Grapes of Wrath, The

John Ford

9/10 (inherent adaptation problems, choppy editing)

This is one of the most watchable old films I’ve ever seen, right up with “Citizen Kane” and “12 Angry Men.” Direction, photography, and acting all shine. The story is a little weak, as there’s simply no way to provide all of the rich characterization and settings that Steinbeck does in his novel. Because of that, the movie felt a little jumpy to me, but all in all it is one of the best adaptations I have seen. Of course, the ending is unfortunately altered, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a Hollywood film from the 40s to end with a stillborn baby and a woman breastfeeding a grown man, no matter how symbolic the imagery is meant to be.

This is a great movie to see for anybody interested in director John Ford, actor Henry Fonda, or old films in general (as it’s quite accessible to the modern viewer). It’s also good if you have to read The Grapes of Wrath for school, or if you’d like to know what all the fuss is about without actually reading the book. It is a decently faithful adaptation, but of course nothing can make up for the richness of the book.

I have two complaints relating to discrepancies between the book and the movie. The first, is the total lack of explanation involving the disappearance of brother Noah. This left me very confused: in one scene, he is bathing with them in the river, and 2 scenes later they are down to “4 men.” This strikes me as both an editing and script problem, and one of the only flaws I noticed in the film. The other problem I had was one of interpretation. Henry Fonda’s “Tom Joad” came across as more confrontational than he seemed in the book. This is evident in the first scene with the trucker, and then later, on the porch at the $.50 campsite. My vision of Tom Joad after reading the book was of a more softspoken man, not as likely to confront someone directly, but certainly not willing to back down once disrespected. Of course, Fonda’s performance was still fantastic. All in all, I would have liked to have seen maybe 20-30 minutes more of character development or plot points (from the novel) added, but that is just coming from someone who was blown away by the book, so take it for what it’s worth.

Some people complain about the blatantly socialist agenda of the film, so it’s appropriate to respond. It’s well-known that Steinbeck was a socialist/communist, so anybody with strong ideological objections to this position might want to avoid the film. Of course, anybody with an open mind and a taste for good cinema will want to see it anyway. Whether you are socialist or capitalist is really beside the point. The over-riding theme of the book and movie is how disadvantaged people maintain hope and preserve dignity in the face of injustice. It’s an equally sad but uplifting message.

21 March 2010

Other Reviews of “Grapes”


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