Every December, I make it a point to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Clive Donner’s version of A Christmas Carol. In my opinion, they are the two greatest Christmas movies ever made. But after watching them this past year, I realized something; both movies are telling the exact same story, inverted from each other. 

On the surface, there are some superficial similarities between the two movies. Both are movies traditionally watched during Christmastime, and both are romanticized time capsules of their respective societies at their cultural peak (Victorian England for A Christmas Carol and America during the Greatest Generation for It’s a Wonderful Life). Both of the protagonists work in the financial sector. But most importantly, the story of both films focus on the lives of their protagonists, and how their lives have ramifications outside of what they immediately see. This fact is presented to them through encounters with supernatural beings, often in unsettling and even outright disturbing ways. 

Despite these similarities, it can be hard to see the deeper parallels between the two films because their protagonists are so radically different. George Bailey is just about as selfless a person as is realistically possible, while Ebeneezer Scrooge is exactly the opposite,as his grouchiness and dislike of the Christmas Holiday can often reach laughably over the top levels (In fact, one of the reasons why I like Donner’s version of A Christmas Carol so much is that George C. Scott’s performance as Scrooge is much more reserved and callous than other interpretations). In order to really see how these two stories are, in fact, telling the same story from different angles, we’ll have to go into each film in detail.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, we are introduced to George Bailey. Even as a young boy, George has dreams of traveling the world, exploring exotic lands, even having “a couple of harems, and maybe three or four wives.” He thinks that he is destined for a life outside of his small hometown of Bedford Falls. However, life has different plans for George. Pressured to take over the family business after the sudden death of his father, George sacrifices his dreams of adventure in order to keep the town’s Building and Loans company afloat, thereby frustrating the schemes of the town’s soulless business tycoon, Mr. Potter. While George becomes happily married, has a large family, and is well respected by the town, we constantly see an underlying sense of resentment and frustration with his situation. Despite his best attempts to leave Bedford Falls, events always seem to keep him stuck there. This resentment comes bursting out when George loses all of his company’s money in a financial mixup. Feeling guilty and upset over what has happened, George lashes out has his family in a rage, then rushes off to a bridge to contemplate suicide. It is at this point that Clarence the angel intervenes. Thwarting George’s suicide attempt, he then shows a vision of what life would be like if George was never born. What George sees is an entirely different Bedford Falls. Potter has completely taken over the town, as there was no one to stop him after George’s father died. George’s brother died when he was only nine years old due to an accident from which George was not around to save him. It is then that George’s perspective on life completely changes. Understanding the impact he has had on everyone around him, his resentment completely disappears. He understands that the joy of life is not in the things he can do for himself, but in how he can give himself to others.

Now contrast this with the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. In the story, Scrooge is a bitter old man who cares more about money than people. He considers Christmas to be a waste of time (or a “Humbug”). Through his encounter with three ghosts, we learn about his past and how others around him suffer due to his own greed and callousness. In one of the most striking scenes in the Clive Donner version, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a tunnel where a group of homeless people live. For the first time, Scrooge comes face to face with the reality of poverty, and how his own unwillingness to help the poor has indirectly exacerbated their problems. 

However, what finally changes Scrooge’s heart is his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be. In this eerie meeting, Scrooge sees a possible future where he has died, and no one cares about him. Old business associates groan out of a sense of obligation that they need to go to his funeral, while undertakers steal his possessions and nonchalantly laugh about their actions. Perhaps the most humbling moment of the film is when Scrooge sees the outpouring of love and sadness given to the death of Tiny Tim, the poor crippled son of Bob Cratchit, who showed much generosity and kindness to others in his life, while absolutely no one cares about Scrooge’s successful business dealings. Like George Bailey, Scrooge realizes that the purpose of life is not about the money he gains, but about how he can give himself as a gift to others. Perhaps the best way to recognize the parallels between the two films is to see It’s a Wonderful Life as A Christmas Carol if Mr. Potter met Clarence the Angel, while seeing A Christmas Carol as It’s a Wonderful Life if Bob Cratchit met the three ghosts.

Even though George Bailey and Ebeneezer Scrooge start out in their respective stories as radically different people, their encounters with ghosts and angels during Christmas set them on similar journeys and bring them to identical outcomes. In the end, they both approach life with a renewed joy and vigour, becoming pillars of the communities in which they live. They both understand that the greatest gift of life is that we ourselves are gifts to be given to others.