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John Steinbeck at the Movies

Published: 2/27/2012

John Steinbeck (Wikimedia Commons/Nobel Foundation)Born 110 years ago today, John Steinbeck was one of the most celebrated novelists of the 20th century. His works won awards, became standards in high school and college classrooms, and have been turned into movies as enduring as the novels that inspired them. In honor of Steinbeck's birthday, we look at three of the movies that grew from his books.

The Grapes of Wrath. The novel of the Joad family's life during the Depression won Steinbeck both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The 1940 movie, released just a year after the book's publication, was no less notable. Starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, the ex-convict turned fighter for social justice, the movie toned town the book's strong left-leaning politics somewhat. But the film was as massive a success as the book, earning Oscars for John Ford as best director and Jane Darwell as best supporting actress, playing Ma Joad.

East of Eden. John Steinbeck considered 1952's East of Eden to be his greatest novel: "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." The story follows the intertwined lives of the Hamilton and Trask families through years of their life in California's Salinas Valley, paralleling the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The movie, released just three years after the book, starred James Dean in one of his most iconic roles. He played Cal Trask, the Cain figure of the story's allegory. While Dean didn't win an Oscar for his role, he was nominated – as were Elia Kazan for best director and Paul Osborn for best screenplay. Costar Jo Van Vleet, playing Cal's mother, won the best supporting actress Oscar.

Of Mice and Men. Of all Steinbeck's novels, Of Mice and Men may be the most enduring (although that's an almost impossible call to make). Read by generations of schoolchildren and challenged by generations of censors for its vulgarity and themes, it has made a mark on the American literature landscape that won't soon be erased. And it's unsurprising that it alone among Steinbeck's novels has seen three movie adaptations: twice for the big screen in 1939 and 1992, and once as a made-for-TV movie, in 1982. Both silver-screen adaptations are highly regarded, though only the original version received Oscar nominations: a total of four, for best picture, best sound recording, best musical score, and best original score. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. played George and Lennie, the migrant farm workers whose dream of settling down on their own farm was never to be realized.

Though each book – and each movie adapted from them – is firmly set in its own time period, a crystal-clear glimpse of a place and time in our history, their stories are timeless. Steinbeck deserves his place at the top of the American literature canon.

Written by Linnea Crowther

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