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Lessons from Purgatory: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and other stories

Updated: May 24, 2022

I think that when we are feeling physically confined our imaginations tend to roam into wilder territory. The idea of a place where we could go and be absolutely anything at all is possibly even more attractive now than in 2019 when I wrote it.

Matt Haig

A central aspect of that purgatorial experience [in our own lives on earth] is to be stuck in stories we don’t know the way out of.

Rowan Williams

(Spoilers ahead: for ‘Soul’, ‘The Midnight Library’, and 'It’s A Wonderful Life’)

A journey through purgatory doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a feel-good adventure story. More likely the word ‘purgatory’ brings to mind grim, medieval images of fiery furnaces, tormented bodies, and flailing arms begging for mercy. It’s not exactly classic Disney material.

And yet purgatory remains a strangely popular plot device within film, TV, and fiction, appealing to both younger audiences and older audiences across genres, from Pixar’s ‘Coco’ and Neal Shusterman’s ‘Everlost’ to ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘and ‘The Good Place.’

And of course, we can’t really talk about purgatory tropes without mentioning Dickens’ time-honoured novel, ‘A Christmas Carol’, with its plethora of TV and film adaptations (and parodies) to choose from, whether you’re a fan of the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, or the Simpsons. And if you’re in the mood for a rom com, there’s ‘Ghosts of Girlfriends Past’ (or ‘Christmas Cupid’ apparently.)

But perhaps the best-loved version of the story is the annual Christmas must-watch, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, which puts a topsy-turvy spin on the tale, replacing the miserly Scrooge with the benevolent George Bailey. This movie has itself inspired countless films and books. Two of the more recent(ish) ones, released within just a few months of each other in 2020, are Pixar’s ‘Soul’ and Matt Haig’s novel, ‘The Midnight Library’. As with their cinematic and literary predecessors, the protagonists of these tales each face a near-death, purgatorial experience that has an irrevocable effect on their lives. Whilst the creative process for both works were well underway pre-Covid-19, there is a striking relevance to these two stories that their creators could not have foreseen.

Like George Bailey, Soul’s protagonist is a friendly, kind, average Joe. And yes, his name (uncoincidentally?) is Joe. Where his story differs from George’s is that he desperately wants to live. Far from contemplating a way out, Joe is on the verge of a breakthrough in his music career only for it to be brought to an abrupt halt when he falls down a manhole and dies (well, sort of). He finds himself in a strange 2D universe, at once abstract, dreamy, and eerily clinical. This turns out to be ‘The Great Before’, a place where Souls receive their personalities and find their spark before they begin life on earth. The rest of the film follows Joe’s adventures with sidekick ‘22’ as he tries to find a way back to his life (and his body).

It’s an interesting U-turn for Disney. This isn’t the average “follow your dream” message. If anything, it is quite the opposite. Joe learns along his purgatorial way that in his obsessive pursuit of becoming a professional jazz musician, he has lost his wonder at the everyday stuff of life; the divine taste of fresh pizza; the joy of deep conversations with the local barber; the beauty of New York in Autumn. ‘Soul’ is essentially a story about mindful living.

The practice of mindfulness has become increasingly fashionable over the last decade, and with all the uncertainties and interruptions of a global pandemic, many of us have moved (incidentally or intentionally) towards a more mindful lifestyle, focusing on the present, enjoying nature whenever possible, baking more (embracing that cottagecore life) and generally slowing down. The release of ‘Soul’ couldn’t have come at a better time; it speaks to a world that is desperately seeking joy in the mundaneness of life.

The Midnight Library comes at the trope from a slightly different angle. This purgatory takes the form of a library that allows our protagonist, Nora, to try out alternate versions of her life by entering different books. She finds herself here after a suicide attempt and is at first reluctant to involve herself in this pointless exercise; after all she doesn’t want to live any life at all, but as the story progresses, we see her regain a love for living, and she eventually manages to escape the library and survive the overdose, re-entering the real world with a newfound appreciation of life in all its wonderfulness. She’s a pub-owner in one life, a Rockstar in another, an Olympic swimmer, a winery owner, a glaciologist etc. It’s a story that celebrates life’s many possibilities.

The book is a gripping and enjoyable read, but I can’t help feeling that it misses its potential. There is a distinct lack of character development, Haig includes various plot points that don’t seem to go anywhere (like the appearance of Hugo Lefèvre, a fellow sampler of realities), and whilst the library setting gives the novel the feel of the fable, it lacks any of the subtlety and mystery that we might expect. I loved the premise of a midnight library with infinite book portals; it’s what drew me to the novel in the first place, but the ‘moral’ of the story is so blatant that absolutely no work is needed on the part of the reader and so it loses some of its imaginative intrigue.

Soul has its own underdeveloped plot points, but overall reflects its core ideas far better. Pixar’s animation is a work of art; the attention to detail allows the audience to be immersed in the world of the film, so that we get to be present in the moment with the characters. As Joe walks around New York, we experience the rich colours of autumn and the brilliance of evening sunlight bouncing off the city’s sparkling buildings. The film encourages a kind of mindfulness in us. The ambiguity of the ending also helps makes its point; ‘Soul’ is not about whether Joe achieves his dream, it’s about his rediscovery of the joy and freedom of simply being alive.

Although ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ remains by far my favourite interpretation of the purgatory trope, I’m glad that we continue to see George Bailey-esque characters within our contemporary novels, films, and TV series. I think we need these kinds of narratives. Nothing actually changes in the lives of George, Joe, or Nora, but the way they see their own stories has changed. Perhaps we too feel stuck in a strange in-between-state as we live with the constant threat of lockdowns, new rules, and self-isolation periods. More than ever, we need new ways of viewing our own stories, of stepping back and finding joy and freedom in the chaos of life.

One of my favourite (albeit fleeting) scenes in ‘Soul’ is one in which we watch a “lost soul” finally return to his body:

Hedge Fund Manager: [The soul jumps…landing straight back into his body. He is surrounded by screens dripping with numbers and graphs, “wakes up.”] What am I doing with my life? [Suddenly, he throws the screens off his desk and stands up.] I’m alive! I’m alive! Free yourselves! [laughing] It’s beautiful! [He happily runs out of the office, knocking away the screens and flipping over the desks of his former colleagues.]

It’s a scene we’ve seen before; Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey return to their lives full of joy and wonder, running through the streets shouting Merry Christmas to everyone. This moment of awakening is central to many of these purgatory narratives. To come back to Rowan Williams’ quote, it is quite possible that we can find ourselves living in a purgatorial state whilst we are still very much alive, ‘stuck in stories we don’t know the way out of.’

In Tim Stead’s book, ‘Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality’, he talks about humanity’s need to be awoken from this spiritual slumber in terms of the biblical story of the prodigal son:

“In the prodigal’s case it was only when he was reduced to absolute poverty that ‘he came to his senses’ as the NIV and TEV put it. In other words, there came a moment when he ‘woke up’ from his dream and realised where he was and what he was doing, only then did he realise the fact that he did have a choice. He could carry on as he was, or he could return to his father and start again.

We are only ever partly awake- partly aware. If we want to know God and God’s will for us, we need to wake up to where we are and what we are doing. But how will this happen? Sometimes it takes a tragic event to wake us up – often something tragic or painful. But how much better it would be if we spent time practicing waking up. This is what mindfulness practice does.”

Whether it’s a pandemic, the struggles of life, or the daily practice of spiritual disciplines, we need these moments of awakening to help us reassess what truly matters to us. Art itself can help to awaken us, allowing our imaginations “to roam into wilder territory” as Haig puts it, and giving us a greater perspective.

Like ‘Soul’ and ‘The Midnight Library’, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a story about awakening and appreciating the beauty before us, but it also delves deeper into the gritty reality of a fully ‘awake’ life. As I watched it this Christmas, I was surprised again by how moving (as well as entertaining) this film remains on its umpteenth viewing, and it’s not just because of the fantastic script and characters, or the brilliant acting, it’s the way it goes beyond the usual ‘feel good’ messaging of contemporary media. Josh Larsen articulates this well in his book ‘Movies are Prayers’:

“You see George, you really had a wonderful life,” Clarence observes. The implication being that, of course, that George’s devotion was part of - indeed, crucial to - much of that wonderfulness. In returning to it rather than escaping from it… George Bailey truly becomes free.

This film isn’t just about realising that life is beautiful, it’s not just about a few nice, goodwill gestures because it’s Christmas, it is a film about the importance of true sacrifice. George Bailey is an ordinary man who is constantly forced to confront his own desires (desires which aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves). He daily battles against the lures of materialism, the distracting promises of greener pastures, and the apathy-inducing effects of comfortability, and yet refuses to take the easier path. Instead, he walks the longer, harder path of loving his neighbour.

We see moments of devotion and sacrifice in ‘Soul’ and ‘The Midnight Library’ as Joe and Nora help disadvantaged children fulfil their potential. Indeed, Soul climaxes with Joe letting go of his life in order that 22 can live hers, and whilst these are great moments, there is something particularly powerful and radical about the way ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ shows us that sacrifice isn’t simply a one-off moment of heroism here and there. It is a daily and difficult call on our lives, as well as an abundantly joyful one.

In this sense, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is surprisingly theological. Usually, purgatory in fiction is treated as an interesting trope to interrogate the ways we live our lives, rather than a point of substantial theological discussion. Both ‘Soul’ and ‘The Midnight Library’ raise some fascinating existential questions, which feel particularly relevant in the midst of a global pandemic, even if some of these ideas could be more fully developed.

However, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ goes a step further. It follows through on its central ideas about meaning and purpose, and whilst it may not be theologically accurate (as far as I know angels don’t have to earn their wings nor are they quite so cute and bumbling as Clarence), it speaks to us a deeply Christian message. It tells us that a truly awakened life is one of joyful, self-giving love. It is the kind of joy that enables us to live in a world that doesn’t always reward goodness and to find contentment whatever our circumstances, even when the house is drafty and the bannister knob keeps falling off. For an iconic film, it speaks to us a surprisingly unglamorous truth: that real freedom is found in sacrifice.

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