“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.”
I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath a few years back, and I wasn’t the biggest fan. The book is historically significant and its literary merit is unquestionable, but there’s something tedious about the repetition of events and the nature of the story itself where I found it hard to get through. For these same reasons, I wasn’t much a fan of the 1940 film either. The direction, the casting, and the presentation of the film are of the highest quality, and there are some really powerful moments in the film, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just waiting for this thing to end once the story neared its finish.
The Grapes of Wrath is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel to my recollection, with deviations only in terms of the sequencing of events and the way the story resolves itself. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it follows Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), a young Oklahoma man recently paroled from prison. Joad meets up with his family only to find that all the farms are being taken by the banks due to the toll of the Great Depression, so the entire family packs up and travels west in search of work. Along the way, the family faces hardships and despair as they chase after stability and unity despite their pressing circumstance. Along with the theme of perseverance, the film also explores the notion of the family unit, with the Joad family symbolizing countless others who found themselves in similar situations following the hit of the Depression (or really any economic struggle).
I understand the widespread love for The Grapes of Wrath. The story is powerful, personal, and it’s an important testament to one of the most despairing times in American history. What I don’t understand is the enjoyment for following this kind of story. It’s not just that the story is sad, although the film does tend to wallow in grief for long stretches, but I can’t find anything to latch onto. Tom Joad isn’t much of a likable character in my view, and the film’s decision (straight from the novel) to focus on the family unit as a whole leaves it without much personality. Another major departure from the novel is that most of the family hardly gets any lines of dialogue; the film clearly had to trim a lot of important moments of characterization just to move the journey forward. The story feels like a bunch of events, most of them sad, strung together for cohesiveness of story first and foremost, leaving us mostly devoid of personal connection.
I’m not sure what a better way to adapt the novel might have been, but I’m of the opinion that this story was best meant for the written word anyway. One of the redeeming factors of the book was John Steinbeck’s poetry of language. Even the book’s powerful imagery felt missing from the film, something I was hoping the film adaptation would be able to capture. John Ford is one of the leading directors of this time, and his talent shows in the quality of the film, but the substance just wasn’t there. I was really hoping that the film would utilize the cinematic medium to bring this story to life and resonate with me better than the book did, but it had the opposite effect. All the beautiful Steinbeck details that flowed through the novel aren’t present in the film, and we’re left with the shell of a story: a sad road trip.
To the film’s credit, there were things that I still enjoyed. The decision to change the novel’s ending to something a bit lighter was a wise call, if only to break up the repetitive formula of obstacle after obstacle. I also really enjoyed some of the monologues when we get insight into the characters. The famous back-and-forth at the end with Tom Joad and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) comes to mind. Even if all the pieces aren’t in place as well as they are in the book, the payoff is still there. It’s clearly the best scene in the film to hear Tom resisting the hatred and the oppression of the system and making a decision to work actively against injustice. I also enjoyed how the film attempted to capture the desperate clinging to humanity that you’d find in the novel. Characters will often actively choose self-sacrifice, even when their backs are against the wall, simply as a gesture of human kindness. I feel that one of Steinbeck’s primary lessons from the text is that human dignity and kindness must remain afloat in times of trouble, and the film keeps this idea prominent in each of its scenes.
The Grapes of Wrath is considered a classic of both American literature and cinema. While I wasn’t a huge fan of either, I understand their significance; I just wish the story had something I could point to for keeping me engaged. Some truly important ideas are explored in this movie, but I feel that you need to have a solid story for any of that to really hit home in a meaningful way, and that’s where the film falters in my opinion. It’s not something I’d hope to see again, but I may give it another shot in the future.
Films Left to Watch: 906