Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore gave life to Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But before they could, the story had to emerge from the desk of a man sitting alone at night, writing down his bleeding heart. That man was Phillip Van Doren Stern. He began writing the story “The Greatest Gift” in 1939 and finished it in 1943. When Stern couldn’t find a publisher, he printed 200 copies himself to give as gifts for Christmas that year. Though it appeared in magazines afterward under different titles, including “The Man Who Was Never Born”, the story wasn’t copyrighted until 1945, a year before the film was made.
The original of “The Greatest Gift” was just 21 pages, later expanded to 48 pages. It was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which had been published exactly a century earlier, in 1843.