Every family has some honored traditions at this time of year, and for many, pulling out dusty copies of a favorite holiday film numbers among them. In my house, we watch that movie snuggled up under blankets, with big bowls of popcorn and mugs of frothy hot chocolate. My kids will likely choose It’s a Wonderful Life to be our film; they usually do.
This enduring holiday classic stars Jimmy Stewart in the type of role that defined him, the ordinary man who is profoundly extraordinary in every way that matters.
In It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart’s character, George Bailey begins to question his own worth. He’s crumbling under a tide of misfortune, and at his darkest hour, George considers ending his life. Instead, he meets a guardian angel named Clarence. Clarence hasn’t quite made the jump to fully-fledged angel by earning his coveted wings, and he hopes by restoring this one special man’s faith in himself, maybe he can save them both. In this film we learn that even the life of a small town nobody touches the lives of many other people, like ripples in a pond. Each life spreads outward, reaching into the far corners of the world, influencing the big picture in profound and surprising ways.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know this film and its uplifting story, but few know how close this story came to never seeing the bright lights of Hollywood or the adoration of millions. For this story, with all it’s big heart, memorable characters and a message of unerring faith and love, is a 1943 self-publishing success story.
Philip Van Doren Stern dreamed the bones of this story one winter night, and crafted it into an inspirational short story. After finishing it, he did what every other author does, he sent the project round to publishers, all of whom quickly rejected it. Stern took his own money and printed 200 hard cover copies. He called his book The Greatest Gift, it numbered less then 50 pages, but Stern wanted to share his story, hoping its message of redemption and community would resonate with others. He decided to send out all two hundred copies to his family and friends as a Christmas card.
A few years later, one of those two hundred copies landed in the hands of filmmaker Frank Capra, who loved the little unknown book. It sparked a deep passion inside Capra, and he quickly bought the rights, adapted the story into a script and filmed it. Capra finished the movie in time to release it for the 1949 Christmas season. It’s A Wonderful Life captured five Academy Award nominations, including one for the Best Picture category and still ranks on many fans’ favorite movie lists. Plus, it holds the American Film Institute’s number one spot for most inspirational American film of all time. Not bad for a story no one in the publishing industry wanted.
So in honor of Christmas, I give the writing world back Philip Van Doren Stern, an author with a story no one wanted to buy, who somehow, even after bitter rejection, found the faith to send his story out into the world, and watched as it changed lives.
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