Short Stories 366:360 — “The Greatest Gift,” by Philip Van Doren Stern

Every now and then I realize there’s a hole in my reading, and this was this year’s holiday realization: I’d never actually read the short story “It’s a Wonderful Life” was based on. It turns out, like most classic tales, it seems, Philip Van Doren Stern couldn’t find anyone to take the tale, and had to print this one himself, which he sent as a folio/Christmas Card to a few hundred people, and resulted in the story getting picked up by the people who would turn it into “It’s a Wonderful Life.” So, as is so often the case, the big publishers dropped the ball and figured something new and interesting wouldn’t fly, and he had to get it out there himself. Huh. Plus que change, eh?

Called “The Greatest Gift,” the short story is like a streamlined version of the movie plot, though toned a little bit down from the film, and without that ghastly final line from the kid (I know, I know, I’m a monster, but I’m sorry, that line is so awkward and so blurted and it’s unfair to expect child actors to carry important lines). There isn’t a catastrophic beginning, but rather a man who just feels like his life has done nothing of merit and is exhausted at feeling as though he’s done nothing impactful. The angel in question is more of an odd stranger, and he gives the man a bag of brushes so he can pose as a brush salesman to get himself in the door of the homes of people who no longer know him, since he was never born. This plays out thereafter, as he interacts with his wife, different versions of his children, his parents, and friends and co-workers.

Of course, he learns he’s had far more impact than he thought, begs the strange fellow for his life back, and learns his lesson after all: that being alive is the greatest gift, and the tale rests on something underlining that his experience wasn’t a hallucination (which was a nice touch, frankly). I think I find this story a bit more charming than the movie, if I’m honest, because it doesn’t quite hammer the angel/Heaven angle as heavily, and—I know, I’m a monster—no kid actor delivering cringeworthy lines about what the teacher says.

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