It’s A Wonderful Life

It is no surprise that It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is a beloved holiday classic. The tale of George Bailey–played by James Stewart–realizing that each life is noteworthy and interwoven with the next is explored beautifully in the film, as he navigates this truth alongside an angel (second class). Due the most crucial moments of the plot taking place at Christmas, the film is revisited during the holiday season year after year, generation after generation.

While that is the case, the film itself does have its darker elements. In some cases, the film as been labeled as a “Christmas noir,” deliberately portraying aspects of a post-war pessimism. Happy moments are certainly balanced with sadder ones. Certainly, in his darkest hour, the wholesome George truly questions the value of his life.

Nonetheless, this is a film that has been viewed by families on many occasion, despite some of these tougher realities faced by George. While adults are mature in handling this content, some of these situations are mystifying to younger viewers. As a result, I find it interesting to see the content of the film be adapted for children.

In particular, some of the Bailey children appearing in the actual film have released picture books. It’s A Wonderful Life for Kids was written by Jimmy Hawkins, who plays Tommy Bailey in the film. Here, the adventure focuses upon him misplacing important extracurricular club money and dealing with his struggle. Additionally, Zuzu’s Petals: A Dream of It’s A Wonderful Life is co-written by Karolyn Grimes, who plays Zuzu Bailey in the film. Here, she embarks on her own metaphorical journey in search of what is truly important in life.

These creative efforts are certainly intriguing and are fairly original stories, though they deviate from the focus on the film’s main hero: George.

In 2020, and thanks to Insight Editions, there is a new installment to the It’s A Wonderful Life-inspired children’s books. Adapted by Paul Ruditis and beautifully illustrated by Sarah Conradsen, It’s A Wonderful Life: The Illustrated Holiday Classic is a children’s book that most closely aligns with the film in a child-friendly way.

When I first learned of this book, I was excited for two reasons. First of all, it’s always terrific to see a classic film be adapted in a way that is palatable to children and potentially builds there interest in classic cinema. One of the greatest ways to celebrate classic cinema is to share it with others–particularly with other generations. If a picture book is what opens the door to enjoying the film, then so be it. Additionally, I was particularly thrilled to see Paul Ruditis as part of the project. As a teen (and a huge fan of theater), I devoured his Drama! series and was so glad to see him take on adapting this beloved tale.

In reading over the book, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it harmonized with the story portrayed in the film. Most of the major characters are still in the story (Violet Bick only appears in illustration form) and all of the iconic moments are very much intact. George and Mary throw rocks at the old house, the gym floor splits open, and the suggestion of lassoing the moon is certainly delivered. While George still questions his own value, his situation and inner conflict is nowhere near as prominent as it is in the film. Rather, it is portrayed in a subdued way; here, the focus is upon taking him on the journey of seeing just how worthy he is and how a connected, supportive community can boost one another’s spirits and affect each other’s lives.

Moreover, the illustrations in this book are absolutely striking. They borrow heavily from the film, echoing the composition of the memorable scenes in the film. The color scheme is lovely throughout the book and, though seemingly simple, so many details from the film are brilliantly enmeshed in the illustrations. Also, the depictions of the characters themselves act as en effective nod to the cast of the film. George and Mary do not completely or unmistakably resemble Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, but certain physical aspects of them are most definitely inspired by them.

Overall, it is evident that there is a lot of love for this classic film and that much dedication and respect for the film inspired this pictorial tribute for children to enjoy. This iteration is a sweet story and would definitely be appreciated by children. In particular, I think they would be so excited to read this story and then connect it with the film. I also think that discussing the similarities and differences they spot between the book and the film could also make for good discussion and could open the door to talking about more books that inspired films–classic or contemporary.

I’m so happy that this book has been released ahead of the holiday season. I strongly recommend this book as a fun read for children as well as adults who love to read stories aloud to their future readers. Visually, this book is a gem, and the story is as lovely as ever.

It’s A Wonderful Life: The Illustrated Holiday Classic is available via Insight Editions.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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