Saturday, December 20, 2008

"The Greatest Gift" (short story)

(1943) By Philip Van Doren Stern
On Christmas Eve, George Pratt, a clerk at a small town bank, feeling his life has no meaning, decides to commit suicide. But a mysterious stranger grants him a wish -- that he was never born -- and he sees how life would have gone on without him.
Sound familiar? 
The Greatest Gift Except you probably thought I got George's name wrong.  I didn't, because I wasn't talking about It's a Wonderful Life.  I meant "The Greatest Gift," by Philip Van Doren Stern, the story upon which the movie was based.
Stern was  best known for writing Civil War histories, but was also an editor of anthologies of supernatural stories.  In the late 1930s, he had a dream that inspired him to write "The Greatest Gift." Finally, in 1943, he published his own edition of 400 copies and sent it to people as a Christmas card. Somehow, it got the attention of a movie producer and eventually wended its way to Frank Capra, who took quite avidly to the project.  The story was eventually anthologized in 1944 for its first mass publication.
Nowadays, people might see the name in the credits of It's a Wonderful Life and think no more about it.
I came upon the story in 1969, when it was reprinted in Stern's anthology, The Other Side of the Clock*.   In the introduction, it mentioned it was the basis for It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart.
A movie I hadn't ever seen.
While people assume the movie has always been a Christmas tradition, it wasn't always.  It had not been a big success in the beginning, and was just another old movie, perhaps of interest because it was directed by Frank Capra, but had no more resonance with the general public than Capra's American Madness**.  But in 1974, the copyright on the film lapsed and in a few years, it became a Christmas staple.
But back in 1969, it was pretty obscure.  Later, in college, I had seen more of Capra and liked it, so when I heard it was going to be on the air in August of 1973, I stayed up late to see it (the only other film meriting this at the time was King Kong).  As a consequence, I never connected it with Christmas*** (and, technically, the film does not take place on Christmas).
I wondered how Capra would handle the translation to film.  I thought it might be hard for him to fill in George's background and stretch things out to feature length.  Capra handled this brilliantly, but what I did find disappointing was George's reaction toward the end.  He was ridiculously slooooooow on the uptake and I got annoyed, wanting to shout at him, "You've never been born!  Deal with it!"  In the story, George understands what's happening two pages after it happens.
There are other differences.  For instance, in the story, it's shown that alternate Mary is married to an alcoholic bully of a husband; in the movie, she is an old maid. This might be construed that it's worst possible thing for a woman to be unmarried, though I suspect there were censorship issues:  if Mary had another husband the censors might have considered it bigamy or some condemnation of marriage.
More interesting is the difference in George Pratt's life.  He's not the head of the Savings and Loan; he's just a low-level clerk there.  He thinks his job is a dead end, and he did nothing important or even useful.  When he sees what life was without him, he realizes that sometimes even an unimportant job can make a great deal of difference****.
While the movie is a Christmas classic (though I think it's a bit overrated, owing to my perspective on it), I think the story is worth seeking out, just to see how things get changed for the movies.
*A superb collection of stories dealing with time and the fourth dimension, including stories like ". . . And it Comes Out Here" by Lester Del Ray), "And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert Heinlein, and several others.
**A movie about a bank president who believes in investing in people and who, when he suddenly comes up short of cash, is saved when all the people in the community and his friends from all around raise the money to help him.  Sound familiar?
***I had forgotten that the original story took place around Christmas.
****That's another argument I have with the movie.  George Bailey has done so many important things in his life -- important to the community, if not to the world -- that it doesn't make sense for him to believe everyone would be better off if he were dead.  All the stuff pointed out to him by Clarence were things he should have noticed without Clarence's intervention.

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