It's (still) a wonderful life: A remake

December 07, 2011

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

The 1946 film classic "It's A Wonderful Life" is so heartwarming you could almost forget it's about banking. Central to the story, though, is the Bailey Building and Loan Association. So with remakes being so popular in Hollywood, and with banks being so much in the news this year, it begs the question: Could this film be adapted for today's banking environment?

Here are a few tweaks to the original story line that could make it work:

The set-up:

  • In the original, George Bailey reluctantly forgoes college so he can step into his newly-deceased father's shoes running the Bailey Building & Loan. He makes this sacrifice in part because he wants to carry on his father's legacy of making loans to the working poor.
  • In the remake, you'd have to acknowledge that someone without a college education these days would have trouble getting a job managing a Wendy's, let alone a bank. So push George's age up a few years and give him an MBA. However, still a man of the people, he refuses to accept a penny more than $1 million a year in compensation.

The villain:

  • In the original, the antagonist is the evil Henry Potter, a slumlord and chief shareholder in the bank who wants to change its community-friendly policies.
  • In the remake, Potter calls himself a real estate developer rather than a slumlord. Bitter townspeople, however, refer to him as a "one percenter."

Bailey Park:

  • In the original, George Bailey creates Bailey Park, an affordable housing development intended to give people an alternative to Potter's overpriced rents.
  • In the remake, Potter has spent years selling balloon mortgages to ignorant townspeople, who were willing to sign anything in hopes of flipping their houses for a tidy profit a few years later. When this goes awry, Bailey is the only banker willing to refinance those mortgages at today's lower interest rates.

The run on the bank:

  • In the original, a key plot development is the run on the bank, which creates an immediate need for cash.
  • In the remake, thanks to FDIC insurance, a run on the bank is less likely. However, because the Glass-Steagall Act has been repealed since the original was made, banks now have much more exotic ways of getting into trouble. Today, the emergency could be a margin call on the bank's investment in distressed Greek debt.

Uncle Billy:

  • In the original, they never spelled out exactly what was wrong with Uncle Billy. The point is that he's forgetful, though in George Bailey's dark vision of what the town would be like if he weren't around, Uncle Billy ends up in a mental institution. Of course, the real question is what's wrong with George Bailey--why would he entrust the $8,000 in cash that's essential to the bank's survival to Uncle Billy anyway?
  • In the remake, you wouldn't want to miss the opportunity for some further character development. Uncle Billy could be a rogue trader with a substance abuse problem.

The townspeople gathering:

  • In the original, the townspeople gather at George Bailey's house in the moment of crisis to show support and sing holiday carols.
  • In the remake, the Occupy Bedford Falls movement descends on the Bailey family.

The ending:

  • In the original, the bank is saved by contributions from ordinary townspeople.
  • In the remake, it's pretty much the same thing: government bailout, funded by taxpayers.

The closing line:

  • In the original, little Zuzu Bailey hears a bell on the Christmas tree ring, and exclaims that it means an angel has just gotten its wings.
  • In the remake, Zuzu's iPhone rings. It's alerting her to a tweet from Clarence about his new wings, because now there's an app for that.

You see, with just a few small twists, the story still works. After all, this may be a much less innocent time than 1946, but it's still a wonderful life.

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