It’s a Wonderful Life was cobbled together by no less than four writers, plus the director himself. That makes sense because of the nature of the source material written by Philip Van Doren Stern. The short story The Greatest Gift was originally published by Stern himself as something of a Christmas card for family and friends. The brevity of the story required a lot of fleshing out to provide background on the characters, as well as injecting a host of peripheral characters and a villain for the film. Still, the original story provides all of the basic material for the film. Stern’s agent was unable to sell the story for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was incredibly short, and the second is that it was considered a fantasy story. That’s when he had the idea to have it professionally printed and send it out as a Christmas card. What his agent was able to do, however, was sell the movie rights. It was originally purchased as a vehicle for Cary Grant, but it didn’t translate well in screenplay form. Finally Frank Capra bought the story with Jimmy Stewart in mind. Though the film was not initially a hit, Stewart personally thanked Capra for allowing him to appear in the film and recognized its timeless message. While the story took a tortuous route to get to the screen, Philip Van Doren Stern wound up writing one of the greatest stories ever told.
In Stern’s version the protagonist is George Pratt, and the story begins with George on the bridge considering suicide. Quietly, an older man tells him he shouldn’t be thinking about that, and should consider Mary and his mother. At first the impetus for his death seems fairly innocuous, that he’s stuck in a small town while other men his age have gotten out. But George also mentions that the Army wouldn’t take him, something that caused a lot of young men to take their lives at the beginning of World War Two. Then George wishes he’d never been born, to the delight of the old man who seems to feel this is the solution to everything and grants George’s wish. When the old man gives him a salesman’s sample case full of brushes, George tries to give it back and discovers the old man isn’t there. Heading back through town to go home, George sees that the bank where he works is closed and for sale. Across the street he sees a friend of his still at work in his office, but of course the friend doesn’t know him anymore. The friend tells him that the bank closed because the young man who applied for the job the same time that George did stole most of the cash and ran off, nearly bankrupting everyone in the small town. The thief’s brother, it turns out, married George’s girl, Mary Thatcher.
The most significant change to the story comes at this point in the tale. In the film there is a moment toward the end that never made a lot of sense to me. The angel, now named Clarence, has taken George Bailey on a tour of the crime-ridden town, showing George what things have become because of his absence. Finally, George wants to know what has become of his wife, Mary. Clarence doesn’t want to tell him and the audience fears the worst, especially after Clarence tells George he’s not going to like it. Then when George grabs him by the lapels the angel blurts out that she’s an old maid who never married. Rather than being a bad thing, in the context of the film this seems like a huge relief. I suppose that never finding love would have been bad for her, but it’s not nearly as bad for George as seeing her with another man. But that, of course, would be much more realistic, and that is exactly what Stern writes in his story. George knows that he can’t just blunder into her house first because it will be too upsetting for him, and so he goes to see his parents to find out a little more about her. While they tell her that she has two children, George can’t get his mind off of something that is different in the house, and that’s when he learns that his kid brother Harry had died at sixteen because George hadn’t been there to save him. He makes an awkward departure and then heads for Mary’s house.
George puts on his salesman’s act for her and she invites him in, where he’s barely able to speak because of his longing to be home with her as his wife. He meets the kids, who are brats just like her husband, and then the belligerent husband comes home and George leaves to save Mary any trouble with him. When George finds the old man back at the bridge he begs him to have his life back. Not for himself, but for the others in the town who are suffering because of his absence. The old man takes pity on George and the rest plays out like the film, with George visiting all of the places he had gone to and seeing them back to normal. In looking at what the screenwriters did on Capra’s project, it’s impressive. While the bank is still there in the original, the idea of the building and loan run by his father, and the father’s death keeping him trapped in town, is inspired. This allows for George’s uncle to lose the deposit money and create a genuine reason for his desperation and thoughts of suicide. The film even retains the title of Stern’s story, when Clarence tells George that he’s been given a great gift, to see what the world would be like without him. The book form of the story, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, is a beautiful volume with woodcut pictures and an afterward by Stern’s daughter. Like its title, Stern’s story could be said to be The Greatest Gift in cinematic history.