The Greatest Gift

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The Greatest Gift
Author Philip Van Doren Stern
Country United States
Language English
Genre Fantasy
Publisher Cluster Publishing Ltd
Publication date
1943 (written)
1945 (published)
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 48 pp
ISBN 978-0957025509

"The Greatest Gift" is a 1943 short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern which became the basis for the film It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

The film was nominated for five Oscars and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made,[1] placing number 11 on its initial 1998 greatest movie list and also placed number one on its list of the most inspirational American films of all time.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

George Pratt, a man who is dissatisfied with his life, contemplates suicide. As he stands on a bridge on Christmas Eve 1943, he is approached by a strange, unpleasantly dressed but well-mannered man with a bag. The man strikes up a conversation, and George tells the man that he wishes he had never been born. The man tells him that his wish has been granted and that he was never born. The man tells George that he should take the bag with him and pretend to be a door-to-door brush salesman if anyone addresses him.

George returns to his town, and discovers that no one knows him. His friends have taken different and often worse paths through life due to his absence. His little brother, whom he had saved from death in an ice-skating accident, perished without George to rescue him. George finds the woman he knows as his wife married to someone else. He offers her a complimentary upholstery brush, but he is forced to leave the house by her husband. Their son pretends to shoot him with a toy cap gun, and shouts, "You're dead. Why won't you die?"

George returns to the bridge and questions the strange man. The man explains that George wanted more when he had already been given the greatest gift of all: the gift of life. George digests the lesson and begs the man to return his life. The man agrees. George returns home and finds everything restored to normal. He hugs his wife and tells her that he thought he had lost her. She is confused. As he is about to explain, his hand bumps a brush on the sofa behind him. Without turning around, George knows the brush was the one he had presented to her earlier.


  • George Pratt, a suicidal man, who wishes he was never born
  • The Stranger, George's guardian angel, who grants George's wish
  • Mary Thatcher, George's wife
  • James 'Jim' Silva, owner of a real estate company that's selling the bank
  • Arthur 'Art' Jenkins, Mary's husband in the parallel town
  • Pa Pratt, George's father
  • Ma Pratt, George's mother
  • Harry Pratt, George's brother
  • Brownie, Pa and Ma's bulldog
  • Marty Jenkins, Arthur's brother, and thief who stole $50,000 from the bank
  • Hank Biddle, owner of the maple tree George crashed his car into
  • Mr. Potter, owner of a photography studio


Inspired by a dream, remarkably[editorializing] similar to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol published in 1843,[citation needed] Stern finished the 4,100 word short story in 1943 after working on it since November 1939.[1] Unable to find a publisher, he sent the 200 copies he had printed as a 21-page booklet[3] to friends as Christmas presents in December 1943. Stern privately published the short story in 1945, and it was copyrighted in 1945.[1]

The story came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to actor Cary Grant. Grant became interested in playing the lead role. RKO purchased the motion-picture rights for $10,000 in April 1944.[4] After several screenwriters worked on adaptations, RKO sold the rights to the story in 1945 to Frank Capra's production company for the same $10,000, which he adapted into It's a Wonderful Life.

The story was first published as a book in December 1944, with illustrations by Rafaello Busoni. Stern also sold it to Reader's Scope magazine, which published the story in its December 1944 issue, and to the magazine Good Housekeeping, which published it under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born" in its January 1945 issue (published in December 1944).

The special edition pictured was brought back to life in 2009 by Graphic Image Inc.


At the suggestion of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner, Frank Capra read "The Greatest Gift" and immediately saw its film potential. In 1945, RKO, anxious to unload the project sold the rights to Capra's production company, Liberty Films, which had a nine-film distribution agreement with RKO, for $10,000, and threw in three scripts adaptations for free. Capra claimed the script was purchased for $50,000.00.[5] Capra, along with writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and Dorothy Parker brought in to "polish" the script,[6] turned the story and fragments from the three scripts into a screenplay that Capra renamed It's a Wonderful Life. The script underwent many revisions throughout pre-production and during filming.[7] Final screenplay credit went to Goodrich, Hackett and Capra, with "additional scenes" by Jo Swerling.

In the film, the main character (renamed George Bailey) was played by James Stewart, the angel Clarence was played by Henry Travers and George's wife (renamed Mary Hatch) was played by Donna Reed. The names for some characters in the film were taken from characters in the story, but given different personalities or roles in the story (e.g., Mr. Potter owned a photography studio in the story, but was a conniving banker in the film). In the reality in which George was never born, Mary never marries in the film, but in the story she marries a man named Art Jenkins.


  1. ^ a b c "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 MOVIES10TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  2. ^ "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 CHEERS". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  3. ^ Library of Congress catalog entry for the 1943 edition.
  4. ^ "Tempest in Hollywood", New York Times, April 23, 1944, p. X3.
  5. ^ Capra 1971, p. 376.[incomplete short citation]
  6. ^ Cox 2003, p. 23.[incomplete short citation]
  7. ^ Goodrich et al. 1986, pp. 135, 200.[incomplete short citation]

Additional reading[edit]