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By Jay Hardwig

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  It was a damn fool idea. The idea - the damn fool one - was to take one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck, and watch the films based on his books - books that are near and dear to my heart. I should have been more aware, I suppose, of the problems of adapting literature to the screen - how does one stuff a sprawling, many-mooded novel into a tidy two-hour closet and leave enough room to shut the door? The problems are so much the greater in corralling Steinbeck, a writer whom I love and admire for his vivid, exact prose and just the sort of eye for detail that never translates to the screen. The best adaptations, I suspect, aim more for the spirit than the letter of the work, but for lovers of letters, it is a poor exchange: they get it all wrong and you know the ending besides.

John Ford won an Oscar for his direction of The Grapes of Wrath (D. John Ford, 1940; with Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell), Steinbeck's classic tale of the Joads, a hard-pressed and destitute lot of immigrant Okies who find a savage misery in the storied fields of California. Filmed in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath must have had an immediacy for the audience of its day, for whom the Dust Bowl was more than a historical footnote, and Ford's film quickly captures the cruel capitalist paradox of migrant shantytown dwellers starving in the shadow of Big (Agri)Business. It is a hard and damning novel, and Ford doesn't blink (at least not until the end). The parts are played well enough, although I do have some bones to pick with John Qualen's Muley Graves and even Henry Fonda's celebrated Tom Joad. Still, the entire cast is working under deadline, and the shortened time frame gives short shrift to some of the character's motivations: pent-up resentments in the book seem here like impetuous acts, a slow boiling-over like a flash in the pan. The film's scope becomes more allegorical than epic, with both time and meaning compressed; the players are more caricature than character. Add to this an oddly upbeat ending - Steinbeck himself offered no such easy redemption - and I can't help but think that the soul of the novel has been lost in the translation. Read the book.

I feel more charitable towards East of Eden (D. Elia Kazan, 1954, with James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey) - but I'm sure it's only because I've not yet read the novel. Eden features the first starring role of a young James Dean, who is all raffish charm and mumbly vulnerability in his part as the iniquitous and unrepentant Cal Trask (think Hud in a varsity sweater) - and oh! what magnificent hair. His supporting cast is likewise sharp, with Jo Van Fleet playing the matronly Kate with both confidence and malice, Julie Harris doing Abra suitably suspiciously, and Raymond Massey giving a good turn as the impassioned elder Trask. Kazan adds his mastery of set, form, and shadow, and with the refrigeration of lettuce as a gripping subplot, East of Eden is a fairly good watch. It must make swiss cheese of the novel, and it reels into maudlin theatrics at the end, but at least there's Dean, Kazan, and a benign Burl Ives (but of course), making East of Eden sufficiently entertaining melodrama. Still, read the book (I think I will).


Gary Sinise directed and starred in the 1992 remake of Of Mice and Men. And if you think Nick Nolte was miscast in Cannery Row, consider that Raquel Welch had Debra Winger's part first!

On a smaller scale, Victor Fleming actually does a pretty good job with Tortilla Flat (D. Victor Fleming, 1942, with Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamar), a gentle comedy that centers around the misadventures of a small band of paisanos living on the outskirts of Monterrey. While most of the plot revolves around John Garfield's Danny, the soul of the film belongs to Spencer Tracy's Pilon, the wise and kind-hearted leader of the group, a man manipulative after a fashion and well-attuned to the fine distinctions of class. Along with Pablo, Jose Maria, and Portagee Joe, the philosophical Pilon confounds the strong-willed Dolores Ramirez (played radiantly by Hedy Lamar), bears witness to the humble Pirate's act of faith, and passes what passes for wisdom in a voice that sounds strangely like Chico Marx. Despite an unpardonable change in the ending (I guess I don't know how they all end), Tortilla Flat retains much of the charm (if not the artistry) of the original novel. (Read the book.)

David Ward has no such luck with Cannery Row (D. David Ward, 1982, with Nick Nolte, Debra Winger), which, in truth, is about as good as you would expect for a movie starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. There is little to recommend the film: Steinbeck's deft comedy is played like bad slapstick, the subplot about the seer is a gob of sentimental dreck, and of all the combined assaults on my favored images of Steinbeck characters, none are as egregious as Nolte's Doc (who should not be nearly so sarcastic and should look, in my mind, more like Ernest Hemingway than Nick fucking Nolte...). The halting courtship between Doc and Suzy (from Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday) is here given a treatment that is both purple and mawkish - it might qualify in Hollywood as romantic comedy but likely would have made Steinbeck retch. And why so little from Mac and the boys? (At least the bit about the beer milkshake made it in....) Okay, so it's not that bad; it's just that the novels are that good. Read the books.

There are at least three versions of Of Mice and Men on video; most acclaimed is Lewis Milestone's 1939 film. Perhaps it was foolish to choose Gary Sinise's 1992 attempt (D. Sinise, 1992, with Gary Sinise, John Malkovich), which received a lukewarm reception upon its release, but then, I've been a fool before. Sinise's Lenny is unconvincing: his accent is off and his hair is too nice. (Sinise looks more like an L.L. Bean model than an itinerant ranchhand; indeed, much of the cast looks like extras from Santa Barbara. I never knew that luckless farmworkers were so damn hunky.) John Malkovich's George, on the other hand, is unconvincing: He is played too much in caricature, for an overall effect that is dismayingly cartoony (as many an Oscar-holder knows, simple folks aren't simple). Neither brings much depth to these classic roles. They do build some emotional tension at the story's devastating conclusion, but then again that'd be hard to avoid in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in American literature. I'll admit to a lump in my throat at the end, but nothing compared to what the novel gave me. What can I say? Read the book.--Jay Hardwig


("Scanlines" wishes to thank Encore Movies & Music, I Luv Video, and Vulcan Video for their help in providing videos and laser discs.)


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