It’s a Wonderful Life: Feel-Good Movies
Christmas is the time for feel-good movies like The Miracle on 34th Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (okay, TV movie) and It’s a Wonderful Life. We bask in stories which not only end happily but we know they’re going to. We can sit through the trials of the hero/heroine quite contentedly, knowing Things Will Work Out.
A great example of this genre is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In it, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) maintains a Savings and Loan company. He wants fair mortgages for the townspeople rather than them being forced to deal with the town’s greedy banker. However, money inadvertently goes astray and George realizes he will be charged with fraud. Projecting how this shame will reflect on his loved ones, he decides he is better off dead. An angel prevents his suicide and shows him how things would have been if he had never been born. George realizes how many people his life has benefitted and decides not to jump off the bridge. When he returns home, he finds that town folk and distant friends have donated money to replace the missing amount.
The feel-good part of the movie happens when George’s friends contribute to make up the shortfall. If the movie had ended with George’s decision to live, it might still have been a good movie, but it probably would not have had the feel-good touch we all love.
The problem with feel-good stories
It was remarkably hard to get Google to say anything negative about feel-good movies. No matter what I input along with the term—criticism of, problem with, etc.—all I got were lists of the best of them. Only dictionaries would admit that the term feel-good relates to or promotes “an often specious sense of satisfaction or well-being.” Example: “a feel-good reform program that makes no changes.”
Because, let’s face it, calling a movie or novel ‘feel-good’, is often a dismissive way to denigrate a story. What in other times would have been thought of as just a ‘good’ movie, might now be flipped off with the addition of ‘feel.’ Why does a happy ending in modern works now run the risk of being disparaged in this way?
Frankly, who knows. It might be because we have been more suspicious of others’ motives than in earlier days. Or perhaps we are less willing to accept that good outcomes are as frequent and/or uncomplicated. Or maybe the literary fashion has just changed. But as a writer, you ignore this zeitgeist at your peril.
How does it affect your writing?
Interestingly enough, it might be easier to see the effects of feel-goodism in memoirs. How would you feel if you read a memoir where everything turned out beautifully for the protagonist, that she was never guilty of a value-challenging act, and everyone was lovely to everyone else?
In addition to being bored to death, I’d probably think, “She’s lying through her teeth.”
In fiction, it is more difficult to pick up when this phenomenon is operating. But you need to step back from your story to ensure that the happy ending is deserved, if you know what I mean. So how do you write a happy ending which doesn’t get the finger for feel-goodism? Next post.