Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath
Review by Muchacha Motorista

To review The Grapes of Wrath, I have to be transparent about two things. First, John Steinbeck is my favorite author of all time. Second, the book The Grapes of Wrath, assigned reading in 11th grade, was the one that got me hooked on him. Take from this what you will. Already, before watching the movie, I loved the story and the ethical premise. But also, it would take an excellent movie to do the novel justice. For example, the most recent film adaptation of the book Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men starring Gary Sinese and John Malcovich more than do the book justice. The old James Dean film adaptation of Steinbeck’s epic East of Eden doesn’t even come close.

The Grapes of Wrath has such wide scope and depth that it remains as relevant now as ever. There are so many levels to the story, which is more than a family’s desperate struggle for survival, or their road trip from Oklahoma to California for work. It is even more than the broader story of early farm-workers unionizing. It is an examination of good, evil, and especially the sins of omission. The landowners (and others) who cheat desperate people are evil. The common working-man tends to be the good guy here--if not a classic hero at least a sympathetic character. But the treasure and meat of the movie are in the folks in between the two extremes. The waitress at the cafe is technically justified in charging a fair 15 cents for a loaf of bread, but when she finds out it is for an old woman who only has 10 cents to spend, will she sell it under-priced? The officers at the California checkpoint have a duty to unload trucks and check for produce, but will they shirk their duty because of the sick person needing to hurry to a doctor?

There are plenty of parts of the book that I miss in the movie, the main one being the complete disregard for Tom Joad’s brother, Noah. Not only is Noah given a mere one line, he disappears before the movie hits its halfway point! As Ronald Fields writes in his article “Complexities of Noah in The Grapes of Wrath” (1), “His departure is not discussed or portrayed in the film in any way. Ford’s film shows Noah Joad simply disappearing along the road to California, with no explanation, and the family does not mention him again.” However, the story and themes are there, and that’s what people really need to see.

The struggle between doing good or doing nothing is of great interest to me. Doing nothing is often justifiable, and so much easier, which makes doing the right thing all that more noble in my opinion. (This is something I touched on when I reviewed Amazing Grace several years ago. As the director of the documentary on that disc says, “There are no heroes or villains. Life is gray and complicated, but there are great things that have to be and can be done.”)

The movie The Grapes of Wrath was made in 1940, so it is likely that most people have seen it (or are aware of it) already. The dashing Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad with proper brooding and shuffling, and Jane Darwell won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Ma.

This release includes a few extras, but nothing like the ones we get with current movies (now that studios know ahead of time they’ll need to fill DVD features). The supplemental material ranges from the technically interesting (a segment on the film restoration process with a side-by-side comparison), to the educational (an A&E Biography on producer Darryl Zanuck, who also ushered in “talkies” with The Jazz Singer, helped launch Shirley Temple’s career, and started 20th Century-Fox). There are Studio Stills, but the most interesting are clips from Fox Movietone News on the 1934 drought, with “outtakes” of the living conditions of those displaced by the national disaster.

If you haven’t seen or read The Grapes of Wrath, I suggest watching this film classic. If you’re a fan of the movie, this would be an affordable way to get a copy. As part of the Literary Classics line of DVDs, it comes with a bookmark. However, if you already own it, I doubt any of the extras will make replacing your current copy worthwhile.

(1) FIELDS, R. (2009), The Complexities of Noah in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck Review, 6: 53-61. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6087.2009.01027.x


I have a material connection because I received a gift or sample of a product for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am not expected to return this item or gift after my review period.

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