Anne Morse, a writer for the Colson Center’s Breakpoint, who has been seen here over the years writing about culture and talking about human rights, has written a novel called Bedford Falls, meant to be a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life. It creatively advances the Bailey family story. In an interview with National Review Online, Morse talks about her independently published novel and It’s a Wonderful Life. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is it still a wonderful life in Bedford Falls?
Anne Morse: It’s not as wonderful as it used to be. At least, that’s what Zuzu and Janie Bailey think. The town’s been going downhill ever since their father died in the 1980s. The one person who could do some good — George Bailey’s grandson and namesake — is too busy with his real-estate business in New York City to bother about Bedford Falls.
Lopez: What’s so wonderful about It’s a Wonderful Life?
Morse: It’s wonderful because Frank Capra succeeded in his goal to “reflect the compelling words of Friar Giovanni of nearly five centuries ago: ‘The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look.’”
This is the message behind the comedy, the romance, the trials and temptations — everything.
Lopez: What made you return to the Bailey family and Bedford Falls?
Morse: I don’t know if all writers do this, but I often watch movies and then imagine what happens next. With Wonderful Life, I wondered, did George ever get out of Bedford Falls? Did he finally see his dreams achieved through his children? Did Henry Potter finally give up trying to put the Building and Loan out of business? And by the way, who did Potter leave his money to? He didn’t have any family or community spirit. I also wondered if bad girl Violet Bick truly reformed, and what Bedford Falls would be like today. In time, a story formed in my mind about George Bailey’s grandson, who forgets the lessons his grandfather taught him and becomes another Old Man Potter, building shoddy apartment buildings in New York City, throwing elderly people out of their homes, and neglecting his family. And he hates having to go back to Bedford Falls to visit his widowed grandmother Mary, his aunts, and all the cousins. He gets his comeuppance on Christmas Eve of 2000, when his life comes crashing down around his ears.
Lopez: Why do you begin with a chart (actually, a family tree)?
Morse: I opened the book with a family tree because the story is set in 2007; three generations of Baileys have been born since 1945, when It’s a Wonderful Life takes place. George and Mary’s children are now in their sixties and seventies and have their own children and grandchildren. My editor told me I would overwhelm readers with all the characters and that I needed to cut some, so a family tree seemed a good compromise. If readers want to know how many children and grandchildren Zuzu has, for instance, and how old they are, they can look it up. But most of these characters don’t have speaking roles.
Lopez: Without giving too much away, why do you go and kill George Bailey’s son and daughter-in-law?
Morse: The main reason I killed “Pete,” the oldest Bailey child, and his wife in a plane crash was because I needed to bring George Bailey’s teenaged grandson back to Bedford Falls to be raised by George and Mary Bailey. Pete Bailey lived the life his father wanted to live; he attended college, built skyscrapers a mile high, and traveled the world. All of this took him far away from home. But Bedford Falls needed to be young George’s hometown, too, the place where he could absorb the family history.
I also wanted Bedford Falls to be a realistic story. In real life, bad things happen to good families. Loved ones sometimes die in accidents.
Lopez: Why did you decide to make George Bailey’s grandson, George, so unlikeable?
Morse: Well, think how boring the story would have been if George had been just like his grandfather! I wanted to make the point that children and grandchildren don’t always accept the lessons their parents and grandparents teach them. Plus, I thought it would be fun to have George Bailey’s grandson turn out like Old Man Potter, selfish and unfeeling. Besides, if George had been just like his grandfather, there would not have been much space for his character to grow and develop.
Lopez: Clarence makes a return. Why do you stick with the same angel?
Morse: I think readers would have been disappointed if Clarence had not been part of the story. Sixty-two years later, he’s the same goofy, lovable angel he was in the film, but he has his work cut out for him with George Bailey’s grandson. All he had to teach George Bailey was to appreciate that he really had lived a wonderful life. Had he never been born, a lot of people would have suffered. With George’s grandson, Clarence must help him realize that he’s lived a terrible, selfish life — and that if he had never lived, his wife, his children, and many other people would be much happier.
Lopez: Does It’s a Wonderful Life tell us something real about angels?
Morse: The film echoes Biblical teaching that angels are sent to earth to help us in various ways. But the film incorrectly portrays angels as human beings who have gone to Heaven and sprouted wings. God created angels separately from humans; some of them live with Him in Heaven; those who defied God’s authority became demons.
Lopez: Is your novel more like A Christmas Carol than It’s a Wonderful Life?
Morse: Well, leaving my novel out of it for the moment: There are similarities between Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. In both stories, an otherworldly figure shows up on Christmas Eve in an attempt to redirect the life of the person being visited. In both stories, the central character’s eyes are opened regarding the value of decisions he has made throughout his life, and when he escapes from the alternative universe, his outlook is dramatically altered.
My novel picks up on the theme of Wonderful Life: A man in desperate need of assistance when his life falls apart on Christmas Eve is visited by an angel whose job it is to open his eyes to the consequences of his decisions.
Lopez: This Christmas Eve, what might you hope people could take away from your Christmas Eve exchange between Clarence — he has wings — and George Bailey’s grandson?
Morse: That we all have certain obligations to our families and to our communities — even to strangers — and that if we neglect them, bad things can happen. It’s essentially the same message Frank Capra gave us in the film. In the alternative universe in which George has never been born, we learn that Uncle Billy ends up in an insane asylum, Mr. Gower is sent to prison for accidentally poisoning a child, and Harry Bailey drowns at the age of nine, which in turn leads to the deaths of many men in World War II. Bedford Falls has turned into Pottersville because there is no one strong enough and determined enough to stand up to Old Man Potter.
In their Christmas Eve exchange, Clarence has to overcome young George’s belief that, because he is rich and powerful, has a beautiful wife and kids, and loves his work, he’s living a wonderful life. Clarence also reminds George that his family needs him, and that Bedford Falls — which has slowly but surely been turning into Pottersville in the decades since George’s grandfather died — needs him, too.
In Wonderful Life, Henry Potter personifies all the evil directed at Bedford Falls and its citizens. But in reality, pleasant small towns evolve into Pottersvilles because of decisions made by many people who care more about making money than creating and sustaining a community fit for people to rear their children in.
Communities don’t take care of themselves. We have to work to protect them.
Lopez: Why is the setting of Bedford Falls so significant? Why was it so significant that you would not only return there but also use it as the book title?
Morse: About half the action takes place in New York City, where George Bailey lives with his family, and where his business is. The other half takes place in Bedford Falls because I wanted to imagine what might have happened to this little town over the decades, and to George’s children, Mr. Potter, Violet Bick, the Martini family, and all the other citizens. And I wanted to introduce a new generation of immigrant families. Bedford Falls, remember, is an immigrant town. The old immigrants were Italian and Irish; the new ones are from Eastern Europe, Central America, and Asia. They all want what earlier immigrants wanted: a decent place to live and work.
I wanted the same for the town’s black residents. It had always bothered me that the only black character in the film was Annie, the Bailey family’s maid. I made it up to her by having her great-nephew become the physician to 97-year-old Mary Bailey.
I named the novel Bedford Falls because I think it creates instant recognition: This is the continuing story of the Bailey family. The town is special because it lives in the imagination of so many people around the world. It’s a great place to live — a lovely little town where you know everybody, and your neighbors will help you if you’re in a jam. It’s a sort of Norman Rockwell town.
About a week ago I visited what its citizens refer to as “the real Bedford Falls” — Seneca Falls, N.Y. Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls just before making Wonderful Life, and residents believe he based Bedford Falls on it. Seneca Falls does bear a striking resemblance to the fictional Bedford Falls. For instance, the bridge is identical to the one in the film. Anyway, I took part in the three-day “Its a Wonderful Life” festival. I met Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, and Carol Combs, who played Janie, and Donna Reed’s daughter. People dressed up as characters from the film wandered around the streets. My husband was one of 4,000 people who took part in “It’s a Wonderful Run.” Quite a few runners wore angel costumes, although it must have been difficult running in wings.
What amazed me was — how do I put this? — how everyone seemed to have silently agreed to pretend that, for this weekend, we really were in Bedford Falls. Businesses along the main street hung up signs reading “Gower Drugs” and “Violet’s Beauty Parlor” and “Bailey Building and Loan.” People would run down the street like George Bailey after he gets his life back, yelling, “Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” It was great fun. But it occurred to me that it was the lack of community in our real lives that made us love being there, pretending we lived in Bedford Falls. We are designed for community, and if we don’t have it, we long for it.
Sadly, many of us move away from the communities we were born into. It’s hard to create community when a big chunk of every generation moves away. I did this myself, but my excuse is that I married a guy in the military, which means we were forced to move every few years. But we always tried to become part of each community, joining a church, and becoming active in our children’s schools and in local politics.
Lopez: Do you have a prayer for Bedford Falls, the novel, for towns like it?
Morse: I pray that lots of people will read the novel and realize that their own communities are what they make of them, whether they live in small towns or big cities. If someone tries to move in with a destructive business, citizens need to join forces to keep him out. This often involves a sacrifice of time and money. It sometimes requires considerable imagination.
I also hope people will think about their own families when they read Bedford Falls. It didn’t occur to me until I began writing the book that George Bailey’s father, Peter, acted sacrificially when he joined forces with his brother Billy to open the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Association. I mean, if you were starting up a new business, would you want Billy as your partner? But Peter Bailey knew his brother would probably never make it on his own. His own job was probably made more difficult because he constantly had to keep an eye on what Billy was doing. He did what he did because he loved his brother and had a strong sense of family loyalty.
In Bedford Falls, another key family member needs the kind of help Uncle Billy needed. But George shows him nothing but contempt.
Interestingly, I didn’t realize how much my own family circumstances influenced the storyline until the husband of Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu) pointed it out to me. I met him at a dinner during the “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival. He’d learned I had written a sequel to the film, and wanted to know what it was about. We chatted for quite a while. He’s a psychologist, which means he did more listening then talking, and he noticed that some of my family events made it into Bedford Falls. I have a dear brother who is like Uncle Billy in some ways. Members of my family have to step in and help him from time to time when his life spirals into chaos. It’s not always fun — actually, it’s never fun — but immersing myself in the messages of the film made me realize that lovingly (as opposed to resentfully) helping family is part of the command to love our neighbor.
So I hope readers will take away these messages about family and community. And if they don’t, I hope Clarence comes back and knocks them upside the head.
Lopez: What’s the story about President Reagan’s national-security adviser and It’s a Wonderful Life?
Morse: The New York Times ran an article about three weeks after Robert McFarlane’s attempted suicide in 1987 describing how, when he was recovering, a stranger sent him a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life, which McFarlane had never seen. “Watch this!” the well-wisher ordered. The story of a suicidal George Bailey, who gets a chance to see what the world would have been like had he never been born, inspired McFarlane to go on. My late boss Chuck Colson told this story on his radio program, BreakPoint. He, too, loved It’s a Wonderful Life, and watched it every Christmas.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.