There’s always an especial risk with watching the film adaptation of one of your favorite books. You have a picture in your head about how the characters look, and how certain moments look, and they never match what’s on the screen and you may be thrown by that. Or the adaptation process forces the screenwriter to cut some of your favorite parts, especially the little throwaway lines that you know don’t advance the plot but they still added nuance (there’s a lot of ways where the miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand went wrong, but I will always appreciate their inclusion of a moment with a delirious CDC employee that always gives me chills). I get even more so protective if it’s a story about the Great Depression, and how it was this country’s one strongest flirtation with a genuine national safety net for all. (Pause while I genuflect in the general direction of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and whisper “but may that record be surpassed.”) So I am pleased to report that my impression of The Grapes of Wrath was “….actually, that was pretty darn okay.”
I wasn’t expecting perfection anyway. This was never going to be a faithful recreation of the book – John Steinbeck’s original novel was far more devastating in its narrative, far more progressive in its politics, and far more severe a depiction of the dire straits faced by migrant farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl. The particular family we follow through the book is the Joad family, largely through the eldest son Tom (Henry Fonda) who’s just been paroled for good behavior after serving 3 years for manslaughter. He comes home to his sharecropper family’s farm to find it deserted, the land seized by the bank after severe drought cut into the crops. He meets up with them at his uncle’s house, where they’ve all pooled their money and are packing for a road trip to California where they can start fresh. Once in California, though, they find that the promise of easy work is a little empty, thanks to an oversaturation of workers and exploitative tactics on the farmers’ part.
At the time the film was made, Steinbeck was still facing harsh attacks from various California food growers complaining about how they were depicted in his book; several conservative politicians were also giving him the side-eye about sections that seemed to praise socialism. But the book was also wildly popular. So screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford faced a bit of a tightrope in making something that would appeal to the fans, yet appease the critics.
Steinbeck’s original work gave both a big boost. The Joad family’s journey takes them along Route 66, from Oklahoma to California, right bang through John Ford’s favorite locations to shoot in; they don’t linger there, necessarily, but Ford includes several beauty shots of the Joad family truck poking its way through New Mexico desert and alongside Arizona mountains. Ford also does a lot to set the Joads against the landscape; one especially eye-catching shot comes during the Joad driving through California’s desert at night, with three of the Joads having a conversation in the front seat of the car. Instead of watching them, the camera is pointed out the front window, showing us the Joads’ ghostly reflections against the backdrop of eerie Joshua Trees silhouetted against the night sky.
As for the language – usually I’m not too much of a fan of adaptations that stick large passages from the book into characters’ mouths, just because “in the book he thinks this, but it’s so pretty let’s make him say it out loud”. I admit that my extant love of the book may have carried me over that in this case, but Johnson does a decent job recreating the book’s feel of a world where it does make sense for salt-of-the-earth farmers to randomly bust out with philosophical musings about how women can cope with change better because they experience things as all one great flow of life, or how maybe we don’t have individual souls but just our own bit of a universal consciousness.
The performances help too, of course. I didn’t have any particular image of Tom Joad in mind when I read the book, but Fonda’s tall, lanky build and weatherworn face instantly made me think “okay, yeah, that works.” As the lead, he gets most of the philosophical musing, but delivers it in a way that sounds organic and natural. Arguably his biggest co-star is Jane Darwell, as Ma Joad; instead of being a stereotypical “nurturing mother” character, Darwell gives the role a much-needed steeliness and grit, depicting the strength that a migrant family would need to keep the family together during its descent into economic chaos. And yet she’s also nurturing enough that you understand why the family relies on her so.
Ma Joad also gets a quiet little scene I don’t remember from the book. As the family is packing up to leave Oklahoma, there’s a scene with Ma inside the house going through a box of keepsakes, pocketing the ones she’ll take and burning the rest in the kitchen stove. But she reviews each carefully; smiling at the postcard from New York or tearing up at the love letter before consigning it to the flames, or admiring the slogan on a little toy dog declaring it a “Souvenir of the Great St. Louis Exhibition 1904” before pocketing it. She pauses even longer at a pair of old earrings, taking a moment to hold them up to her ears and study her reflection in the dim light. She pockets the earrings, but never wears them; the next time you see them, they’re on the ears of her daughter Rose-of-Sharon (Doris Bowdon), shortly after Rose’s husband has skipped out on her somewhere in Arizona. But Darwell’s wordless scrutiny of her reflection speaks volumes; she’s admiring the earrings, remembering happier days of her youth, regretting the hard luck that’s befallen her family, and wondering at the passage of time and her own age, all just with the look on her face.
Darwell won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and deservedly so.