WARNING!! Beyond this place, there be SPOILERS!!!
The short story was destined for obscurity: No one would publish it. But author/historian Philip Van Doren Stern’s belief in his short story The Greatest Gift proved to be that work’s salvation. His self-publication of his work lead to It’s a Wonderful Life, produced and directed by Frank Capra.
The movie faced a similar fate in 1946. Barely breaking even at the box office, there was no interest in re-releasing it in subsequent years. If not for the advent of television and a clerical error many years later, It’s a Wonderful Life would not have its place in the hearts and minds of moviegoers, or in cinematic history.
George (Bailey in the movie, Pratt in the short story) becomes so depressed with his life that he wishes he was never born. A stranger grants him his wish, and George sees what life would be like without him. Seeing that the town and the lives of his family and friends are changed for the worst, George repents of his attitude and appreciates life anew.
Comparing the short story to the movie shows the creativity of the screenwriters, as well as the liberties they can take with the originals. Gift is basically the third act of Life, where George gets the opportunity to see what his hometown would be like if he was never born. Life borrows some events and details from the short story to build the first two thirds of the movie. The idea of an angel helping George is not explicitly stated in the short story; just a man who shows up at the bridge who talks George out of jumping. But the mysterious man is made into an angel named Clarence, an apprentice angel who’s assigned to keep George from committing suicide. As in Gift, Clarence shows up just as George decides to jump from the bridge. Before Clarence goes to earth, he is introduced to George by seeing his life up to the fateful moment. In doing so, we see the events and disappointments that have kept George from leaving home and traveling abroad and contribute to his depression.
Many elements of Life that make the film so memorable are not in Gift. The town of Bedford Falls (not even named in the short story) itself is as great a character as George, Mary, Clarence, Uncle Billy and Old Man Potter. George’s courtship of Mary, the dance, the face-offs with Potter and the savings and loan are all inventions of the screenwriters. The film’s third act is more dramatic than Gift, and very dark. George sees Bedford Falls turned into a city of sin, his friends and loved ones become cynical and depressed shells, and even little things that involved him enlarged to negative proportions. In Gift, George sees just three events that are changed by his absence – a tree that he damages, the visit with his parents, and seeing Mary with a different family – that play out in a low key yet impacting manner.
Gift is smaller in scope than Life, but it still brings home its message with quiet grace. Both short story and movie convey Stern’s idea of the importance and value of an individual’s life in the scheme of things. Set against the backdrop of Christmas gives that message a bit of sentimentality, especially in Life, but its impact stands despite. On page and on film, life is truly the greatest gift of all.
The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Book gives a rich history of the classic film, including the screenplay of the final version. Available at CCLS and PINES.
The novelization of It’s a Wonderful Life is available through PINES. Please ask Staff for assistance in obtaining this and other book titles.
The film of It’s a Wonderful Life will broadcast on NBC television on Friday, December 14 at 8 pm. Click here to to see a parody of the film (I won’t spoil the surprise!)