Study Guide

It's a Wonderful Life Allegory

Allegory

The Moral of the Story

The entire film has an allegorical flavor, in which the characters are all symbols in a universal drama aimed at teaching us some universal life lessons. Potter, of course, represents greed, power, and isolation, all ultimately joyless; George is the little guy beaten down by the powerful but who prevails because he's a righteous dude. Mary represents the joys of family. Bedford Falls is every small town where a sense of neighborliness and connectedness shows everyone the real meaning of life.

Frank Capra has admitted that most of his movies have the same message, which he described as "Sermon on the Mount" values. Here are some of the high points of that sermon by Jesus as described in the biblical Book of Matthew:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
  • Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
  • Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
  • Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

You can see what Capra means.

The film isn't really overtly religious. People pray, God hears, and angels appear. But, there's little discussion of beliefs or church or salvation. People only pray when there's a crisis; otherwise, they go about their daily business in a pretty secular way. God is around, though, and he does protect George via his 911 call to the angels. It's religion-lite, but with an underlying belief that God loves people and that goodness and mercy are rewarded.

Meta-phor

Another way of looking at the whole enchilada is that it's an allegory about filmmaking. Here's what Film Spectrum has to say about it:

Here, Capra takes us through the entire process, as God (the filmmaker) enlists the help of Joseph (the cinematographer) to slowly bring George's flashback (the movie) into focus for Clarence (the audience). He speaks to us as if we're eager film students wanting to learn how to see movies in a new way, through the cinematic eye, through the film theory perspective: "Now look, I'll help you out. … If you ever get your wings, you'll see all by yourself." (Source)

How cool is that?

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