Back in 2013 Hollywood announced a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life. Thankfully the project never happened and hopefully it never will. It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic American film that is best honored by leaving it completely alone.
In 1977 the film was remade as a made-for-TV movie. It was horrible. But you’ll have to recall that in 1977 It’s a Wonderful Life was not the Christmas classic it is today, even though it was 30-years old by that point.
The strange path that It’s a Wonderful Life took to nearly untouchable status as THE film of Christmas came about because of television in the 1970s. It was played over and over right around the time the made-for-TV remake was issued. That repetitive viewing is what built its reputation.
The remake was titled It Happened One Christmas and they mixed up more than just the title. Marlo Thomas – yes, That Girl – played Mary Hatch, a suicidal woman worried for her family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, which she inherited from her father. If that twist alone isn’t enough to sell you on how bad this remake was consider this: Cloris Leachman played the angel – named Clara, not Clarence. Wayne Rogers, yes, Trapper from MASH, played George.
That remake is a lesson in why you can’t remake a classic — not that somebody won’t try at some point. After all they did it with Miracle on 34th Street. And they did it with the How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
So we’re not advocating a remake by any stretch of the imagination.
But knowing that someday someone will do it, we’re laying down some opinion right now about how it should be done.
First, don’t change the story or the time period. Play it straight. They did that with The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street. But you can’t do that with It’s a Wonderful Life. The story really only fits with the America of the 1920s to the 1940s.
Forget about modernizing it. In this day and age there aren’t many George Baileys and there are not many Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. They existed then. Keep it then.
Second of all, don’t change it into something it is not. It is not a comedy. It is not a special effects showcase. It is a simple story – a love story, a family story and a Christmas story.
Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such a favorite are the classic characters. That would make the remaking of it such a challenge. How do you recreate that?
In my mind it comes from superior casting – actors that can really act.
With that in mind, here is how we would re-cast It’s a Wonderful Life with today’s actors and actresses:
George Bailey – Jake Gyllenhaal
George was a successful character because he was flawed. We see everything in George Bailey – despair, anger, sheer euphoria. The guy was normal but he had a goodness to him that was visible down to his shoes. The everyman quality of Jimmy Stewart sold the whole film and so would the casting of that role in particular in a remake.
You need a guy who can pull that off – who can be good, but not too good.
We recommend Jake Gyllenhaal. He can stammer, he can look goofy, he can be angry.
Others we would consider: Christian Bale, Harry Connick Jr.
Henry F. Potter – Anthony Hopkins
Lionel Barrymore has to be one of the more subtle villains in Christmas movie history. You never get the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Potter get what he deserves and you pity his character more than you hate him. But he’s a crucial part of the story and one that needs a deft touch. Anthony Hopkins can be deliciously deft.
Others we would consider: Christopher Plummer, Geoffrey Rush, John Goodman, Tommy Lee Jones
Mary Bailey – Amy Adams
Tough call. Donna Reed has to be the hardest on this list to replace. Mary Bailey is steady and not overly emotional, at least compared to George. But she is feminine, attractive and in love with George no matter what. Amy Adams could never be Donna Reed. But she could be Mary Bailey.
Others we would consider: Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman
Clarence Oddbody – Jeff Bridges
Clarence has such innocence. He IS an angel, despite his dimwittedness and his outdated view on things. You need someone who can play the lighter side as well as making the point as any of Dicken’s ghosts. Jeff Bridges could pull that off.
Others we would consider: JK Simmons, Robert Duvall
Uncle Billy – Jack Nicholson
Uncle Billy is old. He’s a bit of a problem that everyone overlooks – until there is real trouble. Then he just falls to pieces. He’s whimsical and pathetic all at the same time. Who else can do that besides Jack Nicholson?
Others we would consider: Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Paul Giamatti
Ma Bailey – Susan Sarandon
Small part. But it cannot be overlooked. Must be able to play two kinds of Ma Bailey – the real and the rude. Sarandon gets the nod here.
Others we would consider: Kathy Bates, Sigourney Weaver
Violet – Drew Barrymore
Violet is a character that showcases another side to George Bailey – a couple of times and in a couple of ways. Harder to pick this one than meets the eye. The connection, of course, to Lionel Barrymore would be made by any reviewer and that would be a shame. Drew Barrymore would be perfect for this.
Others we would consider: Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence
Bert-the-Cop – Russell Crowe
Bert the cop gets a lot of action sequences. He’s a tough guy with a golden heart – a cop everyone knows and can talk to. Russell Crowe could pull him off.
Others we would consider: Mark Wahlburg, Liam Hemsworth
Harry Bailey – Chris Pine
Good looking, athletic, popular with the ladies, and a war hero. Captain Kirk will do – minus the attitude. All Chris Pine has to do is look good in this role and he can do that.
Others we would consider: Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling
Ernie-the-Cab-Driver – Bill Murray
Not a huge role but one requiring some comedic skills. Could Bill Murray pull off being buds with Russell Crowe? It could happen.
Others we would consider: Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell
Mr. Gower – William H. Macy
Another small but crucial role that would require different looks – and William H. Macy just looks like Mr. Gower.
Others we would consider: Sam Elliott, Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Irons
Sam Wainwright – Matthew McConaughey
Sam’s annoying. McConaughey is annoying. A match made in heaven.
Others we would consider: Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise
The great thing about an exercise like this is that nobody is right – and everyone will likely have an opinion. You could argue over this during Pumpkin Spice latte season for weeks at a time and never get mad and never agree.
We hope, in all sincerity, it never comes down to this. That would forever make this exercise entertainment. To have to do it in real life would be painful.