Book reviews are back and we’re already gearing up for Christmas! In honor of the 68th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, Simon & Schuster are releasing the original short story on which the film is based. A short foundation from which director Frank Capra expanded, Philip Van Doren Stern’s tale is a brief introduction to a Christmas legend.
The novel follows George Pratt (nee Bailey in the film) as he contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve. When a strange man starts talking to him, George wishes he was never born. The man grants George’s wish, leaving Pratt in a town where no one, not even his wife or parents, know who he is.
If you’ve watched Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 film then you’ll recognize the third act of the novel is intact. In fact, at 64 pages, in paperback form, this short story is just the third act, the infamous wish that pushes George to appreciate his life. The film expands and situates George’s wish in the grand context of his life failing to turn out like he’d hoped. By containing events to a sole moment in time, with absolutely no context or background on George Pratt, the first page has him on the bridge ready to jump – he comes off as an empty and selfish person.
Because this is such a brief story, the narrative is incredibly straightforward. I actually wonder how I’d feel without having seen the movie before. Having watched Capra’s tale, I knew more about George and his family so my mind filled in a lot of the blanks. Without that, the book reads as a cute, Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque Christmas story. It helps that there’s beautiful illustrations giving off a vibe similar to reading The Polar Express. There’s also an afterword by Van Doren Stern’s daughter, Marguerite, explaining the translation from page to screen.
This will certainly intrigue those who’ve watched the film and want to see how the source material compares. Honestly, this is an example of how a novel’s bedrock can be extrapolated further and turned into a film without losing any of the fundamentals from the source material. The book introduces our character and his dilemma, but Frank Capra expands to turn the character into a human. If you’ve never watched the film, this will certainly compel you to seek it out.
The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale comes out October 28th but you can get the Kindle edition, or pre-order other formats, now
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.