In celebration of the season, today I've got a special edition of Books on Film, featuring my very favorite holiday movie It's a Wonderful Life. It's a wonderful movie, but you probably don't know it's also a great short story. It's one of those rare tales that's got it all: angels, romance, Christmas, shattered dreams, scandal, money...even Jimmy Stewart.
One of the most beloved and most-watched Christmas classics of all time is based on a little-known short story called The Greatest Gift. It was written in 1943 by Phillip Van Doren Stern, revolving around a main character named George Pratt. The story opens on Pratt standing on a bridge, ready to commit suicide. He's approached by a bizarre little man in worn clothing. George tells the man that really, he wishes he had never even been born.
So the weird little man grants George Pratt his wish. The man gives George a bag he's carrying, and tells him to use it as part of a cover story that he's a door-to-door brush salesman (seriously). So George does it. He leaves the bridge and goes back home, only to learn that no one knows who the heck he is. His wife doesn't know him, and everyone he has ever known is different and strange. They are not the same people he knows, having made different choices in their lives than they did in George's reality. And tragically, his little brother, whom George saved in a pond accident, died at a young age instead.
George returns to the bridge to talk to the weird little man, who explains that life is the greatest gift of all. George asks the man to put everything back to normal. The man does, and George goes back home to see that everything's okay now.
The author of the story, Phillip Van Doren Stern, couldn't get it published. He printed 200 copies himself in booklet form, and sent them to friends as Christmas presents in 1943. He published it again in 1945, without much success.
Somehow, an RKO Pictures producer got ahold of the short story and showed it to Cary Grant, who was interested in playing the lead. RKO bought the rights and let several screenwriters kick it around before the studio sold the story to Frank Capra, one of the best storytellers film has ever known. He turned the 4,100-word story into a full-length film bordering on epic. Your life will be truly incomplete if you don't watch it at least once.
It's possible that Cary Grant could have played George Pratt, the leading man of The Greatest Gift. He could not have played George Bailey, the main character of It's a Wonderful Life. This is only one of many ways in which the original story was changed in Capra's hands.
James Stewart played George instead, and did an amazing job of it. Stewart's "everyman" quality made him perfect as George Bailey, and many actors study his performance when they film holiday-themed movies. The story doesn't open with suicide this time...it opens with God.
At the top, Wonderful Life, shows us the stars. We hear speaking, presumably it's God and His angels; discussion of a man named George Bailey. Something important is happening in George's life, and that gives a failed angel named Clarence yet another chance to earn his wings.
But he can't get the job done unless he knows a little something about this George Bailey, so we go back in time to his childhood. We see young boys playing around in the ice and snow, sledding down a hill. George's little brother, Harry, goes farther than anyone...straight into the thin ice over the pond. He falls in! George dives in and saves Harry's life, but it costs him an ear. He loses his hearing on that side permanently.
We see more of George's life unfold on film, and meet an entire cast of characters that includes little girls Violet and Mary, little boys like Sam Wainwright, and of course Ma and Pa Bailey. We even see Mr. Potter, the meanest and richest man in town, brilliantly played by Lionel Barrymore (Drew's great-uncle). As a boy, George Bailey longs to be an explorer, a traveler, anything to get himself out of Bedford Falls. That's the little town where George lives. He's got big dreams and big plans, and everyone knows he'll reach them. George is smart, ambitious and hard-working.
And when he's all grown up, about an hour into the film, he's Jimmy Stewart. Non-threateningly attractive, adorably uncertain of himself and completely sincere, Jimmy Stewart was made to be George Bailey. Donna Reed is gorgeous as grown-up Mary, and the romantic scenes between the two of them are just about as good as what you'll find anywhere.
Things don't always turn out the way we plan. They didn't turn out the way George Bailey had planned it. As it turns out, George didn't leave Bedford Falls at all. He didn't even go off to fight in the war, like so many others, because of his bum ear. George lived and worked in Bedford Falls, taking over the good old Bailey Building and Loan after his father's heart attack. It's the only reasonable option for owning a home in the town, because old man Potter is still alive and kicking and he runs the bank with an iron fist.
George hates the Bailey Building and Loan. He hates Bedford Falls. He hates his old house that's perpetually in need of fixing up. When silly old Uncle Billy makes another of his mistakes, this one a real whopper, George thinks about giving up. He goes to the bridge, in the snow, and prays.
That's when a weird, small, old man jumps into the water below. George jumps in after to pull the man out, and something strange happens. The little old man says that he jumped into the water to save George! He then grants George's wish, to never have been born.
Along with the two of them, we re-visit Bedford Falls. The town is now known as Pottersville, and it's totally not the place that George remembers at all. Old Man Gowers is all messed up, Harry is dead, Ma Bailey and Uncle Billy are in just awful shape, and Mary...Mary is a spinster who works in the library. It's almost too much to bear. It's certainly too much for George to bear.
Did I mention that all this is happening on Christmas Eve? Because of Uncle Billy's mistake, George is probably going to jail. The Bailey Building and Loan is going to close for sure, and Potter is going to win. He's going to win, and there's no telling what's going to happen to everyone else in the town once the Baileys go out of business.
But even so, George is ecstatic when the angel Clarence puts everything back to rights. The scene where Jimmy Stewart runs through Main Street, screaming "Merry Christmas" at various buildings along the way, is a cinematic event. And when he returns home...well, you're just going to have to watch it.
What Got Adapted?
The basic plot of It's a Wonderful Life is clearly based on the short story, but to turn this small tale into a big feature film Capra had to do a whole lot of expanding. He shifts the story to a third-person focus; we know that we are casual observers in this tale, seeing everything through the angel Clarence's eyes.
Capra had to name the town and the angel, and he had to invent the entire sub-plot involving the Bailey family business. Characters like Violet, Bert and Ernie were added entirely, as were many of the events of George's childhood. But if you read the story, you'll see the clear parallels. It's a short read, and perfect for the holiday season. When you're done, watch the story on film. It's a wonderful way to spend your time.