Novels Into Film: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

In his compact little study of Cali­fornia writers, The Boys in the Back Room, Edmund Wilson comments on the problems inherent in the close affiliation between Hollywood and commercial fiction:

Since the people who control the movies will not go a step of the way to give the script writer a chance to do a serious script, the novelist seems, consciously or unconsciously, to be going part of the way to meet the producers. John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, has certainly learned from the films—and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but from the sentimental symbolism of Hollywood. The result was that The Grapes of Wrath went on the screen as easily as if it had been written in the studios, and was probably the only serious story on record that seemed equally effective as a film and as a book.1

Indeed, not only did Steinbeck learn from Pare Lorentz; he also received, through Lorentz, his first introduction to Nunnally Johnson, the screen writer who did the movie adaptation of his novel.2 And Bennett Cerf, the publishing head of Random House, must have had none other than Steinbeck in mind when he wrote, “The thing an author wants most from his publisher these days is a letter of introduction to Darryl Zanuck.”3 For if Steinbeck was fortunate in having Pare Lorentz as a teacher and Nunnally John­son as a screen writer, he was one of the few who earned the coveted letter to Darryl Zanuck, the producer of The Grapes of Wrath. Add Gregg Toland’s photography, Alfred Newman’s music, and John Ford’s direction, and one sees that Steinbeck had an unusually talented crew, one which could be depended upon to respect the integrity of his best-selling book.

Lester Asheim, in his close charting of the correspondence be­tween twenty-four novels and films, seems to corroborate Ed­mund Wilson’s conclusion about the easy transference of Stein­beck’s book to John Ford’s film. According to Asheim’s analysis, the major sequences in the novel bear more or less the same ratio to the whole as the corresponding sequences do in the film:

per cent of whole
sequence book film
Oklahoma episodes 20 28
Cross-country episodes 19 22
General commentary 17
Government camp episodes 15 18
Hooverville episodes 10 13
Strike-breaking episodes 9 16
Final episodes 10 3
100 100

And when Asheim goes on to explain that, if one ignores the major deletions which occur in the transference and considers only those episodes in the novel which appear in the film, the per­centage of both book and film devoted to these central events would be virtually identical, his observation seems, at first, to be providing indisputable proof for Wilson’s claim.4

Yet, to follow through Wilson’s primary analysis of Steinbeck’s work is to come at once on a contradiction which belies, first, his comment on the ineluctable fitness of the novel for Hollywood consumption and, second, his implication that Steinbeck, like the novelists whom Bennett Cerf has in mind, had written with one eye on the movie market. For it is central to Wilson’s critical argu­ment that the “substratum which remains constant” in Stein­beck’s work “is his preoccupation with biology.”5 According to Wilson’s view, “Mr. Steinbeck almost always in his fiction is deal­ing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudi­mentary that they are almost on the animal level.”6 Tracing the thematic seams that run through Steinbeck’s prose, Wilson notes the familiar interchapter on the turtle whose slow, tough progress survives the gratuitous cruelty of the truck driver who swerves to hit it. This anticipates the survival of the Joads, who, with the same dorsal hardness, will manage another journey along a road, emerging like the turtle from incredible hardships surrounded by symbols of fertility, much like the turtle’s “wild cat head” which spawns three spearhead seeds in the dry ground. And Wilson notes, too, the way in which the forced pilgrimage of the Joads, adumbrated by the turtle’s indestructibility, is “accompanied and parodied all the way by animals, insects and birds,” as when the abandoned house where Tom finds Muley is invaded by bats, weasels, owls, mice, and pet cats gone wild.

This primary biological analysis seems to contradict Wilson’s more casual statement on the film, since the screen version, as evolved by Nunnally Johnson and John Ford, contains little evi­dence of this sort of preoccupation. And when Asheim concludes, after a detailed comparison, that to one unfamiliar with the novel there are no loose ends or glaring contradictions to indicate that alterations have taken place,7 we begin to uncover a series of disparities which, rather than demonstrating the ease of adaptation, suggests its peculiar difficulties. We are presented in the film with what Asheim calls “a new logic of events,” a logic which deviates from the novel in several important respects. Tracing these muta­tions in some detail will illuminate the special characteristics of book and film alike. The question immediately arises, how could The Grapes of Wrath have gone on the screen so easily when the biological emphasis is nowhere present?

Undeniably, there is, in the novel, a concurrence of animal and human life similar to that which appears in the work of Walter Van Tilburg Clark, another western writer who transcends re­gional themes. Even from the opening of the chapter which de­picts the pedestrian endurance of the turtle, creature and human are linked:

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in a sheep’s wool; sleeping life wait­ing to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an ap­pliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement.

Here, the central motifs of the narrative are carefully, but inob­trusively enunciated, a kind of generalized analogue to the coming tribulations of the Joads: a harsh, natural order which is distract­ing to men and dogs alike; a hostile, dry passivity which, like the dormant blastema, is at the same time laden with regenerative possibilities. From the opening passages (“Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches . . .”) to the last scene in which an at­tempt is made to beatify Rose of Sharon’s biological act, the nar­rative is richly interspersed with literal and figurative zoology. Tom and Casy witness the unsuccessful efforts of a cat to stop the turtle’s slow progress. In the deserted house, Muley describes himself as having once been “mean like a wolf,” whereas now he is “mean like a weasel.” Ma Joad describes the law’s pursuit of Pretty Boy Floyd in animal terms: “they run him like a coyote, an’ him a-snappin’ an’ a-snarlin’, mean as a lobo.” Young Al boasts that his Hudson jalopy will “ride like a bull calf.” In the interchapter describing the change, the growing wrath triggered by the wholesale evictions of the tenant farmers, the western states are “nervous as horses before a thunder storm.”

Later, Ma Joad savagely protests the break-up of the family: “All we got is the family unbroke. Like a bunch of cows, when the lobos are ranging.” Later still, Tom tells Casy that the day he got out of prison, he ran himself down a prostitute “like she was a rabbit.” Even the endless caravans of jalopies are described in terms which echo the plodding endurance of the turtle. After a night in which “the owls coasted overhead, and the coyotes gab­bled in the distance, and into the camp skunks walked, looking for bits of food …” the morning comes, revealing the cars of migrants along the highway crawling out “like bugs.” After the relatively peaceful interlude of the Government Camp, A1 com­ments on the practice of periodically burning out the Hoovervilles where the dispossessed farmers are forced to cluster: “… they jus’ go hide down in the willows an’ then they come out an’ build ’em another weed shack. Jus’ like gophers.” And finally, toward the end, Ma expresses her longing to have a settled home for Ruth and Winfield, the youngest children, in order to keep them from becoming wild animals. For by this time, Ruth and Winnie do, indeed, emerge from their beds “like hermit crabs from shells.” The persistence of this imagery reveals at least part of its ser­vice. In the first place, even in our random selections, biology supports and comments upon sociology. Sexual activity, the pri­macy of the family clan, the threat and utility of industrial ma­chinery, the alienation and hostility of the law, the growing anger at economic oppression, the arguments for human dignity, are all accompanied by, or expressed in terms of, zoological images. In the second place, the presence of literal and figurative animals is more frequent when the oppression of the Joads is most severe. The pattern of the novel, as we shall see, is similar to a parabola whose highest point is the sequence at the Government Camp. From Chapter XXII to the middle of Chapter XXVI, which cov­ers this interlude, the animal imagery is almost totally absent.

Densely compacted at the beginning, when Tom returns to find his home a shambles, it recurs in the closing sequences of the strike­breaking and the flood.

The point is that none of this appears in the film. Even the highly cinematic passage depicting the slaughtering of the pigs, in preparation for the journey, is nowhere evident in the final editing. If the film adaptation remains at all faithful to its original, it is not in retaining what Edmund Wilson calls the constant sub­stratum in Steinbeck’s work. It is true, one may argue, that biolog­ical functions survive in the Joads’ elementary fight for life, in the animal preoccupation with finding food and shelter, in the scenes of death and procreation, but this is not what Edmund Wil­son has in mind. In the film, these functions are interwoven so closely with a number of other themes that in no sense can the biological preoccupation be said to have a primary value. This type of deletion could not have been arbitrary, for, as Vachel Lindsay showed as early as 1915, animal imagery can be used quite effectively as cinema. Reviewing Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience, Lindsay is describing the meditations of a boy who has just been forced to say goodbye to his beloved, supposedly forever. Watching a spider in his web devour a fly, the boy medi­tates on the cruelty of nature: “Then he sees the ants in turn de­stroy the spider. The pictures are shown on so large a scale that the spiderweb fills the end of the theater. Then the ant-tragedy does the same. They can be classed as particularly apt hiero­glyphics ….” 8 More recently, the killing of the animals by the boy in Les Jeux Interdits shows that biology can still effectively sup­port cinematic themes. In the particular case of The Grapes of Wrath, however, the suggestions of the book were abandoned. If, then, we are to understand the mutation, to assess the film’s special achievement, we must look elsewhere.

Immediately, a number of other motifs strongly assert them­selves in Steinbeck’s model: the juxtaposition of natural morality and religious hypocrisy; the love of the regenerative land; the primacy of the family; the dignity of human beings; the socio­political implications inherent in the conflict between individual work and industrial oppression. Consider Casy’s impulsive ra­tionalizations in the very early section of the book where he tries, like the Ancient Mariner, to convince his listener and himself at the same time, that his rejection of religious preaching in favor of a kind of naturalistic code of ethics is morally acceptable. Tor­tured by his sexual impulses as a preacher, Casy began to doubt and question the assumptions which he had been articulating from his rough, evangelical pulpit, began to observe the discrepancy between theoretical sin and factual behavior. He repeats his con­clusions to Tom, “Maybe it ain’t a sin. Maybe it’s just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin’ hell out of ourselves for nothin’.

. . . To hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.”

Casy retains his love for people, but not through his ministry, and later this love will be transmuted into personal sacrifice and the solidarity of union organization. This suspicion of a theology not rooted in ordinary human needs continues to echo through­out the novel. When Casy refuses to pray for the dying Grampa, Granma reminds him, quite offhandedly, how Ruthie prayed when she was a little girl: “ ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. An’ when she got there the cupboard was bare, an’ so the poor dog got none.’ ” The moral is clear: in the face of hunger, religious piety seems absurd. After Grampa’s death, the inclusion of a line from Scripture in the note that will follow him to his grave is parodied in much the same way, but Casy’s last words at the grave echo his earlier statement: “This here oP man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now he’s dead, an’ that don’t matter. … if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn.” Ma Joad expresses the same kind of mystical acceptance of the life cycle when she tries to tell Rose of Sharon about the hurt of childbearing:

They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’, an bearin’ an’ dyin’ is two pieces of the same thing. An’ then things ain’t lonely any more. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad, ’cause it ain’t a lonely hurt no more, Rose-asharn. I wisht I could tell you so you’d know, but I can’t.

Because Ma is so firm in her belief in the rightness of natural processes, she becomes furious at the religious hypocrites who plague the migrants. At the Hoovervilles and in the government station, the evangelists whom Ma characterizes as Holy Rollers and Jehovites are grimly present, like camp followers. Beginning with polite acceptance, Ma becomes infuriated when one of these zealots works on Rose of Sharon, scaring her half to death with visions of hellfire and burning. Ma represents the state of natural grace to which Casy aspires from the beginning.

Just as the novel reveals a preoccupation with biology, it is also obsessed with love of the earth. From the opening lines of the book, “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth,” to the last scene of desolation, the land imagery persists. The earth motif is woven into the texture complexly, but on the whole it serves two main functions: first, to signify love; and second, to signify endurance. Tom makes the sexual connection when, listening to Casy’s compulsive story, he idly, but quite naturally, draws the torso of a woman in the dirt, “breasts, hips, pelvis.” The attachment of the men for the land is often so intense that it borders on sexual love. Muley’s refusal to leave, even after the caterpillar tractors have wiped him out, looks ahead to Grampa’s similar recalcitrance. At first, Grampa is enthusiastic about the prospect of moving to a more fertile land, and he delivers himself of words verging on panegyric: “Jus’ let me get out to California where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s a thing I ain’t ever had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch a grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ’em on my face, an’ let ’em run offen my chin.” But when the moment for departures arrives, Grampa re­fuses to go. His roots in the ground are too strong; he cannot bear to tear them up. Very soon after the family leaves its native soil, Grampa dies of a stroke. And when Casy says to Noah, “Grampa an’ the old place, they was jus’ the same thing,” we feel that the observation has a precision which is supported by the texture of the entire novel. When the Joads get to California, they will, of course, find that the grapes which Grampa dreamed of are inaccessible, that the grapes of promise inevitably turn to grapes of wrath. The land, one interchapter tells, has been pos­sessed by the men with a frantic hunger for land who came before the Joads. And the defeated promise is bitterly dramatized in the last scene, when a geranium, the last flower of earth to appear in the novel, becomes an issue dividing Ruthie and Winfield, and results in Ruthie’s pressing one petal against Winfield’s nose, cruelly. Love and endurance have been tried to their utmost. When the land goes, everything else goes, too; and the water is the emblem of its destruction.

Love of family parallels love of the earth. During the threaten­ing instability of the cross-country journey, Ma Joad acts as the cohesive force which keeps her brood intact. Whenever one of the men threatens to leave, Ma protests, and sometimes savagely. When she takes over leadership of the family, by defying Pa Joad with a jack handle, it is over the question of whether or not Tom shall stay behind with the disabled car. Even after Connie, Rose of Sharon’s husband, and Noah, one of the brothers, desert the family, the identity of the clan remains Ma Joad’s primary fixation. After half a continent of hardship, Ma articulates her deep­est feelings. She tells Tom, “They was a time when we was on the lan’. They was a boundary to us then. Ol’ folks died off, an’ little fellas came, an’ we was always one thing—we was the fambly— kinda whole and clear. An’ now we ain’t clear no more.” The dep­rivation of the native land, and the alienation of the new, become more than economic disasters; they threaten the only social organi­zation upon which Ma Joad can depend. The fertility of the land and the integrity of the clan are no longer distinct entities; both are essential for survival.

Closely bound up with this theme of familial survival is the theme of human dignity. Clearly, the exigencies of eviction and migration force the problem of brute survival upon the Joads. But just as important is the correlative theme of human dignity. The first time the Joads are addressed as “Oakies,” by a loud-mouthed deputy who sports a Sam Browne belt and pistol holster, Ma is so shocked that she almost attacks him. Later, Uncle John is so chagrined by Casy’s sacrificial act (deflecting from Tom the blame for hitting the deputy, and going to prison in his stead) that he feels positively sinful for not making an equal contribution. At the Government Camp, a woman complains about taking charity from the Salvation Army because “We was hungry— they made us crawl for our dinner. They took our dignity.” But it is Tom who makes the most articulate defense of dignity against the legal harassment to which the Joads have been sub­jected: “ … if it was the law they was workin’ with, why, we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. . . . They’re workin’ on our decency.” And the final image of Rose of Sharon offering her breast to the starving farmer is in­tended as an apotheosis of the scared girl, recently deprived of her child, into a kind of natural madonna.

In short, if the biological interest exists, it is so chastened through suffering that it achieves a dignity which is anything but animal, in Edmund Wilson’s sense of the word. The conflicts, values, and recognitions of the Joads cannot, therefore, be equated with the preoccupations of subhuman life. The biological life may be re­tained in the search for food and shelter, in the cycle of death and procreation, but always in terms which emphasize rather than oblit­erate the distinctions between humans and animals. When Stein­beck reminisces about his carefree bohemian days in Monterey, he is just as nostalgic about the freedom of assorted drifters, his “interesting and improbable” characters, as he is about Ed Ricketts’ “commercial biological laboratory.”9 Steinbeck’s novel may be read, then, as much as a flight from biological determinism as a representation of it. The story of the pilgrimage to the new Canaan which is California, the cycle of death and birth through which the Joads must suffer, becomes a moral, as well as a physical, trial by fire.

The socio-political implications of the Joad story, more familiar than these correlative themes, serve to counterpoint and define the anger and the suffering. Throughout the novel, the Joads are haunted by deputies in the service of landowners, bankers, and fruit growers; by the contradiction between endless acres in full harvest and streams of migratory workers in dire straits; by un­scrupulous businessmen who take advantage of the desperate, westbound caravans; by strike-breakers, corrupt politicians, and thugs. At first, the Joads must draw from their meager sav­ings to pay for gas and half-loaves of bread; but as they draw West they must even pay for water. In California, they cannot vote, are kept continually on the move, are bullied by the constabulary, and must even watch helplessly as one of the Hoovervilles is burned out. The only time they earn enough money to eat comes when they are hired as strike-breakers. Gradually, there is the dawning recognition that the only possible response to these im­possible conditions is solidarity through union organization, pre­cisely what the fruit growers and their agents dread most. In order to overcome the fruit growers’ divisive tactics, Casy becomes an active union organizer and gets killed in the process by a bunch of marauding deputies. At the end, Tom, in his familiar farewell to Ma Joad, is trembling on the verge of Casy’s solution. “That the end will be revolution,” one reviewer writes, “is implicit from the title onwards.”10 Steinbeck ultimately withdraws from such a didactic conclusion, as we shall see in a moment, but that the didactic conclusion is implicit in the narrative can hardly be de­nied:

. . . the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, aftd starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the chil­dren of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.

Hence the symbolism of the title. Clearly woven through the novel, and therefore inseparable from Steinbeck’s prose, we find these sharp political overtones. Besides being a novel, writes one reviewer, The Grapes of Wrath “is a monograph on rural sociology, a manual of practical wisdom in times of enormous stress, an assault on individualism, an essay in behalf of a rather vague form of pantheism, and a bitter, ironical attack on that emotional evangelistic religion which seems to thrive in the more impoverished rural districts of this vast country. . . .”11

Along the highways, a new social order is improvised, a fluid but permanent council in which the family is the basic unit, an order reaching its almost utopian operation at the Government Camp. According to this scheme, the governing laws remain con­stant, while the specific counters are continually replaced, one family succeeding another, a sort of permanent republic which can accommodate a populace in constant motion:

The families learned what rights must be observed—the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights. . . .

And with the laws, the punishments—and there were only two—a quick and murderous fight or ostracism; and ostracism was the worst.

Within such a scheme, Ma Joad’s fierce maintenance of the family becomes more clear. For without the integrity of the clan, survival is all but impossible. The alternatives are death, which does, in fact, snip the Joad family at both ends, claiming both the grand­parents and Rose of Sharon’s baby, or, on the other hand, militant struggle through union organization.

If the biological motifs do not appear in the film, these cor­relative themes are adopted with varying degrees of emphasis. The religious satire, with a single exception, is dropped entirely; the political radicalism is muted and generalized; but the insistence on family cohesion, on affinity for the land, on human dignity is carried over into the movie version.

In the film, the one remnant of tragi-comic religious satire oc­curs in Tom’s first talk with Casy on the way to the Joad house. Casy’s probing self-analysis is essentially the same as in the book, and its culmination, “There ain’t no sin an’ there ain’t no virtue. There’s just what people do,” is a precise copy from the novel. Once the theme is enunciated, however, it is underplayed, recur­ring almost imperceptibly in the burial scene. Ma’s anger at the evangelical camp followers is dropped entirely.

The film-makers must have known that the film was political dynamite. After a difficult decision, Darryl Zanuck began what turned out to be, thematically speaking, one of the boldest films in the history of the movies. The secrecy which surrounded the studios during production has become legend. Even as the film was being shot, Zanuck reportedly received 15,000 letters, 99 per cent of which accused him of cowardice, saying he would never make the film because the industry was too closely associated with big business.12 And yet, fearful that the Texas and Oklahoma Chambers of Commerce would object to the shooting, on their territory, of the enfant terrible of the publishing world, the studio announced that it was really filming another story innocuously entitled, Highway 66.13 It was precisely this fear of criticism, of giving offense to vested interests that was responsible for muting the film’s political implications. Lester Asheim has pointed out how the film scrupulously steers clear of the book’s specific ac­cusations. Many small episodes showing unfair business practices, for example, were cut from the film version.14 While the reference to the handbills which flood Oklahoma, luring an excess labor force out West, is carried over into the film, most of the corre­sponding details are dropped. The complaint about the unfair practices of used-car salesmen; the argument with the camp owner about overcharging; the depiction of the company-store credit racket; the dishonest scales on the fruit ranch; and even the practice, on the part of an otherwise sympathetic luncheon proprietor, of taking the jackpots from his own slot machines—none of these was ever even proposed for the shooting-script. Similarly, all legal authority is carefully exempt from blame. In Tom’s angry speech about the indignities foisted upon the family by the local con­stabulary, everything is retained except his bitter indictment of the deputies, and his line, “. . . they comes a time when the on’y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin’ a sock at a cop.”15 In Casy’s discourse on the progress of the fruit strike, the line, “An’ all the cops in the worl’ come down on us” is deleted. Casy’s announcement that the cops have threatened to beat up recalcitrant strikers is retained, but the film adds, “Not them reg’lar deputies, but them tin badge fellas they call guards….”

In spite of the revolutionary candor of the interchapters, when­ever the film raises questions about whom to see or what to do for recourse or complaint, the novel’s evasive answers are used in re­ply. When Tom asks the proprietor of the Government Camp why there aren’t more places like this, the proprietor answers, “You’ll have to find that out for yourself.” When Muley wants to find out from the City Man who’s to blame for his eviction, so that he can take a shotgun to him, the City Man tells him that the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company is so amorphous that it cannot be properly located. The bank in Tulsa is responsible for telling the land company what to do, but the bank’s manager is simply an employee trying to keep up with orders from the East. “Then who do we shoot?” Muley asks in exasperation. “Brother, I don’t know …” the City Man answers helplessly. To add to the mystification, the film supplies a few clouds of its own. In the scene where Farmer Thomas warns Tom and the Wallaces about the impending raid on the Government Camp, the recurring ques­tion of “red” agitation comes up again. The “red menace” has be­come the raison d’etre for attacks against the squatter camps. Tom, who has heard the argument before, bursts out, “What is these reds anyway?” Originally, according to the script, Wilkie Wallace was to have answered, cribbing his own line from the novel, that according to a fruit grower he knew once, a red is anyone who “wants thirty-cents an hour when I’m payin’ twenty-five.” In the final print, however, Farmer Thomas answers Tom’s question simply but evasively, “I ain’t talkin’ about that one way ’r another,” and goes on to warn the men about the raid.

Even Tom’s much-quoted farewell to Ma Joad, retained in the film, is pruned until little remains but its mystical affirmation. And the final words, backing away from Casy’s conscious social com­mitment, are carried over intact.

Ma: “I don’ un’erstan …

Tom: “Me neither, Ma. . . . It’s jus’ stuff I been thinkin’ about. . . .” In the world of the Ford-Johnson film, the politico- economic tendency is merely an urge in search of a name it is never allowed to find. And yet because of the naked suffering, the brute struggle to survive, devoid of solutions in either church or revolution, John Gassner finds that more appropriate than the image of God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” from which the title is derived, are the lines, “And here in dust and dirt . . . the lilies of his love appear,”16 which connote neither religion nor politics. According to Gassner, bed­rock is reached in this film, “and it proves to be as hard as granite and as soft as down.”

If the religious satire is absent and the politics muted, the love of land, family and human dignity are consistently translated into effective cinematic images. Behind the director’s controlling hand is the documentary eye of a Pare Lorentz or a Robert Flaherty, of the vision in those stills produced by the Resettlement Admini­stration in its volume, Land of the Free (with commentary by Archibald MacLeish), or in Walker Evans’ shots for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with commentary by James Agee), which, like Lorentz’s work, was carried on under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration. Gregg Toland’s photography is acutely conscious of the pictorial values of land and sky, finding equivalents for those haunting images of erosion which were popularized for the New Deal’s reclamation program and reflected in Steinbeck’s prose. The constant use of brooding, dark silhouettes against light, translucent skies, the shots of roads and farms, the fidelity to the speech, manners and dress of Oklahoma farmers—all contribute to the pictorial mood and tone. I am told that some of these exteriors were shot on indoor sound stages at the studios,17 but even this has worked to the advantage of the film-makers. In the studio, Ford was able to control his composition by precise lighting, so that some of the visuals—Tom moving like an ant against a sky bright with luminous clouds, the caravans of jalopies, the slow rise of the dust storm—combine physical reality with careful composition to create striking pictorial effects. Finally, generous selections of dialogue, culled from the novel, echoing the theme of family affiliation with the land, appear in the final movie version. Grampa’s last minute refusal to go, as he clutches at a handful of soil, necessitates Tom’s plan to get him drunk and carry him aboard by force. And, as Muley, John Qualen’s apostrophe to the land, after the tractor has ploughed into his shack, is one of the most poignant anywhere in films.

In the same fashion, the central episodes depicting Ma Joad’s in­sistence on family cohesion, and Tom’s insistence on dignity, are either presented directly or clearly suggested. Ma, to be sure, is made a little less fierce than she is in the novel. Tom still tells Casy the anecdote about Ma’s taking after a tin peddler with an ax in one hand and a chicken in the other, but the scene in which she takes a jack handle after Pa, originally scheduled according to the script, is deleted. We never see Ma physically violent.

Tracing through these recurring themes, comparing and con­trasting the emphasis given to each, gives us all the advantages of content analysis without explaining, finally, the central difference between Steinbeck’s artistic vision and that of the film-makers. This difference does emerge, however, when we compare the two structures.

Some deletions, additions, and alterations, to be sure, reflect in a general way the ordinary process of mutation from a linguistic to a visual medium. On the one hand, the characteristic interchapters in the novel are dropped entirely, those interludes which adopt the author’s point of view and which are at once more lyric and less realistic than the rest of the prose. The angry interludes, the ex­plicit indictments, the authorial commentary do not appear, indeed would seem obtrusive, in the film. Translated into observed reality, however, and integrated into the picture within the frame, certain fragments find their proper filmic equivalents. For example, the interchapters are mined for significant dialogue, and, in fact, Muley’s moving lines, “We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. …” appear originally in one of these interludes. In the second place, the themes of one or two of these interchapters are translated into a few highly effective montages—the coming of the tractors, the caravans of jalopies, the highway signs along route 66. As Muley begins telling his story, over the candle in the dimly lit cabin, the film flashes back to the actual scene. A series of tractors looming up like mechanical creatures over the horizon, crossing and criss­crossing the furrowed land, cuts to the one tractor driven by the Davis boy, who has been assigned the task of clearing off Muley’s farm. Later, as the Joads’ jalopy begins its pilgrimage, we see a similar shot of scores and scores of other jalopies, superimposed one upon the other, making the same, slow, desperate cross­country trek. Finally, the central episodes of the trip are bridged by montages of road signs—“Checotah, Oklahoma City, Bethany,” and so on to California. These devices have the effect of general­izing the conflicts of the Joads, of making them representative of typical problems in a much wider social context. In every reversal, in every act of oppression, we feel the pressure of thousands.

If the film carries these striking equivalents of Steinbeck’s prose, it is partly due to the assistance which Steinbeck offers the film­maker, partly to the visual imagination of the film-maker himself. Except for the freewheeling omniscience of the interchapters, the novel’s prose relies wholly on dialogue and physical action to re­veal character. Because Steinbeck’s style is not marked by medita­tion, it resembles, in this respect, the classic form of the scenario. Even at moments of highest tension, Steinbeck scrupulously avoids getting inside the minds of his people. Here is Ma right after Tom has left her, and probably forever:

“Good-by” she said, and she walked quickly away. Her foot­steps were loud and careless on the leaves as she went through the brush. And as she went, out of the dim sky the rain began to fall, big drops and few, splashing on the dry leaves heavily. Ma stopped and stood still in the dripping thicket. She turned about—took three steps back toward the mound of vines; and then she turned quickly and went back toward the boxcar camp.

Although this is Steinbeck’s characteristic style, it can also serve as precise directions for the actor. There is nothing here which cannot be turned into images of physical reality. Critics who seem surprised at the ease with which Steinbeck’s work moves from one medium to another may find their explanation here. Precisely this fidelity to physical detail was responsible, for example, for the success Of Mice and Men first as a novel, then as a play, then as a film. And yet, in The Grapes of Wrath, the film-makers rethought the material for themselves, and frequently found more exact cinematic keys to the mood and color of particular scenes in the book. Often their additions are most effective in areas where the novel is powerless—in moments of silence. Casy jumping over a fence and tripping, after the boast about his former preaching prowess; Ma Joad burning her keepsakes (the little dog from the St. Louis Exposition, the old letters, the card from Pa); the earrings which she saves, holding them to her ears in the cracked mirror, while the sound track carries the muted theme from “Red River Valley”; the handkerchiefs which Tom and Casy hold to their mouths in the gathering dust; Tom laboriously adding an “s” to “funerl” in the note which will accompany Grampa to his grave; the reflection of Al, Tom, and Pa in the jalopy’s windshield at night as the family moves through the hot, eery desert—all these, while they have no precedent in the novel, make for extraordi­narily effective cinema. The images are clean and precise, the filmic signature of a consistent collaboration between John Ford and his cameraman.

The deletions, on one level, are sacrifices to the exigencies of time and plot. The dialogue is severely pruned. Most of the anec­dotes are dropped, along with the curse words. And the leisurely, discursive pace of the novel gives way to a tightly knit sequence of events. The episodes involving the traveling companionship of the Wilsons; the desertions of Noah and Connie; the repeated warnings about the dismal conditions in California from bitterly disappointed migrants who are traveling home the other way; and countless other small events do not appear in the film story, though a few of them, like Noah’s desertion, appeared in the script and were even shot during production. But the moment we go from an enumeration of these deletions to the arrangement of sequences in the final work, we have come to our central struc­tural problem.

As I indicated earlier, the structure of the book resembles a parabola in which the high point is the successful thwarting of the riot at the Government Camp. Beginning with Tom’s desolate return to his abandoned home, the narrative proceeds through the journey from Oklahoma to California; the Hooverville episodes; the Government Camp episodes; the strike-breaking episodes at the Hooper Ranch; Tom’s departure; the flooding of the cotton pickers’ boxcar camp; the last scene in the abandoned farm. From the privation and dislocation of the earlier episodes, the Joads are continually plagued, threatened with dissolution, until, through the gradual knitting of strength and resistance, the family finds an identity which coincides with its experience at the Government Camp. Here they are startled by the sudden absence of everything from which they have been running—dirty living conditions, ex­ternal compulsion, grubbing for survival, brutal policemen, un­scrupulous merchants. They find, instead, a kind of miniature planned economy, efficiently run, boasting modern sanitation, self-government, co-operative living, and moderate prices. After their departure from the camp, the fortunes of the Joads progres­sively deteriorate, until that desolate ending which depicts Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child floating downstream. The critical response to Steinbeck’s shocking ending was almost universally negative. Clifton Fadiman called it the “tawdriest kind of fake symbolism.”18 Anthony West attributed it to the novel’s “astonishingly awk­ward” form.19 Louis Kronenberger found that the entire second half of the book “lacks form and intensity . . . ceases to grow, to maintain direction,”20 but did not locate the reasons for his dissatisfaction. Malcolm Cowley, in spite of general enthusiasm, found the second half less impressive than the first because Stein­beck “wants to argue as if he weren’t quite sure of himself.”21 Charles Angoff was one of a small minority who defended both the ending and the “robust looseness” of the novel as squarely in the narrative tradition of Melville, Cervantes and Thomas Hardy.22

Contrast these objections with the general approval of the film’s structure. Thomas Burton becomes adulatory over Ford’s “in­cessant physical intimacy and fluency.”23 Otis Ferguson speaks in superlatives: “this is a best that has no very near comparison to date. … It all moves with the simplicity and perfection of a wheel across silk.”24 Why did the film-makers merit such a sharply con­trasting critical reception? Simply because they corrected the objectionable structure of the novel. First, they deleted the final sequence; and second, they accomplished one of the most remark­able narrative switches in film history. Instead of ending with the strike-breaking episodes in which Tom is clubbed, Casy killed, and the strikers routed, the film ends with the Government Camp in­terlude. This reversal, effected with almost surgical simplicity, accomplishes, in its metamorphic power, an entirely new struc­ture which has far-reaching consequences. Combined with the deletion of the last dismal episode, and the pruning, alterations, and selections we have already traced, the new order changes the parabolic structure to a straight line that continually ascends. Beginning with the desolate scene of the dust storm, the weather in the film improves steadily with the fortunes of the Joads, until, at the end, the jalopy leaves the Government Camp in sunlight and exuberant triumph. Even a sign, called for in the original script, which might have darkened the rosy optimism that surrounds the departing buggy, does not appear in the cut version. The sign was to have read, “No Help Wanted.” As in the novel, Tom’s depar­ture is delayed until the end, but the new sequence of events en­dows his farewell speech with much more positive overtones. In place of the original ending, we find a line that appears at the end of Chapter XX, exactly two-thirds of the way through the book. It is Ma’s strong assurance, “We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.” On a thematic level, as Asheim points out, the affirma­tive ending implies that action is not required since the victims of the situation will automatically emerge triumphant. “Thus the book, which is an exhortation to action, becomes a film which of­fers reassurance that no action is required to insure the desired res­olution of the issue.”25 But the film’s conclusion has the advantage of seeming structurally more acceptable. Its “new logic” affords a continuous movement which, like a projectile, carries everything before it. The movie solution satisfies expectations which are there in the novel to begin with and which the novel’s ending does not satisfactorily fulfill. Hence the critics’ conflicting reaction to the two endings. Where the book seems to stop and meander in Cali­fornia, the film displays a forward propulsion that carries well on beyond the Colorado River.

Is such an inversion justified? Nunnally Johnson reports that he chose Ma’s speech for his curtain line because he considered it the “real” spirit of Steinbeck’s book.26 This might seem at first like brazen tampering. But Johnson further reports that from Stein­beck himself he received carte blanche to make any alterations he wished. Steinbeck defended his position on the grounds that a novelist’s final statement is in his book. Since the novelist can add nothing more, the film-maker is obliged to remake the work in his own style. If Steinbeck’s awareness of the adaptational process is not enough, we may also find internal justification for the film­makers’ brilliantly simple reversal. We have seen how the produc­tion crew effected alterations which mute the villainy of cops and tradesmen; underplay the religious satire; cloud over the novel’s political radicalism. But part of this withdrawal has precedent in the novel itself. The city man’s portrayal of the anonymity of the banks; the proprietor’s evasive answer to Tom in the Government Camp; Ma and Tom’s mystical faith—these are all Steinbeck’s. So is the fact that from the beginning Tom is on parole, which he technically breaks by leaving the state. Already he is outside the domain of legal ordinance. Tom is a fugitive who has to keep run­ning. If the film’s conclusion withdraws from a leftist commit­ment, it is because the hovel does also. If the film vaporizes radical sociology, the novel withdraws from it, too, with Rose of Sharon’s final act. The familial optimism of the one and the biological pessimism of the other are two sides of the same coin.

The structural achievement of the cinematic version may ac­count, paradoxically, for the film’s troubling reputation. On the one hand, acclamation, box-office success, critical enthusiasm; Jane Darwell winning an Academy Award for her portrayal of Ma Joad; the casting and acting of Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Charlie Grapewin, John Qualen, Frank Darien, Grant Mitchell, and the others, generally considered flawless; Nunnally Johnson sporting a gold plaque on the wall of his studio office in recogni­tion of a fine screenplay; and one reporter poking fun at the gran­diose premiere of the film at the Normandie Theater in New York, which was attended by glamorous stars adorned in jewels and furs, and, like a “Blue Book pilgrimage,”27 by the representatives of the very banks and land companies that had tractored the Joads off their farms. Zanuck and his entourage must have known that the filmic portrait of Steinbeck’s book was no serious threat.

On the other hand, the industry’s discomfort. The Grapes of Wrath came as close as any film in Hollywood’s prolific turnout to exposing the contradictions and inequities at the heart of Amer­ican life. A new thing had been created and its implications were frightening. In spite of its facile conclusion, the film raises ques­tions to which others, outside the Active world, have had to supply answers. The film’s unusual cinematographic accomplishments, its structural unity, its documentary realism, combine to fashion images, embodying those questions, which one may review with profit again and again. If the novel is remembered for its moral anger, the film is remembered for its beauty. And yet the industry has been a little embarrassed by its success. That success and that embarrassment may help explain why Nunnally Johnson has ac­complished so little of lasting interest since his work on this film, and why he was last seen completing the scenario for Sloan Wil­son’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a book of a very different kind! It may explain why John Ford never lists The Grapes as one of his favorite films, and why Ford himself offers perhaps the best explanation for the film’s unique personality. Tersely, but with just the slightest trace of whimsy and bravado, John Ford remarks, “I never read the book.”28


1. Edmund Wilson, The Boys in the Back Room (San Francisco, 1941), p. 61.

2. In conversation with Mr. Johnson.

3. In Hollywood Reporter (January 9, 1941), p. 3; quoted in Leo C. Rosten, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers (New York, 1941), p. 366.

4. Lester Asheim, “From Book to Film” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1949), pp. 55-56.

5. Wilson, p. 42.

6. lbid., pp. 42-43.

7. Asheim, p. 161.

8. Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (New York, 1915), p. 124.

9. John Steinbeck, “Dreams Piped from Cannery Row,” New York Times Theater Section (Sunday, November 27, 1955), p. 1.

10. Earle Birney, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Canadian Forum, XIX (June, 1939), 95.

11. James N. Vaughan, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Commonweal, XXX (July 28, 1949), 341-342.

12. Frank Condon, “The Grapes of Raps,” Collier’s (January 27, 1940), p. 67.

13. Ibid., p. 64.

14. Asheim, p. 277.

15. Ibid., p. 256.

16. John Gassner, Twenty Best Film Flays, ed. John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (New York, 1943), p. XXVI.

17. In an interview with Mr. Ford.

18. Clifton Fadiman, “Highway 66—A Tale of Five Cities,” New Yorker, xv (April 15, 1939), 81.

19. Anthony West, “The Grapes of Wrath,” New Statesman and Nation, xviii (September 16, 1939), 404-405.

20. Louis Kronenberger, “Hungry Caravan: The Grapes of Wrath,” Nation, CXLVIII (April 15, 1939), 441.

21. Malcolm Cowley, “American Tragedy,” New Republic, XCVIII (May 3, 1939), 382.

22. Charles Angoff, “In the Great Tradition,” North American Review, CCXLVII (Summer, 1939), 387.

23. Thomas Burton, “Wine from These Grapes,” Saturday Review of Literature, XXI (February 10, 1940), 16.

24. Otis Ferguson, “Show for the People,” New Republic, CII (February 12, 1940, 112.

25. Asheim, p. 157.

26. In an interview with the author.

27. Michael Mok, “Slumming with Zanuck,” Nation, CL (February 3, 1940), 127-28.

28. In an interview with the author.

Source: Novels Into Film George Bluestone University Of California Press Berkeley. Los Angeles. London 1971


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