Welcome Back, Potter

Several years ago, aided by the wonders of modern technology and the principle of fair use, a number of people independently produced remixes of It’s a Wonderful Life as a horror movie.  That this worked brilliantly is really no surprise, since the dystopian world of Pottersville in Frank Capra’s masterpiece foreshadowed such later classics of horror and suspense as Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Jack Finney, the author of Siegel’s source material, was as fascinated as Capra was with the breakdown of community in the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s—decades that many of us now regard as a Golden Age from which we have since been engaged in a long, but accelerating, descent.

It has become commonplace to blame the destruction of community on the rise of technology, and even fast-food giant KFC jumped on the bandwagon during the most recent holiday shopping season with a clever viral marketing campaign for a KFC-branded “Internet Escape Pod”—a dome-shaped Faraday cage with a larger-than-life-sized Colonel Sanders draped over its apex and an Original Recipe drumstick serving as its door handle.  Gather the whole family (assuming it’s no larger than four people) inside to sit Indian-style on the floor around a bucket of Extra Crispy and a couple of sides, and the Colonel will take care of the rest, blocking all wireless signals and rendering our ubiquitous iPhones useless.  To point out that an eight piece of the Colonel’s Finest is as emblematic of the underlying problem as are those pictures we’ve all seen of groups of teenagers sitting in the stands at high-school football games with their heads bent toward their Samsung Galaxies seems as pretentious as the conservative essays on how the destruction of community didn’t start with Steve Jobs, since the iPhone was preceded by the personal computer, which followed the television, which was a natural evolution from moving pictures and the radio and Thomas Edison’s phonograph.

And yet, pretentious or not, it’s true.  By the time when family psychologists and cultural critics began to preach about the importance of sitting down for dinner as a family at least once a week—even if the exigencies of modern life mean that the menu must consist of unidentifiable cuts of fast-food fried chicken and muddy gravy on top of boxed mashed potatoes—something had gone horribly wrong.  And both our use of technology (intentionally or unintentionally) to isolate rather than to unite and our treatment of the Colonel’s greasy offerings as a treat rather than a necessary but unfortunate convenience reflect far deeper and more disturbing trends that Capra and Finney saw clearly some 70 years ago.

George Bailey, as I noted last month, was, in an important respect, very similar to Mr. Potter.  Before Uncle Billy absentmindedly placed control over the savings-and-loan’s future in the hands of Mr. Potter, setting up the sequence of events that would lead George to contemplate suicide, George had endured another temptation at the hands of Mr. Potter.  And it was a temptation most of us would find hard to resist: Come work for me, and you will be set for life.  Earn as much in one year as you currently do in ten.  Give your wife and family everything they could ever want, and travel the world.  All you have to do is cut all meaningful ties to Bedford Falls—even though you’ll still be living here.

We can see the struggle in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as George undergoes his temptation, and we can feel his desire to say yes.  Every time I see the movie, I half-expect George to stand up, shake Potter’s hand, and yell (in Stewart’s inimitable way), “It’s a deal, Mr. Potter, sir!”  One could even make a putatively conservative case for accepting Potter’s offer.  Materially, Mary and the children would be better off if George joined forces with Potter than they would likely ever be if he turned Potter down.  In the morality of everyday life, my first obligation (beyond that to my Creator) is to my family.  Mr. Potter may not be the best of employers, but many men have, like modern-day Bob Cratchits, put up with far worse in order to provide far less for their wives and children.  The Baileys could at least have had a comfortable life, if not a wonderful one.

And yet, outside of the odd libertarian, everyone who has ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life knows instinctively that George makes the right decision in putting Potter behind him.  The quest for community is part of human nature, even when we, in our sinfulness, do everything we can, actively and passively, to undermine the conditions that make community possible.  The family is the first community from which all others grow; but pulling back from our obligations to the broader community for the sake of one’s family in a way that puts one’s family in opposition to that community is the devil’s bargain.  That is the true trial that George faces in Potter’s offer.  Overcoming that trial not only reveals George’s character with regard to his obligations toward the community of Bedford Falls but prepares him for the later trial, when he is tempted, out of self-pity, to deprive his wife of her husband and his children of their father.

There are limits, of course, to how far community can extend beyond one’s family—geographical and cultural limits chief among them.  But the danger for us today lies less in extending the concept of community too far than it does in accepting Potter’s bargain, and trading a wonderful life for a comfortable one.

First published in the March 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Time and Again

Jack Finney is best remembered (to the extent that he is remembered at all) as the author of The Body Snatchers, the 1955 novel on which Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based.  But his best-selling novel was another work of science fiction, Time and Again (1970), a delightful tale of time travel and romance that has seen a well-deserved resurgence after Stephen King credited it as the inspiration for his own time-travel romance, 11/22/63.

There is much to admire about Time and Again, especially Finney’s decision to rely on neither technology nor magic to transport his protagonist, Simon Morley, 88 years in the past, to the New York City of 1882.  Instead, Si Morley relies on the power of his imagination to make the past live once again, which (to this reader at least) gives the novel a sort of “meta” quality.  What Si does in the course of living the story is what Finney had to do in writing it, and what any historical novelist (or, for that matter, historian) must do in order to make another time come alive for his readers.  Other ages do continue to exist, and we can visit them, so long as we are willing to make the imaginative effort.

There is the rub.  Si travels to the past as part of a government project, and other recruits are less successful—a subtle commentary, perhaps, by Finney on the lack of imagination of the men and women of 1970.  Today, of course, we live entirely in the present; the imaginative effort it would take to immerse ourselves in another time is too much to ask of most of our contemporaries.  Which, I suspect Jack Finney would say, explains so much about modern life—and especially modern politics.

First published in the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.


I have always liked the idea of Stephen King more than I have cared for any of his books.  At a meeting of the John Randolph Club here in Rockford many years ago, Tom Sheeley, in the midst of a lunchtime performance of classical guitar, asked, “What is creativity without editing?”  His question was meant to be rhetorical, yet had someone answered “Stephen King” even Tom, more of an admirer of King’s writing than I, would have been hard pressed to deny that to be true.

Since the release of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie in 1976, filmmakers and TV producers have acted as King’s de facto editors, with mixed success.  While many film and TV adaptations of King’s work have flopped, either by adhering too slavishly to the source material or, conversely, excising the truly brilliant parts, the best directors and producers have used King’s genius as inspiration for their own works of art.  Among the successes I would count Stand by MeNeedful ThingsThe Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist.  (Don’t ask me about The Shining; I do not share the general belief in Stanley Kubrick’s genius.)

So when I greatly enjoyed the Hulu original miniseries 11.22.63, I naturally assumed this to be another case in which the visual adaptation rose above the written source.  Yet I was fascinated enough to pick up the 1,100-plus-page book—and was delighted to discover that I was wrong.

This story of a high-school teacher who spends five years in the past in an attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy never drags (though it could have benefited, as usual, from a good editor).  Unlike the miniseries, which largely portrays the first few years of the 1960’s in golden tones, King’s work realizes the world of nearly 60 years ago in its fullness, letting the reader sense what has been lost, both for ill and for good.  And while there are obvious anachronisms (including a ridiculously frequent use of profanity), the sense of entering another time is as palpable as in Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which King himself acknowledges as “The great time-travel story.”

That said, I recommend both watching the miniseries and reading the book, because there are ways in which the former rises above the latter, including the change in the character of Miz Mimi (more true to the state of race relations in small-town Texas at the time) and the very ending, when Jake Epping (the high-school teacher) and Sadie Dunhill (his love from 1963) are reunited.  This scene—more fully realized in the miniseries—was not King’s idea; he included it as an epilogue in the book at the suggestion of his son, Joe Hill, who, as a novelist, may more fully approach the Platonic ideal of Stephen King than King himself has ever been able to do.

First published in the October 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.