This reading group guide for The Greatest Gift includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
While people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, few fans know that the film was based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Unable to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man who ponders suicide until he sees what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those two hundred cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart; and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.
A classic in its own right, The Greatest Gift contains an afterword by Stern’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson, that tells the story of how her father’s Christmas card became the movie beloved by generations of people around the world.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Had you seen It’s a Wonderful Life before reading The Greatest Gift? If so, do you think that the film influenced your reading? In what ways? Were you surprised to learn that the film was based on a story? If you had not watched It’s a Wonderful Life before reading The Greatest Gift, did reading the story make you want to see the film? Why or why not?
2. Philip Van Doren Stern called The Greatest Gift “the story that nobody wanted,” recounting how his agent tried and failed to sell it to many magazines. Did this surprise you? Why do you think the magazines rejected the story?
3. The American Film Institute considers It’s a Wonderful Life one of the greatest films ever made, and it has become a classic. The Greatest Gift has been published multiple times in the 1940s and is now available as a holiday edition. What do you think accounts for the ongoing appeal of the story? What did you like most about it?
4. Did you like George when you first encountered him? Why or why not? How did your opinion of him change?
5. The stranger George meets as he is about to commit suicide remains unnamed in The Greatest Gift. Why do you think Stern decided not to name him? Initially George views him resentfully and finds him to be “a most unremarkable little person, the sort you would pass in a crowd and never notice.” What did you initially think of him? Why does George continue to talk with him? Who do you think the stranger is?
6. When George tells the stranger that he wishes he had never been born, the stranger excitedly responds, “You’ve solved everything. I was afraid you were going to give me some trouble. But now you’ve got the solution yourself.” Were you surprised by the stranger’s reaction? Why does the he consider George’s wish a solution? In what ways is it one?
7. After George learns that Mary Thatcher has married Art Jenkins, “he knew he couldn’t face Mary—not yet anyway.” Why is George reluctant to see her? Why does his visit with his parents make him more anxious to find Mary? Describe their initial encounter. What is her life like without George?
8. George decides that he wants things changed back to the way they were—“Not just for my sake but for the others’ too. . . . They need me here.” How does George’s experience highlight the ways that he’s important to his friends and family? Does he need them, too? Explain your answer.
9. Stern writes: “the place you grew up in was the one spot on earth where you could really feel at home.” Do you agree? Why or why not? Apply this statement to George as he navigates his hometown as a stranger. Does he still feel at home although he is not recognized?
10. When George returns to his house as himself, what does he find on the sofa that makes his voice freeze? What’s the effect of including this detail at the conclusion of the story?
11. In her afterword, Marguerite Stern Robinson recounts how her father described The Greatest Gift as a “universal story for all people in all times.” Do you agree? In what ways is it universal and timeless? Can you think of any other stories where this is true? What are they?
12. Frank Capra said It’s a Wonderful Life summed up his “philosophy of film making.” Do you think Stern’s The Greatest Gift gives insights into his philosophy of life? How so? What do you think his philosophy is?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life with your book club. Compare Capra’s film with Stern’s story. How are the two alike? How are they different? Why do you think that Capra made changes?
2. For many families, watching It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday tradition. Is it one of yours? Share your holiday traditions with the members of your book club.
3. Through the stranger’s intervention, George is able to see the positive impact he has had on the lives of others around him. Have the members of your book club had a positive impact on your life? If so, tell them what it has been.
4. Both Philip Van Doren Stern and Charles Dickens spoke of being inspired by dreams when they wrote The Greatest Gift and A Christmas Carol, respectively, and both books are regarded as classic Christmas stories. Read A Christmas Carol with your book club and compare it to The Greatest Gift. What themes do the works share? Do you have a favorite? Which one and why?
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