Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Grapes of Wrath (1940) >> Issue Essay >>

Grapes of Wrath: Novel vs. Film

By Lyndsey Collins

[1] Both John Steinbeck's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford's Oscar-nominated film adaptation are world-renowned masterworks. There have been countless discussions and debates over how the novel and film compare. Though written in 1973, George Bluestone's analysis of the two works is still the most recognized and esteemed essay on the topic. Bluestone argues that though the film does shy away from some of the more controversial topics depicted in the book, it still deserves recognition for being a great work.

[2] Collectivism and socialist suggestions are embedded throughout Steinbeck's novel. Twentieth Century Fox felt extremely uncomfortable producing a movie with such controversial political messages. The studio received 15,000 letters accusing the producers of cowardice. The letters claimed that the studio was too closely associated with "big business" to ever make the movie. According to Bluestone, "It was precisely this fear of criticism of giving offense to vested interests that was responsible for muting the film's political implications." Many scenes in the novel referencing unfair business practices were not put in the film. For instance, the film mentions handbills luring an excess of laborers to California; most of the corresponding details in the novel are dropped. Such other scenes from the novel as the complaint about the unfair practices of a used car-salesman, the argument with the camp owner about overcharging, and the dishonest scales on the fruit ranch are all left out of the film. Unlike the novel, the film exempts legal authority from blame. In the novel, during the strike scene Casy says, "An all the cops in the worl' come down on us." This line is deleted from the film. Similarly, Tom's angry speech about the indignities of the local authorities is kept in the film except for one line when he says, "They comes a time when on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin a sock at a cop." Bluestone claims "These types of deletions could not have been arbitrary."

[3] The film also removes many controversial and racy scenes referencing sexual activity, savagery, and violence. A constant motif throughout the novel is the presence of animal imagery. In the film, however, animal imagery is completely left out. In the novel, according to Bluestone, "When the oppression of the Joads increases, so does the presence of literal and figurative animals." He goes on to say, "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." Bluestone was shocked that the highly cinematic passage of slaughtering pigs in preparation for the journey to California is absent from the film.

[4] Ford really toned down the "shock and awe" factors of the novel, but he did keep certain themes such as familial survival and connection to the land. Bluestone argues that

If religious satire is absent and the politics muted, the love of land, family and human dignity are consistently translated into effective cinematic images. There are generous selections of dialogue culled from the novel echoing the theme of family affiliation with the land appears in the final movie version.

One such scene includes Grampa's last-minute refusal to leave his farm as he clutches a handful of soil. In order to get Grampa to leave, Tom needs to get him so drunk he can't fight getting aboard the Jalopy. Muley also shows love for his land as he watches his home get "tractored" and cries out, "We were born on it and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours."

[5] Bluestone emphasizes that these deletions and some scene switches created an entirely new message in the movie. Bluestone affirms that "The film-makers accomplished one of the most remarkable narrative switches in film history." Bluestone is referring to the ending in which, 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 scene. Bluestone remarks that "This reversal, effected with almost surgical simplicity, accomplished in its metamorphic power an entirely new structure which has far reaching consequences." Bluestone believes that the film ends much more optimistically than the novel. He notes that "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 would have read ‘No Help Wanted'." Ma Joad's final speech also altered the film's meaning. When Ma says, "We'll go on forever, Pa. We're the people," Bluestone claims

This 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.

[6] Though Bluestone acknowledges that major themes in the novel are changed in the film, he justifies the alterations. Bluestone states that Steinbeck gave screenwriter Nunally Johnson the right to make any alterations he wanted. He quotes Steinbeck: "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." Bluestone commends Steinbeck's "awareness of the adaptational process." Bluestone also believes that the muting of authoritative cruelty and political radicalism is somewhat present in the novel as well. Later, critic Warren French strongly disagrees with this statement. He argues:

The final point of the movie is exactly the opposite of the novel's. It is an insistence that survival depends not upon changing and dynamically accommodating oneself to new challenges but rather passively accepting one's lot and keeping plodding along. The film does not embody Steinbeck's transcendental vision of all human beings as part of one oversoul but rather the traditional Christian concept of earthly humility and divine justice.

[7] Bluestone does not fault the film for the alternate ending. Instead, he commends the film for what it does well, saying that "If the novel is remembered for its moral anger, the film is remembered for its beauty." Bluestone is especially moved during the scene in which Ma Joad burns her keepsakes. He concludes that "The film-makers 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."

[8] The Grapes of Wrath, both the novel and the film, are respected works of art. Rather than having expectations or preconceived notions about what he thought the film should be like, Bluestone viewed them as separate works. Bluestone makes it a point to give them both recognition for things they do well. He understands that the studio producing the film was under a lot of pressure to tone down the novel's controversial scenes. He also respects Steinbeck's acceptance of the film's alterations as well. Almost forty years after Bluestone wrote this article, his ability to analyze each work separately and give a fair and critical comparison makes his commentary the most respected comparison of the novel and the film to this day.