Is Back to the Future a Sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life?
In a previous essay, I mentioned in passing that the Back to the Future series – in particular – the second film – bears a strong resemblance to the 1948 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The more I thought about it the more I felt the need to look over this aspect more closely to see just how many possible ties I might find between the two films.
I can’t say if Back to the Future used Wonderful Life as a model, but it seems certain that the 1980s trilogy made more than a passing reference to the earlier work.
Wonderful Life opens with a scene in Heaven where God or some other important dignitary raises concern about the intended suicide of George Bailey on Earth. So an angel, Clarence, is dispatched to earth the help sway George away from the rash action.
Back to the Future II opens with the crusty but angel-like Doc come back to Marty McFly raising concerns about the rash actions Marty’s son in 2015 is about to take and takes Marty into the future to help intervene.
In Wonderful Life, most of the action takes place in the past, a flash back to explain how George Bailey got into his current predicament. The set up happens entirely in the past, the complication happens in the alternative present and the resolution in the real present.
In Back to the Future II, the set up is in the future, the complication in the alternative present and the resolution happens in the past.
The main characters, George Bailey and Marty McFly, are remarkable similar. Both have great ambitions that are frustrated by their current situations.
George wants to be an architect, someone who will shape the future and leave his mark on the world.
Marty wants to be a rock star.
Both are seeking to escape the constraints put on their lives by their father’s upbringing.
George Bailey’s father is symbolic of old fashioned values, an unquestionably honest man that does not agree with the emerging values of greed free of social responsibility. His small savings and loan continues to loan money to those that need it, despite pressures demanding that he take a more modern and stern view.
George Bailey loves his father, but sees the older Bailey’s cause as something hopeless, since Potter, the greedy modern capitalist is bent on monopolizing the town’s resources thus forcing the populace to pay whatever he asked for basic necessities, in particular places to live.
Marty McFly loves his father as well, and like George Bailey, sees his father as pitted against monstrous forced of greed symbolized in the character of Biff.
While George Bailey’s father comes off as more noble a character than Marty’s, both sons see their fathers as victims of a fate these sons wish to avoid. Each son has a dream of a brighter future beyond the boundaries of their fathers’ confined world.
In both films, the ambitions of the sons are frustrated by reality.
George Bailey is on the brink of achieving his dream, but his forced by the death of his father to choose his own dream over the needs of the community. George Bailey was headed for college, but finds that if he leaves his father’s dream of providing affordable housing to the working class and poor will be destroyed. So he agrees to allow his brother to go to college first with the provision that his brother will return afterwards, take over operations, and allow George to go. But fate continues to play a hand. His brother goes to college, then into service, becomes a hero, and then is offered a huge job he can’t refuse, leaving George to shoulder the burden of the business alone.
While his brother is celebrated as hero, George Bailey does the grunt work of recycling metal and making certain lights in the town are out during air raid drills.
George Bailey can’t even escape his life for a honeymoon, and is forced to use the money he saved for his honeymoon to save his savings and loan when a rumor caused on run on the bank. Gleeful Potter, anticipating the demise of the savings and loan, does not anticipate George’s willingness to sacrifice his personal pleasure for the benefit of the community.
George Bailey is forced to settle for a honeymoon in a leaky house with a collection of travel posters plastered over the windows – somewhat reminiscent of the broken scene TV screen in the elder Marty’s house in Back to the Future II, although the contraptions use for playing music seem more in line with the contraptions the doc develops in all three movies, but particularly the last.
The final blow to George Bailey comes when his bumbling business associate accidentally gives Potter the savings and loans cash receipts rather than depositing them and Potter calls in the inspector with the promise of charging George Bailey with embezzling, giving George a few hours to come up with the cash Potter has in his hands.
This despair and contemplation of suicide sets up the fantasy or alternative reality portion of the film when George Bailey makes the wish that he had never been born.
In some ways, Back to the Future II, is a kind of alternative Wonderful Life, acting out a speculation as to what might have happened had George Bailey been able to snatch back the money from Potter rather than become a hero that is rescued from his final predicament by those who he has helped in the past.
This presents us with a different philosophy despite the similarities in the plot and structure in both films.
George Bailey represents an out of date philosophy that good deeds get rewarded and even make up for mistakes made, while Back to the Future, seems to reflect a more modern philosophy that man must correct his own mistakes.
For this reason, we see a different emphasis in the films even though both films (this includes all three Back to the Future films) have the same overall structure.
Both films have the same three essential parts: the set up, the fantasy and the resolution.
Because the ultimate solution is contained in the set up – George Bailey’s wiliness to sacrifice his personal desires for the good of others – most of the action takes place in the first part or the set up with the fantasy and the resolution portions condensed to an amazingly few scenes.
Back to the Future, on the other hand, produces the resolution in the later portion of the film, so that we get a longer resolution section – although some of the set up for the second movie is done in the first movie such as Marty’s frustration with his father and initial frustrations of Biff that compare to Potter’s failed efforts in Wonderful Life
But the core of this comparison begins when Marty purchases the sports almanac and then throws it in the trash where Biff recovers it. This moment is very similar to the lost money scene in Wonderful Life, throwing up the gate to the fantasy to follow.
You might see Marty in the first movie as George Bailey disappointed with his father and the life his father has led, and by accident caused by his angel the Doc, Marty travels back to 1955. disturbs normal development of time, corrects the error, and returns to a 1985 that was better than the one he left, frustrating the ambition of Biff the way George Bailey by taking over the family business rather than going off to college.
In the beginning of the second movie, Marty and his girlfriend accompany Doc to the future to frustrate Biff’s grandson’s plans to rob a bank. While there, Marty discovers that he has become his father in many ways stuck in a life he hoped to avoid.
While the lost money in Wonderful Life becomes a blessing because it leads George Bailey to realize how much he has already done, the careless abandoning of the sports almanac becomes the vehicle for Marty correct the flaw in himself and prevents him from becoming his own father.
After the loss of the money, the desperate George Bailey yells at his kids, their teacher over the telephone, even his wife, then flees the house to get drunk at a local bar, after a confrontation with the husband of the teacher he yelled at, George Bailey crashes his car and climbs onto a bridge from which he plans to jump into the icy waters below.
Before he can do it, Clarence the angle arrives, jumps in the water first, forcing George Bailey to rescue him. At this point, George Bailey wishes he had never been born, a wish the angel grants him.
Thus we enter the fantasy portion of Wonderful Life, and as George Bailey makes his way back to the small town in which he lives, he begins to notice small differences. This is also true of Marty McFly on his return from 2015.
Whereas George Bailey cannot find the gash he put into the 100 year old tree or for that matter the car he wrecked, Marty McFly notices bars on the windows of his girlfriend’s house.
George McFly takes Clarence back to the bar where he is confronted by a sleazy place where he is confronted by the fact that because he had never existed, George never saved his brother from drowning or stopped the pharmacist from issuing a prescription that killed a child. Marty has a similar experience when he is caught snatching a newspaper from the porch of his former principal and learns that he is in 1985 despite the disgusting landscape, but also that his high school has been closed for years.
Both characters travel through a landscape that has become unbearably dark and savage, full of criminals and wreckage, and hardly the world they had left previously.
Clarence tells George Bailey that he never existed so that all the things he has done also ceased to exist: George didn’t exist to save his brother from drowning or defy Potter’s will to take over and convert the town into a slum.
This is echoed in the Back to the Future films where photographs serve as a barometer of what is real, and that like in Wonderful Life, family members such as Marty’s brother and sister cease to exist, because Marty has altered time in the past.
Both George and Marty rush through a landscape in which familiar things have between twisted into grotesque versions of what they should have been and people, who should have known them, do not or mistake them for other people.
The structure of these scenes is some similar in both films that one had to have influenced the other.
Yet no moment is so powerful obvious as when George sees the sign for Pottersville and Marty sees the tower to Biff’s casino.
While these two scenes and the scenes leading up to the moment of revelation clearly show how Wonderful Life influenced Back to the Future in a common testimony on the impact of greed, the two scenes also have a subtle but important difference.
Wonderful Life is socialist at its core, giving us a more or less realistic prediction of what would happen if capitalism and capitalists shape the future unchecked.
Back to the Future is a comment on the aspiration of a certain base kind of common man, a “what if” scenario that depicts the world as it might be if shaped by the average American bully – a typical breed in most American schools in the 1950s and today.
While the capitalist of Wonderful Life wants merely to live in the biggest house in town while the rest of the population gravels at his feet, the average man of Back to the Future wants to live in Las Vegas, personally glorified, protected by gangsters, and provided with the cheapest sluts and most expensive booze.
Back to the Future provides us with three decades of additional observations that in some ways dispels the romantic notion of the natural socialistic tendencies of mankind – which left unregulated tends to fall into vice. Wonderful Life painted vice as a kind of side effect of capitalistic greed, saying that poor people without any other hope will take what little joy they can – even in vice.
This difference affects even areas where the films seem to agree. While both films present us with expanding real estate changing the world, Wonderful Life seems to believe in progress, claiming that if done correctly, human kind benefits. So we have a good developer and a bad developer, homes that people can take pride in and homes that are little more than slums. It is a film depicting the change from a rural to a suburban society and sets rules as to how this must be done.
In Back to the Future we see the same change, with farm lands in the 1955 already earmarked for future development. While Biff’s greed has the same result as Potter’s in turning Altered 1985 into a slum, Back to the Future shows that neighborhood in decline in 2015, suggesting the inevitability of the decline. Biff merely hurried what will take place anyway, and if this is true, then Back to the Future questions the whole concept of what is progress – as the Doc mentions more than once in reference to his time machine.
Back to the Future seems to say that mankind left something important back in the past that we need to retrieve before we can have the bright future Wonderful Life takes for granted.
How many other references to Wonderful Life are contained in Back to the Future depends on how far you want to go in making the comparison, and whether or not some of the more subtle details are conscious comments. Is the fact that a farmer in Back to the Future raising Christmas Trees serve as a reference to the fact that Wonderful Life is considered a Christmas classic?
Doc like Clarence gets his wings at the end of each film, although in the last, we get the ringing of rail crossing bells as opposed to the ringing bell on the Christmas Tree.
Does Marty’s going back in time to save Doc in 1885 compare to George Bailey’s leap into the river to save Clarence, since Marty’s trip provides him with the final lesson that helps him save from being trapped in his father’s life in the future?
Is it merely coincidental that Marty’s parents meet and fall in love at a dance just as George Bailey did in Wonderful Life?
Is it merely coincidence that Marty’s father’s name is George?
When all is said and done, I’m sure I’ve missed some very obvious connection between Back to the Future and Wonderful Life, but I am positive there is one.