Their Wonderful Lives

by James Wallace Harris

Do you look back over your life tallying a long list of regrets? Do you fantasize about taking roads not taken? Are there people you wished you had thanked, or expressed your love, or just gotten to know? Do you remember saying things you wished you hadn’t? Are there ambitions you regret not chasing? Are you the kind of person that wishes they had some do-overs? Well, I have a book for you – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It belongs to a group of books and movies that represent a tiny subgenre of fantasy about living life over:

The Midnight Library is a current bestseller that came out in August. It’s attracting bookworms like crazy for its feel-good inspirations. The Midnight Library offers the same kind of life lessons found in It’s A Wonderful Life, Replay, and Groundhog Day. Evidently, if we’re allowed to live our lives over, we would all learn similar insights. Could that be true? Can we learn just as much by consuming stories about characters with life do-overs?

In The Midnight Library Nora Seed is a 35-year-old woman full of regrets who commits suicide but finds herself not in heaven or hell, but a library. Nora lived in the small town of Bedford, England. Remember, George Bailey lived in the small New England town of Bedford Falls. Unlike George, Nora doesn’t get to see what Bedford would have been without her, instead, she gets to relive her life in countless ways based on taking different forks in her past. That’s somewhat like what Jeff Winston gets to do in the novel Replay who lives his whole life over and over trying different paths each time, and a little bit like Phil Connors experiences in Groundhog Day.

The creator of these stories teach us a kind of philosophy by showing us lives lived over, or even over and over. I do not want to spoil The Midnight Library for you, so I won’t go into its unique plot details or metaphysical conjectures. Let’s just say I found it a very compelling idea for a fantasy pick-me-up.

Have you ever pictured yourself dying and instead of being reborn into any of the traditional religious destinations, imagine yourself coming to in some higher dimension with the true meaning of existence coming back to you? Sort of the ultimate V-8 head slapping moment where you exclaim, “Oh, that’s what life was all about! Now I remember.” Something impossible to comprehend or predict in this life.

I have often wondered that. It’s not what Nora Seed experiences in The Midnight Library, but her story offers an interesting alternative like that. If I had to place a bet, I’d bet that death is oblivion. But it sure would be nice if after dying we found ourselves in some kind of logical reality where all of our existence on Earth made good sense.

Fantasies like The Midnight Library, Replay, Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life offer a kind of existential hope, a fairytale for adults. The Midnight Library was one of the few bright spots of 2020.

JWH

13 thoughts on “Their Wonderful Lives”

      1. I have had a social anxiety disorder that I am only now shrugging off in a major way that feels like a complete turning point in my life. I look back at decisions in my life in the way of “I could not have acted differently at the time, being the person that I was”. I actively had to make peace with my own past this way. So maybe this book will feel like a confirmation of that new perspective.

        By the way, have you read Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I’ve seen it mentioned as being very similar to this book, but darker in tone.

  1. I think we’ve talked before about Jo Walton’s Lent, which I call a historico-theologico-fantasy (Cory Doctorow called it “Dante does Groundhog Day” but I’d go more with Milton). It’s a lot heavier than Phil Connors or even George Bailey, but if you can tolerate a lot of Renaissance humanism and deep Catholic theology, it’s incredibly interesting.

  2. Maybe I’ve read too much Science Fiction Time Travel stories so I’m not tempted by changing my past decisions. Sure, it sounds good to contemplate a change in career paths or dating different girls. But the Law of Unintended Consequences always raises its ugly head and bites you. I’m happy with my Life and have no major regrets other than not buying AMAZON stock when it was $50 a share.

  3. Have you ever heard of a film that mixes film noir with fantasy the title is Repeat Performance (1947, Eagle-Lion). Opening with an off-screen narration (reportedly by John Ireland) who provides viewers what to expect: “The stars look down on New Year’s Eve in New York. They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our year is planned ahead and nothing can change destiny. Is this true? How many times have you said, “I wish I can live this year over again?” This is the story of a woman who did relive one year of her life.” It’s a few minutes before the start of 1947 and the streets of New York are full of merry celebrants. In her luxury apartment nearby, however, famous Broadway actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) stands over the corpse of husband Barney (Louis Hayward); in her hand is the gun with which she’s just shot him. What could have brought her to this pass? There’s a thunder of fists on the apartment door and a chorus of shouts from beyond it. Casting the gun aside, Sheila flees—out into the streets and to a club where her friend, the poet William Williams (Richard Basehart, who was making his screen debut) is drinking with actress Bess Michaels (Benay Venuta) and English playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field). Sheila tells the sympathetic William what she’s done, and he suggests they go ask the advice of Broadway producer John Friday (Tom Conway), a kind and generous man who’s an angel in more senses than one . . . especially to Sheila, whom she clearly adores from, figuratively speaking at least, afar. However, as Sheila and William approach the door of Friday’s apartment, she wishes aloud that 1946 had never happened at all, that she could relive it avoiding all the pitfalls that made it such a rotten year for her—and, in fact, for William. She turns on the stairs to discover that William is no longer with her. And, speaking moments later with a bewildered Friday, she slowly begins to understand to the fact that the new year that’s just beginning isn’t 1947 after all: it’s 1946. Just as she wished for, she’s been given the chance to relive the year. What errors will she avoid making? For one, she’ll refuse to go to London for a season in the West End there; that’s what she did in 1946 the first time around, and it left husband Barney fully exposed to the charms of playwright Paula Costello. Second, she’ll warn friend William to steer clear of controlling socialite Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer), involvement with whom during the year led to his incarceration in an insane asylum. And so 1946 begins to replay itself for Sheila. Whatever she tries to do to forestall the dire events of her first experience of the year—such as refusing to go to London—circumstances manipulate themselves to produce the same consequences. In the matter of London, Paula’s play, Say Goodbye, is instead brought to Broadway and, while Friday promises Sheila he’ll make sure the playwright herself remains in the United Kingdom, she arrives anyway . . . and soon her affair with Barney is in full swing. As New Year approaches once more . . .there’s a different ending to 1946 than there was the first time around. (Spoiler Alert) Different, at least, in some important ways: William Williams shoots Barney dead as he realizes that: “Destiny’s a stubborn old girl, Sheila. She doesn’t like people interfering with her plans. But we tricked her, didn’t we? Anyway, I don’t think she cares about the pattern so long as the result is the same.” The chaos inherent in Repeat Performance’s conclusion—that you can change the small things but the irresistible force of destiny will ensure the big things go unaltered, and the big things are usually the catastrophes—has led to the movie being sometimes described as a film noir, and I think this is a reasonable case to make. At the same time, there’s a sense that, after the closing credits roll, the wholesome central characters of the tale—Sheila, Friday, William—will in due course prevail, that this rejection is only a temporary condition, that the friendships between those three are more powerful in affecting destiny than the destructive instincts of Barney and Paula can ever be. Repeat Performance was directed by Alfred L. Werker, became this independent studio’s initial attempt on a major motion picture. Taken from a 1941 novel by William O’Farrell, and starring Louis Hayward and Joan Leslie, Repeat Performance has often been compared to an earlier release of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946, RKO) starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, in a story set on Christmas Eve revolving around a man getting his chance to see how his life would have been had he not been born. For Repeat Performance, set on New Year’s Eve, the central character here wants to relive her previous year so to amend any mistakes made resulting to her tragic outcome.

    1. I haven’t heard of Repeat Performance before, but I found a copy on YouTube to watch. WatchNow says there are no streaming outlets for it. Nor is it available on DVD. That’s a shame that so many neat old movies are disappearing. I’ll look at it tonight. Thanks.

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