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Films Devised From the Great American Novelist
A trilogy inspired by the works of John Steinbeck.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?” John Steinbeck, East of Eden
John Steinbeck is known to many as a titan of Western literature, penning numerous American classics , among them Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Despite being a fan of his writing, my association with Steinbeck comes primarily through the theatrical works he inspired. I truly love Frank Galati’s stage adaptations of Grapes and Eden — I have found them to both be fantastic and honorable cuttings, keeping the balance between melancholy and optimism so tight.
However, with the live theater on hold for awhile, you can check out this trilogy of Steinbeck novels adapted for the silver screen from the comfort of your own home.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Tom Joad returns to his home after a jail sentence to find his family kicked out of their farm due to foreclosure. He catches up with them on his Uncle’s farm, and joins them the next day as they head for California and a new life… Hopefully.
Before you even press play, you know you are in for a treat. The cast and crew is a Who’s Who of Golden Age Hollywood: Tom is portrayed by all-American beau Henry Fonda, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Jane Darwell won the golden statue for her performance as the family matriarch, Ma Joad, and director John Ford took one home as well. Ford, best known for other American classics starring Fonda and John Wayne, like 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln and 1938’s Stagecoach respectively, was considered a surprising choice for the feature as his Conservative politics contrasted the far-leaning leftist politics of the novel.
Despite some unexpectedly large differences from the source material, the picture is still a strong adaptation. This story of poverty, desperation, and resilience hit audiences hard in 1940, right off of the Great Depression, the backdrop of the film, and hurling towards the upcoming Second World War. Its narrative still rings true today as many Americans face unemployment — watching this in the midst of a pandemic could be too timely for some.
Fonda is always provocative, the film features John Carradine’s interesting take on former preacher Jim Casy, and the film’s design elements really highlight the best of black-and-white camera work.
Of Mice and Men (1992)
Two drifters, one a gentle but slow giant, try to make money working the fields during the Depression so they can fulfill their dreams.
This Gary Sinise-John Malkovich vehicle has to be one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. After having performed the show over a decade prior in their artistic home base that is the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the pair were primed to take their work to the silver screen. Sinise directs and lets the novel do most of the talking — taking a large amount of dialogue directly from Steinbeck and doing little toying with the plot or structure. Its faithfulness to the book is not only wise, but it pays off well as its two hour runtime hits every important moment of the novel.
“The most sincere compliment I can pay them is to say that all of them — writer and actors — have taken every unnecessary gesture, every possible gratuitous note, out of these characters. The story is as pure and lean as the original fable which formed in Steinbeck’s mind. And because they don’t try to do anything fancy — don’t try to make it anything other than exactly what it is — they have a quiet triumph.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
There’s a lot to like here, especially if you consider yourself to be a Steinbeck evangelist. Above all, however, Malkovich’s performance as Lenny looms large above the rest. The aggressive energy he brings to all of his roles is perfect for Lenny’s overbearing charm. Consider watching it for Malkovich alone.
In Dubious Battle (2017)
In the California apple country, 900 migratory workers rise ‘in dubious battle’ against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own — stronger than its individual members, and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on his tragic idealism — ’courage, never submit, or yield’.
You were probably expecting the final film in this triptych to be the infamous James Dean vehicle, 1955’s East of Eden. That’s the obvious, clear choice for a strong version of one of Steinbeck’s works. However, that would be disingenous. Not all cinematic adaptations are alike, as evidenced by director James Franco’s very flat In Dubious Battle (2017).
One of the lesser known of Steinbeck’s novels, this has been Franco’s M.O. as of late— adapting forgotten novels of the American canon for the screen. Many know him as an actor or for his most famous directorial effort, 2017’s The Disaster Artist, chronicling the disaster that is the film The Room (2004). Few know that he has directed over two dozen films, including two adaptations of Faulkner works.
This outing commits one of the worst cinema sins: being boring. To be fair, it is probably difficult to make a tale of picket lines and unionization thrilling, but this movie doesn’t even come close. Film novices Nat Wolff and Selena Gomez take up too much screen time, while heavyweights like Ed Harris, Robert Duvall, and Bryan Cranston are all underutilized. This is just one of many examples where they chose the clear cut wrong answer in their attempt to make this film a success.
“Rarely has such star wattage resulted in a film so dull.” Tricia Olszewski, TheWrap
There are better adaptations of better novels, but watching this film shows that even if a movie is cut from the same cloth of inspiration, it still has some work to do to make it perform.
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.