This may seem like a weird duo to look at, the first one of these I did was with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which I would say most people didn’t know was based on a book, and this film is obviously based off a book, quite a famous one in fact. The Grapes of Wrath is both an incredibly famous and classic novel, and film. They’re pretty much equally momentous in the American Canon. The main reason that I chose this duo of works is that I wanted to read the Grapes of Wrath, which I’ve somehow managed to skip all these years, and my intention from now on is to do an article like this whenever I read a book that became a movie. I had never seen the Grapes of Wrath, nor read it, and now that I’ve done both, I want to discuss them.
the Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Written by Nunnally Johnson
directed by John Ford
This is an incredibly fascinating movie. It came out less than a year after the novel was published and became phenomena, jumping on the bandwagon with gusto. It managed to get Tom Ford, a very important and influential director, and was taking a look at a very dark chapter of American history that was frankly still happening when it came out. It’s one of the grittiest, and most realistic looks at the Great Depression in general, and the Dust Bowl in specific that I’ve ever seen. You really get to see the desperation of the human spirit in this film, and the crushing realities of the American Dream gone wrong. It’s a rather jaded film, and I’m frankly shocked that it came out in 1940. It seems like too honest a film to have come from that time. While not overly negative toward America, it was still pretty critical, and as a major Hollywood production in the period of the Hayes Code, it seems amazing that it was allowed to be as dark and miserable as it was. It seems more like a movie made in the 70’s rather than the 40’s. Movies from the 30’s and 40’s are still a pretty big blind spot for me, but from what I’ve seen I would never imagine a movie this topical and biting to get released. Yeah, movies like Citizen Kane are referencing some dark sides of America, but this movie is blatantly talking about things that actually happen, and were happening. It’s crazy. I feel like a movie this topical would even have issues coming out today.
The movie follows the Joads, a family living in Oklahoma who are being forced to leave their family farm, and strike West to California, the land of wealth and promise. The film really looks at all the members of the family, but primarily focuses on Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), one of the older children who has recently been released from prison after killing a man in fight. He’s hitchhiking home from the prison, and as he gets close he comes across a strange man named Jim Casy (John Carradine), who used to be a local preacher before Tom went away. Casy is a very strange and manic man, who used to be incredibly passionate about religion, but has lost his faith. He now seems to just be a bum, sitting around doing nothing, trying to find himself. And when Tom comes up to him, the two strike a quick friendship, and Casy comes with Tom to the Joad house, keeping him company. But when they get to the Joad household, he finds it abandoned, and after briefly meeting with a strange neighbor who lives alone in the empty farms, they head to Tom’s Uncle John’s house, where the family is staying. Tom and Casy get to Uncle John’s house, and the family is incredibly psyched to see him. He’s clearly the favorite in the family, to a ridiculous point that must make the other feel terrible. We have Ma (Jane Darwell) and Pa (Russell Simpson) Joad, the leaders of the family, and then there are his Grandparents, his older brother Noah, his younger brothers Al and Winfield, and his Ruthie. He also has a sister, Rosasharn, who is married to man named Connie, and is pregnant. He learns that the family farm was foreclosed upon, and the family was forced to move. Uncle John’s farm is being foreclosed upon as well, so the family has come up with the plan to all pile into a large beat-up truck and head west to California. So Tom and Casy join the family as they get rid of most of their worldly goods, and head off to the West, hoping to not starve along the way.
They head out, and have a lot of terrible times. Almost immediately Grandpa died, and they have to bury him on the side Route 66, and they just continue to have terrible times getting to California. They run out of food, and even had to haggle at a small diner over a loaf of bread. But they finally get to California, just in time for Grandma to die as well, and Noah to vanish without anyone even mentioning it for the rest of the film. But they quickly find out that things in California aren’t going to be as peaceful and prosperous as they thought. They end up having to spend time in a Hooverville, a sort of shanty town for poor people, realizing that they aren’t the only ones who thought heading to California was a good idea. They stay in the Hooverville for just a night, but some bad shit happens there. The Joads, especially the hotheaded Tom, get involved in an argument with a man claiming to have work and a man who was “agitating” the crowd by talking about fair wages. It leads to a brawl with a deputy, and Tom has to run off since he’s skipped parole, and Casy takes the blame, being arrested and taken away. The family flees the Hooverville, and that punk Connie abandons the family as well. Don’t trust dudes named Connie.
The broken family shamble along until they reach a peach orchard and are offered some work. The orchard seems suspicious however, so after one day of work, Tom sneaks off to try and see what’s going on. It turns out that the orchard used to have plenty of workers, but when their wages were dropped, they went on strike, so the Joads and the other family currently working are scabs, and their wages will soon be dropped as well. Then it just so happens that Casy shows up, and is in charge of the strike, because he somehow made it out there quick enough to establish himself as the leader of a movement. They talk to Tom about how the workers are being abused, and he decides to help them, but they’re raided by cops, which results in Casy being beaten to death by a cop, and Tom killing one. He gets his face bashed in, and returns to the family, who realize they have to leave again, and hide Tom, because he’d be spotted and found to be the man who killed a cop.
The family sneaks off in the middle of the night, and eventually reach a camp that’s being ran by the Department of Agriculture. It’s a strange type of relief camp, where people displaced by the Dust Bowl can come, and for a small fee, live in peace with actual plumbing and community. The Joad’s are very happy at the government camp, and quickly join the community. However, after seeing the police attempt to stage a brawl in the camp that would lead them credence to come in and destroy it, Tom decides that he’s had enough of the life he’s been leading, and leaves the family, taking off to live like Casy did, wandering around trying to tell people the truth about how horrible people are being treated. He goes and walks the Earth, like Caine from Kung Fu. The family is okay with Tom abandoning them, and for some reason they too decide to leave the wonderful camp, and head off into the unknown, with several members missing or dead, and Ma has a speech about how hopeful they are, so I guess it’s a happy ending.
It’s a very intriguing movie that really takes a deep look at a dark topic. This kind of thing really happened, probably more than you would think, and I find that it’s shocking this movie got made. I could see a book being written about how poorly people are being treated out west, that’s the kind of things books had been doing for centuries. But a movie? A movie that was popular, and showed the people who were living at least a better life than the Joads what the world was like for them. It introduced people to the horrors of the Dust Bowl in a relatable way that anyone could understand. The acting was generally fantastic, especially Jane Darwell as the put upon Ma Joad. She carries the family, and the film, keeping all the characters together. Henry Fonda was terrific as Tom Joad, the hotheaded man struggling to find his way in this new world while doing everything he could to keep the family going. But the character that really stole the movie for me was John Carradine as Jim Casy. He played the character with a strange manic quality that made him a very oddball character. He’s so hyperactive and strange, and I find it shocking that they had a character who was questioning his faith in God, and never really found it. The direction of the film was also pretty great. Besides some early scenes that made me worried with obvious sets and matte paintings, there was some great shots of the American west, and the true desperation of the human spirit.
John Steinbeck 1939
So last time I did one of these articles, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it was a little easier to write this part, because while there were basic plot elements in common between the two, the actual plots were pretty different. It was easy to discuss the differences between the two, but this time? Not so much. The book and the movie are pretty much identical. There are line in the movie that are straight from the book. It’s one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I’ve ever seen, just with some set-pieces shuffled around. The biggest difference between the two is just that the book moves things around, and adds some more to the ending, that makes the story much darker, and more bleak than the movie. So I guess the bulk of this section will be listing the differences, not the plot, because I already did that.
The beginning of the book is very similar to the movie. Tom gets out of jail, meets Casy, and heads to the family farm. They spend a lot more time with Muley, the weirdo living in the abandoned houses, but other than that, it’s pretty spot on. I do like the Casy from the novel much more than the book though. He wasn’t quite as manic, and was more thoughtful, and critical of religion. He apparently left the faith because he had a tendency to have sex with women after preaching, and started to feel a kind of religious cognitive dissonance from that. He’s so much more interesting and entertaining in the book. And they show him struggling to relate to people who think of him only as the preacher, like this line:
“”You Know,” he said, “it’s a nice thing not bein’ a preacher no more. Nobody use’ ta tell stories when I was there, or if they did I couldn’ laugh. An’ I couldn’ cuss. Now I cuss all I want, any time I want, an’ it does a fella good to cuss if he wants to.”
So Tom and Casy get to the Uncle John’s house, meet up with the family, and head out, after drugging Grandpa when he tries not to go. All just like the movie. But then the book starts on a very strange trend, that seemed very interesting. I’ve read Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, and I don’t remember Steinbeck doing anything like this, but he started writing the chapters so that every other one actually had plot, while the opposite chapters would be these strange, rambling, almost stream of conscious monologues that talk about life in the Great Depression. Sometimes the monologue chapters would then wrap up with plot chapters, but mostly they were just kind of random. They had some great quotes in them, but they sometimes felt a little pointless. There was a rambling chapter about the life of a used car dealer, and the bank taking a farm from a family, and about a family trying to get bread from a diner. A lot of the random chapter got put in the movie, with the Joads experiencing them, but in the book, it wasn’t always them. The diner thing for example, had a family with two little boys, so it was obviously not the Joads. They were just kind of strange chapters, that built the world, but could have easily been excised. But in the plot chapters the family makes it West just like the movie. But there are a few differences.
When Grandpa dies, it’s at a campsite with another couple that was traveling, Ivy and Sairy Wilson, who help bury Grandpa, and then end up joining the Joads for a significant portion of the trip. But they were pretty boring characters. Sairy’s main character trait was that she was sickly, and I don’t think Ivy had anything about him that made him identifiable. They eventually leave the Joads when the realize they’re just slowing them down. One big thing from this area of the book that the movie just kind of glossed over was the departure of the oldest brother, Noah. Now, in the movie Noah was basically a non-entity. I feel like he had one line. In the book, he’s not much better, but Steinbeck explained it away that Noah was mentally challenged. Well, when the family almost gets to California, the family all get in a river, bathing and swimming. Then Tom and Noah start to walk back to the car, and Noah just decides he likes the river, and walks off, to live in the river. And Tom just kind of lets him. But the messed up thing is that no one really seems to care. The guy is mentally challenged, and plans on living off the river. He’s definiately going to die. But the family just kind of says “oh well,” and moves along. This is literally what Ma says when Tom says that Noah left the family:
“Noah was strange. Maybe he’ll have a nice time by the river. Maybe it’s better so. We can’t do no worryin’.”
Anyway, now that Noah is gone, the family cross over into California, deal with Grandma’s body, then make it to the Hooverville. Things play out pretty much like they did in the movie, the hungry kids guilting Ma into giving them scraps, and the fight between the cops that ends with Casy being arrested. And Connie abandons the family, just like the movie. But then we get to the biggest difference between the novel and the movie. In the novel, when the family leave the Hooverville, they go to the Government camp first. Things there are pretty much the same as in the movie, they get there, make friends and get along in the camp well. Tom helps avoid the riot, and things stay nice in the camp. But in the movie that’s where the story ended, they were all happy in the camp and things were great. But in the book, even though they were enjoying the camp, there was just no work. It was safe, and clean, and friendly, but it was still killing them. They thought they were safe, but things were still horrible, so they had to abandon the first place that made them feel like home, and set out to find work. And that’s when they get to the peach orchard.
So the movie flipped the two last parts of the novel, and it makes it so much darker. When they get to the peach orchard things are just like they are in the movie. They move into the hovel, and pick peaches for terrible wages before realizing that they’re scabs. Then Tom goes snooping, finds Casy and they get in the fight with the cops. Casy is killed, and it’s a lot more gruesome than the movie, then Tom kills the cop. They sneak out since Tom has the banged up face and they’ll spot him. But this isn’t the end of the book. Instead the family goes on from the orchard until they find a large cotton field next to an abandoned set of train-cars. The Joads start living in the empty train car, and Tom goes to live by himself in the woods next to the field so that his face can heal. And things actually start to go good for the family. The make good money at the cotton field, are able to eat, and even bond with the other family sharing their car to the point that Al ends up getting engaged with their daughter. But then things get bad, just like the always do. Tom strikes out the walk the Earth just like the movie, but things keep happening to the family. The cotton all gets picked, and they’re stuck without work again, and winter is rapidly approaching. Then the rain starts. It starts raining like crazy, and starts flooding the cars. And to make matters worse, Rosasharn goes into labor. Then the book ends with on a crazy dark note, with Rosasharn having a stillborn baby and their meager train car home being washed away. They end up hiding in a barn where they encounter a dying man that Rosasharn feeds with her breastmilk. The end!
This book was really good. It’s kind of obvious, it being a lingering classic of American literature, but it’s really good. The characters are great, and the plot is devastating. I really enjoy John Steinbeck, and while I still like East of Eden better, this book really grabbed a hold of me. One of the things about the novel that was really interesting to me was the bitter hatred for banks and technology the book seemed to have. It really painted the banks as the true villains of the novel, and the incoming technology such as tractors as the weapons the banks were using to put down the common man. Here are some of my favorite quotes Steinbeck wrote about the two topics:
“A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”
“But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they jus’ chopped folks in two for their margin a profit.”
“But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.”
So I think the final verdict between whether the book or the movie was better, goes down to personal taste. The stories are so similar, and the characters are all the same, so it really boils down to the type of story you like. The film shuffles the events of the novel around so that it’s a more optimistic story. Yeah, it’s still a dark story, but by the end of the movie I felt confident that good things were going to happen to the Joads. Not great things, but it seemed to imply that they were going to get out of their string of terrible luck. But the book? It’s so dark. It just gets darker and darker until it pretty much snuffs out all chances of hope. The book still ends with the Joads setting out, and Tom starting to walk the Earth, but man do I not feel confident that good things are coming for them in the novel. They’re both great stories, and I would recommend experiencing both, but I feel like which one you’ll enjoy more comes down to whether you like your depressing stories to stay depressing, or have a happy twist.
Categories: Film Library
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