It’s a Wonderful Hero’s Journey

Rosana Francescato
5 min readMay 2, 2023

The broad appeal of Star Wars and a Christmas classic

You know how I feel about some Christmas songs, but what about movies? There’s at least one Christmas classic that’s truly wonderful.

In the summer of 1976, my mother and I were out of the country for eight weeks. When we got back home, a strange thing happened. My father took the whole family to see Star Wars. He’d seen it while we were away and wanted to see it again — and to share it with us.

Sure, Star Wars was a sensation at the time, and many people were viewing it multiple times. But my father wasn’t into science fiction or special effects. When it came to entertainment, he wasn’t easy to please. He was known to walk into a room, glance at whatever you were watching on TV, and say, “This is stupid.” And yet, he enjoyed Star Wars enough to see it twice. It was baffling.

Years later, I learned that George Lucas had consciously modeled the Star Wars story on the Hero’s Journey, and a light bulb went off. That was why it had such broad appeal that even my father loved it!

Some of my father’s critical nature rubbed off on me. I’m not a lover of Christmas movies. But one that I’ll never tire of viewing repeatedly, year after year, is It’s a Wonderful Life.

Watching it again this year, it suddenly dawned on me: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Hero’s Journey! Is that part of why the movie is so loved?

What’s the adventure?

Like other heroes, George Bailey goes on an adventure, prevails in a crisis, and returns home transformed. Most Hero’s Journeys follow this pattern:

  1. Departure: The call to adventure, refusal of the call, and crossing the threshold into the adventure.
  2. Initiation: A series of trials, assistance from one or more guides, overcoming temptations, and fulfilling the call.
  3. Return: Escaping — sometimes with difficulty — with the object of the quest, and returning to regular life with new knowledge.

But it takes George Bailey three-quarters of the movie to start on anything you could call an adventure. Or does it? While the surreal adventure happens late in the movie, it’s that adventure that makes George realize that his whole life has already been the adventure he was seeking.

Heroes are often reluctant to embark on their journeys, and that’s true of George when it comes to his adventure with Clarence, his guardian angel. But much earlier in the film, George seems to be seeking, not avoiding, adventure — and what he hesitates to embrace is regular life in Bedford Falls.

The call to adventure usually interrupts the hero’s familiar life with a threat or opportunity. In the early part of the movie, though, it’s George’s attempt at an adventure that’s interrupted, when his father’s death stops him from leaving familiar life for his European trip and college. In true hero form, George attempts to refuse the call by resisting staying in Bedford Falls. But in defying the movie’s villain, Mr. Potter, and staying to work at the Building and Loan, he crosses the threshold to embark on his quest.

Normally, a hero would get some supernatural aid at this point, but that doesn’t come till later in the film. George does, however, undergo a series of tests and ordeals in the initiation phase of his Hero’s Journey. The first of these is the run on the bank that interrupts his departure for his honeymoon. Aided by his non-supernatural guide — his wife, Mary — George overcomes that ordeal admirably with the kind of speech that only Jimmy Stewart can pull off. What a different movie it would have been with any other actor!

Eventually George faces and resists a crazy temptation, when Potter offers to hire him for ten times the salary he’s making at the Building and Loan. No one’s ever made me such an offer, but that would be a tough one to refuse!

Two Hero’s Journeys in one movie

Hero’s Journeys often have a supernatural component. But it’s not until Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000, jeopardizing both the Building and Loan and George, that the supernatural adventure in It’s a Wonderful Life begins.

At this point, George’s journey isn’t over; he’s still in stage 2, initiation.

It’s a Hero’s Journey within a Hero’s Journey! So meta.

Clarence finally appears as the guide George has been needing, but initially, George resists going on an adventure with his guardian angel. Before long, though, the pull becomes too strong, and he’s along for the ride.

The trials he faces in this adventure take the form of not being recognized by his friends and family, plus witnessing their terrible fates in a world without him. George’s wife is a spinster, works in a library, and for some reason, needs glasses — the horror!

That and various other 1946 pitfalls aside, these new trials rival any that George encountered earlier in the film. We can all imagine how horrifying it would be to suddenly cease existing for our loved ones.

The result for George is that he finally understands, on a gut level, the real and significant value of his life. With a little more help from Clarence, he’s ready to return, victorious, to Bedford Falls. Now the master of both the material and the spiritual world, he returns a new man, with true enlightenment. We know that whatever happens, he’ll finally be at peace with his life — which was the real adventure all along.

(Let’s hope he also takes the opportunity to repair the knob at the bottom of the staircase that bothers him so much! Surely it would just take a bit of glue and some nails?)

The end of the movie is uplifting in the way of any great Hero’s Journey, and I challenge anyone to watch it without crying. Few have attempted it; most have failed.

Of course, making a great movie takes more than just following the Hero’s Journey (whether that’s done consciously or unconsciously). Frank Capra was a master at making uplifting flicks. Jimmy Stewart was a master at making rousing speeches. Lionel Barrymore was a master at making a villain come to life. Donna Reed was a master at embodying the ever-supportive wife.

But if you have all the other right elements in place, the Hero’s Journey adds a little something to a movie that can take it from good to great — and make it an enduring classic.

This makes me wonder how many other movies, Christmas or otherwise, follow the Hero’s Journey. Maybe next year I’ll write about Miracle on 34th Street, another great Christmas movie — with a woman hero.

Originally published at https://flowerchild.substack.com.

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Rosana Francescato

Clean energy analyst, advocate, communicator spreading the good solar word