uncle Billy lost the eight thousand dollars for deposit. But Clarence did not descend from Heaven and stop George from jumping off the bridge. Instead, George’s life is spared by metaphoric angels when the police arrest him for embezzlement before he could jump. With no alibis, and due to George’s willingness to cover for his uncle, he is sentenced to ten years in Bedford Falls Penitentiary.
George, however, would later look back on his imprisonment as the greatest moment of his life. He was about to learn that the harshness of reality is a treasured mentor.
Such insight was still several years away, so George went through the typical motions of a man recently imprisoned. He tried to hang himself with his underwear, and then he tried to crush his skull by smashing it against the bars of his cell, and so on. Nothing worked. Later, as is common with people who lose an appendage or a lover, he reluctantly accepted his fate.
Picking himself up, George endeavored to make friends with the other inmates, so he went about it the only way he knew: By displaying no sign of a backbone. George’s relations did not come to pass as he expected. The inmates were tough characters; they did not patronize him just because it was the polite thing to do. George couldn’t understand why his prison mates didn’t want to be around someone who would even put aside their own dignity in hopes of becoming a friend. Everyone should want to be around someone who cared that much, he thought.
Now, completely alone and with nothing to do, George began to read. Typical of most men in times of desperation, George cared only about finding salvation, not happiness, so he read the Bible. Jesus taught George to be a boundless milquetoast and always put others before himself. But as experience demonstrated, this isn’t how the world worked. After all, acting as such condemned him to jail. Everything George ever learned about life seemed to be one large contradiction.
The English department of Bedford Falls University donated a box of old books to the penitentiary that were no longer used in the curriculum. Among the discarded books were the weather-beaten novels of the 19th Century Romantics. So George began to read these novels, which would be a good distraction, he thought, without trying to teach him anything that would only further clutter his brain.
George never read novels when he was a civilian. He could never understand how someone could concern themselves with fictional characters when there was a real world right there in front of them. But now, a fictional realm is exactly what George needed to keep his mind occupied. After all, what did he have to lose? He was grasping at straws, any straw that might put his mind at ease, if even for a few moments.
At first, George did not understand what he was reading. The romantic protagonists illustrated that everything he learned growing up, and everything The Bible taught him, was a deception. These heroes were living for themselves, by the rules they made for themselves. They didn’t care about what others thought, only about what they thought, and they never apologized for it.
George was disgusted how someone could live their life with so little regard for the lives of others. He labeled the books as evil so he wouldn’t have to deal with such nonsense any longer. Nobody wants their paradigm altered. Your own little world is a great place to be, because while you’re there, it’s safe, no risk is necessary. All great ideas are initially thrown into the abyss of the mind. Sometimes they never resurface. This is called fixation.
Yet when George thought about the literary relics, he would smile for reasons unknown, like when you unconsciously laugh at a joke that you think is inappropriate. Maybe these fictional heroes did make sense to him, though only vaguely. This made him consider that there might be hope after all, even though it was a thought he could not fully understand. George then felt ashamed, and he assumed it was because he felt silly for even entertaining the idea of liking those books. George hoped that he was tricking himself. He had been grieving for a long time, so perhaps his mind was getting the best of him.
As time went on, it only got worse. George was overwhelmed with inner turmoil and contradictions of which he could not make sense. All his life George always did everything he was taught; he always did the right thing, so how did life let him end up in jail? Prison is for criminals. Prison is not for the George Baileys of the world. He spent many nights with sleepless suffering—the conscious and subconscious must be in harmony before the body can rest.
But gradually, he became more and more comfortable with his peculiar state. In consistently longer and longer intervals, he began to feel a feeling that he had not felt since childhood. And on a day that did not come with ease, George awoke to a feeling of levity; that mysterious weight he had felt on his shoulders for so long had completely vanished. He finally realized why a man as “good” as himself was miserable.
George learned that life wasn’t suffering, but that his life was suffering because of how he chose to live. Giving up his dreams to stay behind in Bedford Falls, giving up his personal drive for the sake of others, although popular, was disrespectful to himself. He never realized it because he was overwhelmed with the idea that he, for some unknown reason, had a sacred duty to the people of Bedford Falls. George was obsessed with the sacrifice he made and its ensuing struggle, and that made him feel important. He always told himself how much more difficult it was for him to stay behind and run the building and loan. In truth, it would have been much more difficult to travel the world and do what he wanted. George used the building and loan as an excuse because he was too afraid of what could happen if he exposed himself to the world.
George was paying the price now; the price of his self. George lost that part in him that wanted to conquer the world because he thought that part of him was necessary to surrender.
After George got out of jail, he did not return to Bedford Falls. He started to live life for himself, with his own ambition as its only driving force, and he traveled the world like he always dreamed. In his travels, George made a friend, his first true friend. For the first time someone liked George, not because of what George could do for him, but because he appreciated who George was as a person. This one friendship is much more rewarding than being needed by a whole town; a thought that, to this day, never fails to put a smile on George’s face.
While hang gliding somewhere in Oceania, George Bailey contemplated the essence of life, and how wonderful it truly is.