If there’s one movie that airs every year on Christmas it’s It’s a Wonderful Life. For decades this movie has been watched almost religiously by many and those people even consider to be the best Christmas movie ever made. In fact, Jimmy Stewart, the actor who plays George, has said this was his favorite movie he’s ever done. What some people are not aware of is that this movie is based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern.
First, some background. According to the book’s afterword written by Stern’s daughter, Marguerite, Stern came up with the story’s plot while shaving on February 12, 1938. He rewrote several times until he finally gave it to his agent in 1943. Nobody wanted it. Marguerite decided to send people this story as a Christmas card and in 1944 Stern sold the movie rights to the story, but it took some time until Frank Capra got his hands on it and asked Jimmy Stewart to star in it. The rest is history.
So, what is the plot of the story? Bank worker George Pratt (“wait, Pratt? Isn’t his name Bailey?” you may be asking. In the movie, yes. In the story, it’s Pratt.) tries to commit suicide but is stopped by a mysterious stranger. Pratt says that everyone would be better if he was never born, and the stranger grants that wish. Pratt goes around his town to see how life would be if he was never born and learns that he made an impact on so many people.
It’s basically the third act of the movie but with a lot of differences. They are George’s last name is Pratt instead of Bailey, George’s wife Mary married someone else instead of never marrying, George is a bank employee instead of owning a building and loan, George saved Harry from drowning when they went swimming in a lake instead of freezing to death while sledding, the town is never named, the guardian angel is never named and is not called a guardian angel and there’s no Mr. Potter.
With that out of the way, it’s still a wonderful story. The reason many people love it is that many people feel that their life is worthless and that things would be better for everyone if they never lived. In reality, this is wrong and that you as a person has touched the lives of many people even if you don’t get much out of it. It’s a thought many people have had and still have, but for some, there is no guardian angel.
The fact that the town isn’t named is perfect. This story taking place in Anytown USA and making George an average person resonates a lot more with a lot more people than if the town was named or if he was wealthy.
It’s also not a complicated or long story because it doesn’t need to be. It gets right to the point and that point is made perfectly. Yes, some people may find it cheesy but for many others, it resonates.
If you can track down a copy, go ahead and get it and read it during Christmas. While it’s a super-condensed version of the movie (the movie would’ve only been about ten minutes if they followed the story to the letter) but it’s still worth reading it alongside watching the movie. It’s the type of Christmas card you’d actually want and treasure for the rest of your life.