‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Star Wars’ are basically the same movie

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...
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I posted something the other day about how much I like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and over the past 18 months, I’ve posted several things about “Star Wars,” and last night I realized something:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Star Wars” are basically the same movie:

It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey is a small-town boy who can’t wait to leave home and travel around the world.
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker is a small-town boy who can’t wait to leave home and travel throughout the galaxy.

It’s a Wonderful Life: George postpones college to help his father with the family’s building and loan.
Star Wars: Luke postpones going to the academy to help his uncle with the family farm.

It’s a Wonderful Life: When it’s time for George to finally leave, George’s father asks him to stay a while longer.
Star Wars: When it’s time for Luke to finally leave, Luke’s uncle asks him to stay a while longer.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Soon after talking with George about leaving home, George’s father dies of a heart attack.
Star Wars: Soon after talking with Luke about leaving home, Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed in a stormtrooper attack.

It’s a Wonderful Life: With his father gone, George has no choice but to run a building and loan, like his father.
Star Wars: With his aunt and uncle gone, Luke has no choice but to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi Knight, like his father.

The three lead protagonists of Star Wars, from...
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It’s a Wonderful Life: George’s family business is threatened Potter, whose haranguing helped drive George’s father to the grave.
Star Wars: Luke’s friends in the rebellion are threatened by Vader, who betrayed and murdered Luke’s father (kind of).

It’s a Wonderful Life: George is jealous of his friend, Sam Wainwright, who used to date George’s wife, Mary.
Star Wars: Luke his jealous of his friend, Han Solo, who’d like to, um, “date” Princess Leia.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Potter tries to destroy the Bailey Building and Loan Association by hiring George away.
Star Wars: Vader tries to destroy the Jedi Knights by turning Luke to the Dark Side of the Force.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Uncle Bill accidentally gives Potter $8,000 in cash. Potter hopes the mistake will finally crush the building and loan.
Star Wars: Vader tracks the Millennium Falcon to the Rebels’ secret base, where he hopes to finally crush the rebellion.

It’s a Wonderful Life: As the bank examiner and sheriff prepare to arrest George, George receives a telegram: “Mr. Gower cables you need cash. Stop. My office instructed to advance you up to $25,000. Stop. Hee-haw and merry Christmas, Sam Wainwright.”
Star Wars: “Yee-haw, now let’s blow this thing so we can go home!”

In the earlier post about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I mentioned Roger Ebert’s review where he calls the movie “ageless,” and I think what makes it work as well now as it did when it was release 65 years ago is that George Bailey’s story is the essentially same as every hero’s story:

George Bailey might not save the galaxy, but he gives up a life of travel and adventure to raise a family and make his hometown a better place to live, and if that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.

Cool hand, Luke

I finally let Thing 2 (the 5-year-old) watch Star Wars. We watched the original trilogy over a period of about a week.

We watched the movies together. I explained the parts he didn’t understand and, when things got scary, I told him to cover his eyes or reminded him that it was only pretend, and I fibbed my way through what I thought might be the really disturbing parts (I said they were only burning Darth Vader’s costume on the pyre at the end of “Return of the Jedi”).

I thought he’d have questions about Luke Skywalker being Vader’s son and Princess Leia’s brother, but he took both revelations in stride. His only question came a couple days after we watched “The Empire Strikes Back,” on our way home from preschool.

“Dad,” he said, “where’s Luke’s hand?”

“Well, Darth Vader cut it off with his lightsaber,” I said, thinking maybe I’d made a mistake and that he wasn’t old enough to watch the movies, even though most of his friends had.

“But he gets it back, right?”

“Well, they give him a new hand, remember? On the spaceship, at the end of the movie? They give him a mechanical hand.”

“But where’s his real hand?”

“It, uh, fell.”

He was quiet then, but he asked me about Luke’s hand again the next day and the next, and I then realized he wasn’t thinking about Luke Skywalker as much as he was Mark Hamill, who played him. He wanted to know what happened to the actor’s hand in the scene where it looked like it got cut off.

“That was just pretend. He just pulled his sleeve down over his hand so you couldn’t see it, but it was still there, like this,” I said, pulling my sleeve down over my hand.

He understood and demonstrated to Sweetie when she got home from work.

I thought everything was OK until a few days after we’d watched “Return of the Jedi.”

“Dad, what happened to the snow monster’s arm?

“What do you mean?”

“When Luke cut it off. He didn’t have any sleeves. Where’d his arm go?”

PHOTO: Luke’s mechanical hand, from The Empire Strikes Back. Part of last summer’s Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination movie prop exhibit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala.

The 17-minute rule

I learned about the 17-minute rule a few years ago when I was reading a book about screenwriting. 

The idea is that the first act of pretty much any movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, or about 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

Act I is the setup. We meet the characters, figure out when and where we are, and then something happens that starts the ball rolling. The hero passes a threshold of sorts, and there’s no going back.

Here’s an example:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

It isn’t just old movies that follow the 17-minute rule:

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.

In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17” rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.

How come?

Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens next. Later, we just get bored.

Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins, and when I check the clock, we’re usually around the 17-minute mark.