Sarah Salter 

Sarah Salter is a graduate of Methodist College with a BA in English. An employee of the NC Church Education Ministries of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), her work has appeared in Methodist College’s Tapestry magazine and Evangel, the monthly magazine of the IPHC. She is a member of ACFW and is currently working on her first novel. Sarah travels regularly with short term medical mission teams, but makes her home in Central NC with her dog, Sadie. Visit her website at

The Ultimate Gift

Each time I sit down to write a column, I have to face a conflict within myself. The screenwriter in me wants to champion the movie, but the novelist in me wants to champion the book. At the very least, this gives me a unique perspective of each month’s selection. But it can also make it almost impossible to choose a favorite. This month, that is definitely the case.

The Ultimate GiftIn anticipation of the Christmas holiday, I chose the book The Ultimate Gift by Jim Stovall and the movie of the same name, its screenplay written by Cheryl McKay.

I originally saw this movie in the fall of 2007. That was long before I was doing reviews or writing this column. But the movie made such an impression on me that when I began to write reviews, this one was at the top of my list. Over the past two years, I’ve bought three copies of the movie, two of which I gave away. Finally, this fall, I sat down and read the book. It was a lovely story that I easily read in two evenings’ time.

In Stovall’s book, Jason Stevens is the great-nephew of multibillionaire Red Stevens. When Red dies, the family descends on the reading of the will like a flock of ravenous vultures. Each self-centered, self-serving family member receives their inheritance and walks away ungrateful. Finally, only one family member is left: the angry, rebellious, and disrespectful twenty-four-year-old Jason, who just wants a big, fat check. But what he is offered is priceless.

Red Stevens loves his insolent great-nephew too much just to give him a check. Instead, he creates a twelve-month project that Jason must do to earn his inheritance. He calls this project “The Ultimate Gift.” Month by month, Jason must complete each task to the satisfaction of Red’s lawyer and oldest friend, Ted Hamilton. If at any point Jason quits or doesn’t meet Mr. Hamilton’s approval, he will not receive The Ultimate Gift. Will Jason take the journey? Will he succeed? And most important, will he learn anything?

Jim Stovall writes a moving story with strong characters. I can’t personally identify with Jason and I didn’t initially find him an appealing person, yet I still find myself pulling for him because of Red’s love for him. And though I don’t want to, I can see bits of myself in Jason. As I see Jason changing, I am also challenged to change. To me, that’s the hallmark of the best kind of story.

As I watched the movie, I was so impressed by the screenplay that one word immediately came to mind: superb. Cheryl McKay and director Michael Sajbel did an outstanding job on the movie adaptation of Stovall’s story. McKay took the solid foundation of story and characters that Stovall had built and made it all come to life.

My one reservation with the novel was that because the lawyer, Ted Hamilton, is narrating, we don’t get to see Jason complete his tasks or learn his lessons. But the screenplay is written from a broader perspective. We see Ted’s side of the story, but more of the focus is on Jason. We get to see Jason completing the tasks instead of only having Ted tell us what Jason had experienced.

Normally, when a screenwriter makes significant changes to a story, I find that to be distracting and unnecessary. It is usually a turn-off for me and often keeps me from enjoying the movie. McKay made markedly significant changes, but I found them to be completely forgivable and not distracting at all. The changes make sense. For example, in her version, Jason was Red’s grandson instead of his great-nephew. As I read the book, I had a bit of trouble believing that a great-uncle would take such a vested interest in a great-nephew, but once McKay had made that change in the screenplay, the lengths that Red went to with The Ultimate Gift became completely understandable.

The most noticeable change that McKay made in her screenplay was adding a storyline. She took two minor characters from the book and made them pivotal to the plot. In the book, there are only a couple of brief mentions about Emily, a little girl with leukemia, and her mother, Alexia. However, in the movie, Emily and Alexia are a major catalyst for the change in Jason. As the movie unfolded, I found Emily and Alexia to be exactly the kind of truth-tellers and accountability partners that Jason needed. In the book, I had found his changes to be a bit forced and unrealistic, but by adding depth to Jason’s relationships with Emily and Alexia, McKay utilized Stovall’s own characters to make his story more believable.

The casting in this movie is amazing. Red Stevens and Ted Hamilton are played by veteran actors James Garner and Bill Cobbs, respectively. Lee Meriwether plays Hamilton’s assistant, Miss Hastings, and Brian Dennehy joins the cast as Gus. We also have a trio of relative newcomers: Drew Fuller as Jason, Ali Hillis as Alexia, and Abigail Breslin as the adorable and audacious Emily. I am not a viewer who is typically impressed by names; however, I can’t imagine a more perfect cast for this movie. The veteran actors were each remarkable in their roles and the newcomers were just as remarkable. They each portrayed their character flawlessly, each one moving me to tears throughout the course of the picture.

This Christmas, I would suggest reading the book to your children and watching the movie as a family. The messages of both are timeless and have the potential to change hearts and lives. To borrow a Malcolm Muggeridge quote from the movie, “Every happening, great or small, is a parable by which God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones.