East of Eden is an epic novel about individual ethics – whether men and women have the power to choose between good and evil. East of Eden, to be polite, it is not Steinbeck’s best novel. Not by a long shot. Steinbeck had wrestled with a moral question and lost. It was as though he had been thinking about life, but not too deeply. “East of Eden” was a third-rate best seller, the story of two American families over three generations, seven decades from the Civil War to World War I, told in a book that confuses us with contradictions, that lacks fictional concentration and that wanders in and around too many themes.
Clifton Fadiman once said it was wrong to describe Steinbeck as a hard boiled writer. Well, if a comparison with eggs is necessary, “East of Eden” is an overdone omelet. Steinbeck himself worried about its weaknesses. In a letter to his editor, he said, “It’s kind of a sloppy sounding book, but it’s not sloppy, really. ” Well, it was sloppy. Begging the forgiveness of the people who gave Steinbeck the Pulitizer and the Nobel Prizes for Literature, there are portions of “East of Eden” that sound like something out of Freshman Composition I. Some of the syntax seems like scrambled eggs: – “All around the main subject the brothers beat. “The wrinkles around them (his eyes) were drawn in radial lines inward by laughter. ” – “In human affairs of danger and delicate success, conclusion is sharply limited by hurry. ”
All of which sounds a bit like Charlie Chan explaining life to No. 1 son. Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” now has been adapted for television by ABC, an eight-hour presentation beginning tonight (Channel 5, 8 to 11), tomorrow (9 to 11) and Wednesday (8 to 11). This is no cheapie. Ten years in the making, “East of Eden” was shot on location at a cost of $11. 2 million, with Savannah, Ga. standing in for Connecticut scenes and Salinas, Cal. r itself.
ABC boasts in a press release that the 1955 film starring James Dean covered only a small portion of “East of Eden,” while the 1981 film attempts to depict the entire novel. Ironically, by the way, today (Sunday) is the 50th anniversary of Dean’s birth. The current film version of “East of Eden” is crippled by the same problems that detracted from the book, plus a few more. For one thing, the key role of Adam Trask is played by Timothy Bottoms, whose reservoir of acting skill is limited to three expressions – happy, sad and baffled – which are enough to hold our attention for about 10 minutes.
The other seven hours and 50 minutes is another matter. Bottoms had the misfortune, in addition, to be cast opposite Jane Seymour, who is superb as the beautiful but black-hearted Cathy Ames, who is not the kind of girl you’d want to bring home to mom. Cathy marries Adam Trask and then, on their wedding night, seduces his brother, Cal. Seymour is chilling in her portrayal of evil. Frequently, she is filmed from low angles to make her seem even more intimidating. In the scene where she gives birth to twins, she seems like the personification of Mephistopheles himself, reminiscent of Linda Blair’s performance in “The Exorcist.
Another outstanding portrayal is provided by Soon-Teck Oh, the Korean actor, who has appeared in “M*A*S*H,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Charlie’s Angels. ” Several scenes with Bottoms survive because of Soon-Teck in the role of Lee, the Chinese servant who hides behind pigeon English, although he attended Berkeley, smokes opium, drinks workwood and quotes from the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” in English translation. Other principals are Bruce Boxleitner, Lloyd Bridges, Warren Oates, Howard Duff, Richard Masur, Karen Allen and Anne Baxter.
The theme, as the title suggests, is the story of Cain and Abel. The story opens in Connecticut just after the Civil War and follows the lives of the Trask family across several generations to California. There are literally hundreds of allusions to the biblical story. Indeed, both book and film worry it to death, leaving little to the imagination of reader or viewer. For example, the bad characters, based on Cain, have names beginning with C – Cyrus, Charles, Cathy and Caleb, while the good characters, based on Abel, have names beginning with A – Adam, Alice, Aaron and Abra.
What makes both the book and this film unfullfilling is that Steinbeck never succeeds in proving whether mankind does have the free will to chose between good and evil. He seems not to be sure himself, and as as result, neither are we. “Just as there are physical monsters,” Steinbeck asks, “can there not be mental monsters born with face and body perfect? If a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce a physical monster, may not the same process produce a malformed soul? ” But Steinbeck cannot have it both ways.
He cannot argue the existence of free will and then deny it to his main character, Adam Trask. As Lee, the servant, says, “Adam couldn’t help being good. That’s his nature. It was the only way he knew. ” How are we to accept Steinbeck’s notion of free will when Cathy is given the physical characteristics of Lucifer himself, such as feet as small as hooves and a tongue that flickers serpentinely. For Cathy, there was some balance out of weight, Steinbeck tells us, some gear out of ratio. “She was not like other people,” he says. “Never was. ” Does that sound like free will?
For Steinbeck, all of this is a long way from Tim Casey’s idea in “Grapes of Wrath” that there is no sin and there is no virtue, just the stuff people do. Just as many readers enjoyed the book, many others will enjoy this film. It is good to remember, though, that Steinbeck’s story does not adequately interpret the myth nor does it solve the riddle. If the film becomes tedious, though, you can make up a game to see who can pick out the most references to the Cain-Able fable. Five points for each reference, 10 point penalty if you’ve read the book. Here’s an example to get you started.