Longtime BreakPoint writer Anne Morse has just released her first novel, “Bedford Falls: The Story Continues.” I interviewed Anne about her decision to revisit the Bailey family and their friends many years after the events of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Gina: How did you come up with the idea for a sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Why did you decide to take it in this particular direction, with George Bailey’s grandson being the opposite of George?
Anne: I grew up watching the film during the years it was shown endlessly on every channel at Christmas. No matter how many times I watched it, I never grew tired of it. I first started thinking about the idea of writing a sequel probably 10 or more years ago. I began imagining how George’s life might have turned out after Christmas of 1945, when the angel Clarence taught him to value his life decisions and his family. George had been sort of depressed for so many years, you just long for him to be happy! You wonder if that burst of happiness and appreciation for what he has on Christmas Eve is going to last, or if it will fade away in a few days as George returns to the routine of his life.
I chose to make George’s grandson and namesake selfish and greedy partly because that was more interesting than making him just like his grandfather. And I wanted to make the point that people don’t always accept the teachings of their parents and grandparents, or learn from their good example. Young George gets to do everything his grandfather wanted to do—go to college, travel the world, and build skyscrapers in New York—and yet, he’s not truly happy, any more than Old Man Potter was happy.
You find out late in the story what partly drives George’s desire to accumulate more and more money, even if it means building shoddy apartment buildings and throwing poor people out of their homes.
Gina: How long have you been a fan of the movie? How has it influenced you over the years?
Anne: I bought a videotape of the film years ago when “It’s a Wonderful Life” was still being shown almost daily between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You obviously have to be crazy about a film if you buy a copy when you can see it for free every day! And later I bought the DVD version, in part because I knew I wanted to write a sequel, and would need to start and stop the film over and over again as I wrote.
The film has influenced me to think about ways I can help protect my community—such as pulling sleazy magazines off the shelves of grocery stores and asking the store manager why he sells trash in a store where children are. I used to do that when my kids were small. If store managers think nobody cares, they’ll keep carrying magazines that we know have a deeply destructive influence on society.
Over the years I’ve read stories of how the film has influenced other people for good. For instance, Robert McFarlane, President Reagan’s national security adviser, attempted suicide when he was caught up in the Iran Contra Affair. Chuck Colson recorded a BreakPoint commentary about a sympathetic stranger who mailed McFarlane a copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and how the film gave McFarlane the courage to go on.
I think the film has a tremendous message: We all have to make choices, and we can either make them selfishly, in ways that harm others, or we can make them in a way that benefits other people. We love George Bailey for doing the right thing, and when we watch the film, we can’t help asking ourselves whether we would make the same unselfish decisions.
Gina: George Bailey is gone by the time of this story, though we see him in flashbacks and his influence is still felt. Why did you decide to take that route? Did you ever consider having him still be alive?
Anne: I think that any sequel that had George Bailey in it would almost inevitably have made him the star. We already knew what George Bailey was all about; I wanted to develop a new character. Besides, I waited so long to finish the story that George Bailey would have been almost impossibly old! As it was, I had to set the story in 2007 to allow for Mary to still be alive. She’s 97 years old.
Gina: How long did it take you to develop the idea and write the story?
Anne: I developed the general outlines of the story years ago, and filled in the details later, as I wrote. It was fun coming up with ideas about what might have happened to characters like Violet Bick and Henry Potter. Do they get a happy ending or do they get what they deserve? Old Man Potter does not appear to have any family, and he is clearly not a philanthropist. So who gets all his money when he dies?
As for George and Mary’s children, I decided early on I didn’t want them all to be perfect. Real families aren’t like that. Most of us have at least one relative who is in difficulties of some kind.
Before beginning to write, I made a chart showing all the original characters and how old they would be if they were still alive 60-odd years later. I made another chart of new characters—both descendants of the original characters and new immigrants who have made Bedford Falls their home. And then I started imagining how Bedford Falls might have changed over six decades.
I’d write a chapter, and then months would go by before I wrote another one. I’d send a chapter to a friend to read, and after about six months, she’d ask me when she was going to see more. She was very patient, but also very persistent: She wanted me to finish the story. It took years to finish because there was always something more pressing that had to be written, which I was being paid to write. But I made a real commitment to finishing it this year, and after other projects were completed, I started writing about 1,000 words each day, beginning in mid-September. It went faster than I expected, probably because the story and its characters had been living in my head for so long.
Gina: What was the most enjoyable part of writing this story? What was the most difficult part?
Anne: I loved writing about the Christmas Eve encounter between George (the grandson) and Clarence, who now has his wings. It was fun to try to capture the Clarence of the film, complete with his lovable foibles. But Clarence is much tougher on George Bailey’s grandson than he was on George. After all, in 1945, all Clarence had to do was help George Bailey realize that he’d really lived a wonderful life. But George’s grandson has lived a very selfish life; Clarence must force the younger George to look at the bad consequences of his decisions.
The most difficult part of writing “Bedford Falls” was keeping track of the many descendants of George and Harry Bailey, and of Mary’s brother, Marty Hatch. By 2007, we have living members of four generations of the Bailey family. That’s why I included the family trees. It was hard enough for me to remember who was who, never mind the readers.
Gina: What do you think fans of the movie will like most about the book?
Anne: I think they will appreciate that I respected the feeling of the film. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is, when you think about it, a deeply Christian film. It opens with the people of Bedford Falls praying for George Bailey. We see George himself praying for help when he’s in trouble. We see an angel come down to help as a response to these prayers. Good characters are portrayed as good, and less noble characters are presented that way. That is, we don’t see Frank Capra making heroes of evil people.
In “Bedford Falls,” Clarence comes back to help George Bailey’s grandson as a result of his grandmother Mary praying for him. During a crisis near the end of the book, we find the entire town one again on its knees in prayer for the Bailey family.
Gina: What do you hope people will take away from the story?
Anne: I hope they will ask themselves if they have a sense of commitment to the place in which they live and work and rear their children. Unfortunately, there are so many people and companies today that put a desire to make money above everything else. Like Henry Potter, they don’t care if their decisions harm their communities. It takes a lot of hard work to protect our towns from the Old Man Potters of today. And it takes real sacrifice to protect the kind of people George Bailey sought to protect: poor, immigrant families who are often at the mercy of forces beyond their control and have known little compassion.
Gina: Do you have any more novels in the works? If so, what will they be about?
Anne: I’ve had other characters living in my head that I hope will get out some day. I’m longing to write a series of murder mysteries with a protagonist who is a “gifted amateur”—a college professor who is kind of like J. Budziszewski.
Image copyright Rachael Sinclair.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.