We watched the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” this past week, as a holiday event, for the umpteenth time, as everyone does, and what I was most struck by this time is one of the most obvious points: how long it takes George Bailey (James Stewart) to realize that, after his contemplated suicide by jumping into a frozen river, and his intervention by an angel, and his reappearance in a truly *alternate* Bedford Falls (called Pottersville) that exists because he himself never existed, that he is not experiencing some mental fantasy or conspiracy; he truly is in some different place.
Because of course, this idea, of some alternate reality, the idea that alternate realities might exist depending on different decisions made at some point in the past, was not so common in 1939 as it is today, by virtue of today’s culture’s absorption of the ideas of science fiction and fantasy.
In the film it’s not until Jimmy Stewart confronts his putative wife (Donna Reed), who in his nonexistence has been relegated to a spinster librarian (a crude, vicious cliché, but leave that for now), before he realizes he is truly in some other place where he himself has not existed.
The same idea of characters being mind-boggled by changes in their reality they cannot understand was also typical in many of those Twilight Zone episodes, in the early 1960s.
The point being that those Twilight Zone characters had obviously never watched The Twilight Zone, just as George Bailey had never read stories or seen movies about the idea of alternate realities.
Has this changed? I don’t watch much TV these days, or see very many films. Are there any self-aware characters or situations about people who *do* realize they are in situations anticipated by the ideas of SF and fantasy? I’m guessing not, with perhaps some exceptions; to acknowledge such ideas would be weirdly self-referential, and perhaps too complex for the general audience.
There are, of course, many other possible takes on this film, including the obvious one that the idea of an ‘angel’ watching over one is fatuous. But the idea of alternate histories, based on the idea that any particular decision in one’s life can lead to different outcomes, is a basic philosophical notion.