Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: The Greatest Gift

This little story by Philip Van Doren Stern is the one that inspired the movie It's a Wonderful Life. I picked it up on a whim off the holiday shelf at the public library. Like many families, we watch the movie perennially, and I was curious to learn its roots.

The story itself is very simple as compared to the movie. There is little character development, and some of the best known characters from the movie are missing, i.e. Potter, Uncle Billy, Violet, and the policeman/cab driver duo. Yet the book is charming in a simple way, and the 50th anniversary edition pictured here has appealing black and white drawings. It's a quick read~~our family finished it in half an hour.

I found the most interesting part of the book was the afterword, written by Van Doren Stern's daughter. In it she traces the history of this little story, beginning with how the idea for it simply dropped into her father's mind while he was shaving on a February morning in 1938. In his own words:

"The idea came to me complete from start to finish--a most unusual occurrence, as any writer will tell you, for ordinarily a story has to be struggled with, changed around and mixed up."

Mr. Van Doren Stern never considered changing the initial idea, but knew that he had to learn to write it. His usual genre was Civil War history, so this was quite different from his normal realm of work. He wrote his first draft a couple of months later and declared it "terrible." He put it away for a season.

Two years later, he pulled it out and tried writing it again. The results the second time were little better than the first.

In the spring of 1943, five years after the idea came to him, Stern rewrote the story for the third time. This time he passed it on to his agent, who tried unsuccessfully to sell the story to magazines such as Saturday Evening Post. No one would touch it.

Van Doren Stern tells what happened next:

"By this time I had become fond of the story that nobody wanted. I revised it again and had 200 twenty-four-page pamphlets printed at my own expense. I sent these out as Christmas cards for Christmas, 1943."

Wouldn't you love to own one of those Christmas cards today?

That mailing produced a contact that led to the purchase of the story for movie rights. But because no one could work out a decent screen treatment, there was another time lapse of several years.

Enter Frank Capra. He wanted it for Jimmy Stewart, who had just finished his time with the Air Force. He found the screenwriters he needed and It's a Wonderful Life was released in December 1946.

The film has a quality that transcends time-- it's message celebrates the worth of the individual.

"I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody had ever made."~~Frank Capra

I think I am most fascinated by the fact that this little story lay dormant for a long, long while before it was ever recognized as being significant. The writer was the humble servant of an important truth: that the individual has great value. But in order to transmit that truth in a worthy way, he had to take the time to hone his writing skills. This small book is a gem in its own way. It is not fine literature, but it is the author's personal best. And that inspired other great artists to run with the idea and transport it across continents and even generations.
Oh, the power of a living idea combined with the pen of a scribe!

1 comment:

Peregrina said...

What a wonderful background. I appreciate how he was moved by the story, even though no one else seemed to be...because it was personal to him and he owned it.

And just so you know, we all love you and are praying for you up here.