During the recent holidays, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life yet again with my wife and daughter. I love the proposition at its core: imagine you’ve been given a rare opportunity to see things differently. Inspired by that idea, I’d like to offer several writing prompts to try.
You’ve been granted a rare opportunity:
1) to go back in time to one particular moment of your life and do something differently, make another choice
2) to see or even meet your family of origin in a public place, although you’re a stranger to them (literally, not just metaphorically)
3) to stand face to face with someone you feel has somehow wronged you—perhaps taken something from you—and speak your truth without negative consequences (a neighbor, politician, teacher, ex, sibling, employer, etc.)
During the process of creating and curating writing prompts, I’m always amazed by the numerous, even endless, places to “leap” from any prompt into writing.
In thinking about this classic film, some scenes strike me as more hilarious each year, such as George Bailey’s terror in finding Mary an “old maid” tragically descending the steps of the library where she so sadly works, while others disturb me more deeply each year, such as George’s younger brother “reaching out for” Annie, the family’s longtime Black “maid.” The script speaks for itself:
ANNIE: If you lay a hand on me, I’ll hit you with this broom.
HARRY: Annie, I’m in love with you. There’s a moon out tonight.
As he pushes her through the kitchen door, he slaps her fanny. She screams. The noise is cut off by the swinging door. George and his mother sit down at the table.
I’m always surprised by the speed with which this bit of scene glides by in a few blinks of the eye and am freshly stunned each time I see it. Today, a young white male slapping the bottom of a black matriarch would be considered outrageously inappropriate in a family film and considered assault if it happened in life. Yet there it is!
Multiple perspectives provide rich material, so here’s another prompt: Write about the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” (or another beloved classis) by trying on different “lenses” and reconsidering the film as a cultural artifact.
4) How does the film portray the only woman of color in its cast? How does it portray other minorities and immigrants? How does it portray white women and girls of different classes? How do the characters of Annie, Mary and Violet represent common racist and sexist stereotypes still prevalent in our culture?
5) Read and write about the 1947 FBI document “concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.” Apparently, the FBI claimed that making the big banker character of Mr. Potter the film’s arch villain was one of many “obvious attempts to discredit bankers” and “a common trick used by the communists.” How is this relevant today? In what ways does the film relate to contemporary issues such as the Main Street versus Wall Street tensions so prevalent in the news?