The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life - Philip Van Doren Stern

For almost seventy years, people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But few of those fans know that Capra’s film was based on a short story by author Philip Van Doren Stern, which came to Stern in a dream one night.  Unable at first to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man named George Pratt who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those 200 cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart, and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.





It's likely that most of us by now have seen the Christmas classic film It's A Wonderful Life at least once by now... but honestly probably multiple times thanks to that copyright loophole that had television stations running it on an almost constant loop for years during the holiday season (that's since been fixed, which is why you don't really see it on tv much anymore). Being a big fan of classic film in general, I remember watching a documentary years ago where the director of the film, Frank Capra, mentioned that the idea came from a Christmas card. Well, I thought he meant someone sent him a Christmas card, and a regular one at that -- you know, the typical snowy scene with a nice 1-2 line sentiment inside. Wrong on both counts it turns, but more on that in a bit.


If by chance you're not familiar with this story, it's a short little tale about a one Mr. George Pratt (changed to Bailey in Capra's film version). George is a good-hearted guy, very selfless nature, always doing everything he can for friends and family even if it means him going without... but during one particularly hard Christmas season where money is unbelievably tight and George feels like he's being crushed by the stress of it all, he in his darkest moment considers what the world would've been like without him altogether. From a place of momentary pain and hopelessness, he makes the wish for this to be so, a wish granted by the angel Clarence. Immediately, George is able to see all the things that would've never come to be had he not been in the world. Through these sights, George is taught the lesson that every soul is important, every soul has a purpose, even if we don't see it right off or if it seems too inconsequential an existence to matter... believe that it does.


That's the basic gist of the story. Now how this story came to be: Well, Van Doren Stern, an editor for a publishing house that printed travel-size books for armed service members, first wrote up the story in 1938 after being inspired by a particularly vivid dream. He tried to sell it for publication, but it seemed at the time no magazine or newspaper offices had any interest in buying it. Van Doren Stern already had some 40 or so books published to his name but they were primarily non-fiction topics. He suspected that maybe he wasn't fluid enough in fiction writing for the story to flow quite the way he intended. His agent theorized that the idea of the story -- an angel temporarily making someone non-existent -- was too fantastical for most markets at that time. Saturday Evening Post rejected it, heck -- Van Doren Stern said he couldn't even sell it to any of the farming magazines! So he stuck the piece away, taking it out every so often to make little revisions here and there. Finally, in 1943, Van Doren Stern decided to pay to have 200 copies of the 24 page printed up. He then sent these out to friends and family as a unique kind of Christmas card that year!


A studio exec at RKO Pictures got ahold of a copy. By March 1944 RKO bought the movie rights to the story. The studio soon ran into trouble though... they found that even with the most skilled writers they had, no one there could quite figure out how to successfully translate the story to screen. Legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra had just gotten back from serving in World War 2, got wind of the story and soon agreed to direct the picture, even taking on the rewriting of the script himself (much to the relief of those RKO execs!). Capra got in touch with old friend Jimmy Stewart (who had been in a few Capra films previously and also newly back from serving in WW2) and quickly got him signed on to play George Bailey. The film was released December 1946 and a classic was born! Eventually.... because the film wasn't a huge box office smash right out of the gate. It took years (and that copyright glitch mentioned above) to build up the audience of beloved fans the film now has today. People became so in love with the film, the original short story has since largely fallen into obscurity! In their later years, Stewart with 70+ movie credits to his name, Capra having written / directed over 50 films himself, both said It's A Wonderful Life was their very favorite film of their careers, Capra even went on to say it was the best film he ever made. 


So how to the film & book compare? Well, there might be a reason the film is more well remembered. I personally found that while the original short story is sweet, I think I am pulled in more by the nostalgia and yearning for simpler times it stirs up rather than the writing itself. It's tough to read that the story went through multiple revisions because even now it's good, but not epic. It's the type of story you might find in an anthology of holiday stories, enjoy in the moment, but then largely forget about. I'd say Capra's interpretation of Van Doren Stern's idea helped keep both versions circulating in the minds of generations of people since the film's release.


While you'll find much of Van Doren Stern's original dialogue worked into the film script and the opening sequence of George saving his drowning brother was kept in the film, there were some notable changes. For one thing, Clarence the angel was much more delightfully memorable in the film. In the book he poses as a random brush salesman, which I found a little odd but as some say, "It was a different time back then." :-P So instead of Zuzu's bell at the end of the film, book Clarence leaves the family one of his brushes... yaaaay. :-S Also changed: the idea of "spinster librarian Mary" from the film was actually "Mary marries one of George's oldest & dearest friends" in the book :-P Mean Old Man Potter, the nasty, manipulative banker that runs Bedford Falls? Not even mean in the book! Nope, he's just a simple photographer in town! Fun fact though: After the movie's release, there were whispers that the film could be interpreted as Communist propaganda because Old Man Potter made bankers look like such an evil sort! 


I'd still recommend checking out the original story if you come across a copy. It's a short little thing so you could probably even read it online for free somewhere. I may not have liked it quite as much as the film but hey, I still gave it four stars for the warm fuzzy holiday factor, that element is definitely there! But this is another one where you're really just doubling up on enjoyment if you experience the story and the film together. 


We may go through some seriously tough times now and then, but as Capra himself said once in an interview shortly before his passing, "It really IS a wonderful life..."


Happy Holidays, everyone!