AFI #23: The Grapes of Wrath

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

It’s really not fair for me to rate The Grapes of Wrath as a film considering John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers and the novel is an American classic. Director John Ford never had a chance articulating this incredible novel in a two hour movie. The novel has so much depth and so many layers that the film couldn’t touch, and of course the film barely scratches the surface of those themes. The novel, of course, ends in shocking fashion with Rose of Sharon feeding a starving man from her breast and Ford was just not going to touch that with a ten foot pole in 1940. Additionally, former pastor Casy is a key character in the novel and he hardly plays a part in the film. Casy is the spiritual center of the novel and it is he who provides Tom Joad with inspiration to fight for justice. That said, I guess I’ll say a few good things about the film.

grapes-of-wrath-filmThe film was made not long after the fictional events of the Joad family would have taken place, and given that it was pretty bold of Ford to adapt Steinbeck’s novel for mass audiences. The dust bowl and depression was an horrific time in American history and one of the most important aspects of art is that it can provide people with a way to look at their own situations and the situations of those around them. For that reason the film is important and even though it doesn’t do the novel justice it still does a good job portraying life for the folks who were run off their land during the dust bowl and the difficulties they found out West.

Beyond the story there are some great acting performances, most especially that of Henry Fonda who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost to James Stewart for The Philadelphia Story and for the record that is one of my favorite films and it is by far Stewart’s best performance so I’m not going to complain about Fonda losing. Jane Darwell actually did win an Oscar for playing Ma Joad and she was definitely a highlight in the film. She keeps the family together through difficult times and Darwell is terrific. She is a great actress who also had key roles in Gone With the Wind and Mary Poppins to name a couple.

Lastly the great John Carradine played Casy, and while he wasn’t in the film much he was great when he was on screen. In fact, I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the film…uttered by the fallen pastor Casy. It’s a line directly from the novel and one that scholars use to help answer the question of whether Steinbeck was an atheist or not. I suggest he was, as evidenced by this quote from Casy, along with similar anti-religious lines in a variety of his novels:

“Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, they’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain’t so nice, and that’s all any man’s got a right to say.”

Next up: Some Like it Hot

Enjoying the Classics (or Why I Love Steinbeck)

I like to mix things up when I’m reading, so I will often follow up fiction with non-fiction and vice versa. I also like to check in with classic authors every so often to remind myself what great writing is all about (not that there aren’t any great modern writers, but let’s be honest…the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds are fewer and farther between nowadays). I have to admit though that I’m not a huge fan of the classics, but I do have a soft spot for American masters. Which brings me to John Steinbeck.

Somehow I managed to get through high school and four years of college without having ever read a Steinbeck novel. The closest I ever came was seeing the 1992 Gary Sinise film version of Of Mice and Men. I always assumed that I wouldn’t like Steinbeck because he was too commercially successful, and that is in fact what many critics argued when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Then something interesting happened to change my mind — I read a Steinbeck novel!

As a graduate student in English at NAU a few years ago I took a class in which we had to read East of Eden. I remember thinking to myself it was going to be a struggle and that I’d have to slog through it, but once I started reading the words on the page I was sucked in. This post isn’t about East of Eden, but suffice it to say it is now one of my all-time favorite novels and features one of my all-time favorite literary characters in Samuel Hamilton.

Steinbeck writes about everyday people and chronicled the American experience during his career, which spanned from 1927 with the publication of his first novel to his death in 1968. His political views played a major role in his writing, and his characters always seemed to say something powerful about what it takes to overcome poverty, hardship and even persecution. He was his generation’s Michael Moore, and for me that’s a good thing. He also touches on themes of religion and the difference between right and wrong, yet he does so without espousing any religious convictions or spirituality — giving him major points in my book.

After I graduated from NAU I decided to go back and, over time, read the entire Steinbeck collection. I’ve since read Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. This weekend, after several mediocre reads, I decided it was time for a palate cleanser so I am now reading To a God Unknown. After just a few pages I feel like I’ve been rejuvinated. It’s such a pleasure to sink into Steinbeck’s warm storytelling and near perfect structure.

Just saying.