Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
George Bailey lives in the small town of Bedford Falls (probably in upstate New York). It's a pleasant locale, but to him, it seems to lack the excitement and adventure he craves; it's not the right place for him to satisfy his ambitions. Of course, the big irony here is that the ordinary world—the world in which, traditionally, the hero feels like something is missing—is actually the place where the hero belongs, and where his quest will actually take place.
Call to Adventure
George's father unexpectedly dies of a stroke, so, instead of seeing the world and going to college, George is voted by the board to take over his father's Building and Loan business and keep it safe from a local plutocrat.
Refusal of the Call
George can't bear the thought of being stuck in Bedford Falls and giving up his dreams of college and travel. He begs the board to reconsider, but it's him or nobody. George very reluctantly agrees, but it'll just be temporary; he'll let Harry go to college, and upon graduation, Harry will take over the business. Instead, Harry has a better job opportunity, and George lets him go. He's still refusing to accept the idea of living his whole life in Bedford Falls.
Meeting the Mentor
George doesn't really meet his mentor—Clarence the angel—at this point in the movie. But, he's met Mary, who helps him settle down in town and shows him a beautiful family life. When George meets Clarence, Clarence hammers this lesson home by showing him what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. But, more on that later.
Crossing the Threshold
George settles into his position at the Building and Loan. Yet, even this little town has its heroes and villains, and Mr. Potter is a particularly bad dude. He wants to dominate the town and prevent people from owning their own homes, forcing them to live in his slums and pay rent to him. George's Building and Loan is willing to give people who aren't necessarily financially secure a chance to borrow money to buy or build their own houses. This makes a huge difference in the life of Bedford Falls, although George doesn't realize it until Clarence shows him the alternate, world-without-George timeline.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
As George continues to battle Potter, he gets support from the townspeople. Their trust in him saves the Building and Loan during a threatened run on the bank engineered by Potter. He befriends Ernie the cab driver and Bert the cop, and he allows a guy named Mr. Martini to borrow enough money to get a house for his family. These alliances prove helpful later in the story.
Potter is the enemy here, trying to thwart George's consumer-friendly efforts and bankrupt his business.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
When Uncle Billy accidentally misplaces $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money, the cash winds up in the hands of Mr. Potter, who steals it. This risks bankrupting the Building and Loan and getting George and Uncle Billy arrested for misplacing funds.
Believing himself to be worth more dead than alive (helpfully pointed out by Potter), George contemplates suicide. Fortunately, Clarence the angel comes down to Earth and jumps off the bridge himself before George can. As they talk afterward, George tells Clarence he wishes he'd never been born. This inspires Clarence to let George see what the world would be like if he'd never been born. Turns out, it's terrible. George witnesses a town renamed Pottersville and turned into a den of iniquity. His brother is dead, Mary is a spinster, and his mother is a grieving woman running a boarding house.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
After George sees Mary, now an unmarried librarian, he runs back to the bridge, praying that he's changed his mind—he wants to live again. George's wish is granted. Now that he's rediscovered how important his life really is, he's ready to go back into town and face his fate.
The Road Back
Overjoyed, George runs back through Bedford Falls, loudly wishing everything and everyone a merry Christmas—Mr. Potter included. When he arrives home, the bank examiner and sheriff are waiting for him, with a warrant for his arrest. He doesn't care. He rushes into the arms of Mary and the kids.
The arrest warrant proves useless, and Potter is foiled again. George can't be arrested for losing anyone's funds because all of his friends and family members bail him out with a giant basket of money. When his rich friend Sam Wainwright chips in $25,000, the Building and Loan's future is secure. All of George's friends and family members express their affection for him and pay him tribute for helping them out when they were down.
Return With the Elixir
Thanks to his successful George project, Clarence earns his wings. George returns with a new appreciation for his life; that's his elixir. We know he'll never have that kind of despair again.