the 1st Edition cover of John Steinbeck’s immortal The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

The Grapes of Wrath

  • Author:  John Steinbeck  (1902  –  1968)
  • Rank:  #18
  • Published:  1939
  • Publisher:  Viking
  • Pages:  581  (Penguin paperback)
  • First Line:  “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.”
  • Last Lines:  “Her hand moved behind his head and supported it.  Her fingers moved gently in his hair.  She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”
  • ML Edition:  #148  (1941)
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize, Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century  –  #10, All-TIME 100 Novels
  • Film:  1940  (****, dir. John Ford  –  #1 film of 1940)
  • Read:  Summer, 1996

The Novel: Would someone who didn’t know who John Steinbeck was when this novel was first released perhaps think he was from Oklahoma?  With the amazing descriptions he gives of the land, who would think that he was actually from California: “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 sheep’s wool.”  But Steinbeck, of course, had come from the Promised Land, where all the fruits and vegetables were being grown, where he could see first hand what would happen to these Oklahoma farmers when they would come west in the desperate hope for work.

Steinbeck alternates chapters between descriptions of Oklahoma and generic characters who are making the journey from the Dust Bowl to the coast.  These chapters are amazing descriptions of the land, of the people, of the hardships, of everything that the country has been suffering through.  The other chapters are the story of the Joads, the family that he focuses upon and their own journey across the land.

This is one of those rare books that immediately became a lynchpin of cultural history.  It won the Pulitzer, but also was the single best-selling book of the year.  It was talked about by everyone who read it, but also quickly moved into the American Canon and entered the short-list for books that could be considered The Great American Novel.  It touched on all the things that were going on in the country, but didn’t short-shrift its development of characters.

Tom Joad is one of the great characters in all of literature.  He isn’t a hero.  He’s just a man, just a fella “tryin’ to get along without shovin’ nobody around.”  In some ways he is the lynch-pin around which the Joad family manages to cling and survive (later, in both the novel and the film, we will discover that in fact it is Ma who is the real lynch-pin).  He holds the family together, leading them away from Oklahoma and out towards California.  In California, confronted with a society that doesn’t want him, an economic system designed to keep him down, and law enforcement determined to drive him and his family into servitude, he finally rebels.  He fights back in the only way he knows how after a friend of his, a former preacher who has come west with the family, is killed.  Suddenly, faced with the prospect of keeping the family together or forcing them to continually hide him, he turns away.  But not before he tells his mother where she can find him, where she will always be able to find him, a speech that nearly leaps off the page and becomes, in the film, one of the most haunting and famous speeches in cinematic history.

People think of this as the conclusion, both to the novel and the film.  In the film, of course, there are the famous lines that Ma speaks about being “the people.”  But the novel is much more haunting.  After Tom leaves, the family must stick together through a flood as Tom’s sister gives birth to a baby who doesn’t survive.  Then, fleeing the flood, they come upon a barn and a poor dying man and his desperate son.  What follows is the most haunting, poetic scene to ever close a novel.  It is at once tragic and heart-breaking, yet, a hopeful reminder of what Steinbeck is reminding us in every page of the novel.  We are all a common people, we are all in this together, and we will stand together or we will all drown in these floods.  So she helps in the only way she can, in the way that he needs in order to live.  And they both cling to life.

One of the lobby posters for John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

The Film: Just as Tom Joad is one of the great characters in American literature, so too, is Henry Fonda’s portrayal of him, one of the great performances in the history of American film.  It is one of the many things that Nunnally Johnson, in his adaptation of the film got so perfectly right.

The early scenes of the film are straight from the book, with dialogue arriving on screen almost intact from the page.  The line about tryin’ to get along is good on the page, but the way Henry Fonda utters it makes it immortal.  And John Ford’s direction and the amazing cinematography from Gregg Toland perfectly capture the Oklahoma landscape, exactly the way it is described.

But also look at the parts that were changed or were cut.  There are scenes from the other chapters, from the ones that don’t specifically tell the story of the Joads, that are used in the film.  They fit the action perfectly and they add more pathos to the overall story.  But there are also cuts, because of course, you can’t turn a 580 page novel into a 2 hour film without some cuts.  But the cuts are all well made, many of them on the initial journey across the country, including the family they link up with.  Johnson wisely gets them there a bit quicker and with fewer incidents.  But he keeps the spirit of the story intact.

There is also one vital cut, of course.  The ending.  There is no possibly way that the ending of the book could have possibly appeared on-screen.  Instead, wisely, Johnson chose to write the “we’re the people” speech and use it to close the film.  There is still a sense of unity, of how people must stick together and it works well.  This is one of the best examples of taking a great novel and making the necessary changes to make it a great film.  They are both immortal works of Americana.

Perhaps this is the most telling thing about this film.  There is a new film version of Les Miserables due out at Christmas, alongside films of two of the few works that rank higher on this list than this one: Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby.  But, even though this film was made so quickly that it had already been playing in theaters for months before the novel even won the Pulitzer, there doesn’t seem to have been anyone who has ever considered re-making it.  It is a rare thing when a film so perfectly captures a novel that no one else will dare touch it.  Hell, it took three tries before The Maltese Falcon found perfection with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart.  But that no one else has bothered with this since speaks volumes about its perfection, both as an adaptation, and as a film.

I have already written about the film twice before, once, focusing on the power of the film, and once on its depiction of California, whose history and mine are intertwined much like Steinbeck’s.