In John Steinbeck’s and John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath the feeling of depression in the 1930s is portrayed very clearly. Both the book and movie depict the great migration West by homeless sharecroppers. The farmers were searching for work, money, and happiness, but were faced with many hardships along the way. Those who were able to make it to their destination were not met with the fulfillment of their dreams, but with the feeling of being unwanted. Director John Ford, in translating the novel Grapes of Wrath, by author John Steinbeck to film, made some minor changes in plot, but remained faithful to the characters, mood and theme.
The novel deals with the hardships faced by sharecroppers who live in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the time period of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The story expresses the unfairness and cruelty that can be shown between human beings. The story opens with Tom Joad, recently released on parole after killing a guy, heading to the family farm. He meets Jim Casy, a preacher, and they set off for the Joad farm only to find out the Joad family has been forced out of their home in Oklahoma and must migrate west to California, with the other sharecroppers, in the hopes of finding work and land. The trip is filled with hardships. Grampa Joad, who had not wanted to leave the family farm, dies of a stroke the first night of the trip. This foreshadows how their trip is going to go the entire way.
They borrow a quilt from the Wilsons, another family of sharecroppers who the Joads have met along the road, and bury Grampa. They pair up with the Wilson family and head on. Next, Granma Joad gets sick and keeps getting sicker as they head west. An important part of the plot is when Ma explains to Granma that they must keep moving west and make it across the desert because they are almost out of money. This shows how the migrant workers had to be determined and keep moving toward what they wanted, no matter what the cost may be. Granma knew that and so did Ma. Granma dies and Ma tells the rest of the family the next morning that she is dead. On page 203 it states:
Pa said, “Then Granma’s bad.”
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’ get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we couldn’ he’p her. The fambly had ta get acrost. I tol’ her, tol’ her when she was a-dyin:. We couldn’ stop in the desert.” (page 203)
As the Joad family heads west, they are met by all kinds of hardships. For example, the tension that set the mood of the novel was apparent in chapter 20, pages 236 and 237 when the deputy and contractor came to the camp. One of the migrant workers jerked away from the contractor and accidentally hit him. In response, the deputy tried to shoot the migrant worker, but hitting an innocent woman instead. Tom, the hero of the book, reacted by knocking the deputy out. From that point on in the book, someone was always running, trying to stay one step ahead of whoever was after him. Throughout the novel there was a sense of foreboding. Every few pages, there was something bad that threatened to occur right around the corner.
The book continues with the Joad family’s struggles and attempts to find work, make money and get enough to eat. They keep moving to different camps, getting work for a little bit in a peach orchard for low wages. Tom’s friend Jim Casy leads a strike against the orchard owners because of the low pay. Some opposing men come and kill Casy and Tom then kills one of the men. Tom takes off to hide and the family is off on the road again. One of Tom’s brothers brags about Tom killing a guy, so Tom has to go on the run again. His good character is shown by the fact that he is willing to work for the cause that Jim had started and wants to get better wages for workers.
Their troubles continue when Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, goes into labor and gives birth during a flood to a baby who is dead. After the floodwaters go down, the family heads off again. They find a barn with some dry hay and decide to stay there. There is a man who is dying from starvation in the barn. Ma suggests that Rose of Sharon nurses the man and she does.
The movie follows basically the same plot, dealing with a lot of hardships like in the novel, but deletes much of the final scenes in the book. The movie seems to just cut off at the point where the family gets to Fresno, California. Much of the climax of the book is missing from the movie, such as the flood and the birth of Rose of Sharon’s baby. Basically, the movie deletes chapters 25 – 30.
Some important scenes were in the book but not in the movie. In the book, there was a scene that involved a turtle. The turtle was crossing the road and was almost hit by one car, only to be intentionally hit by the next car. The turtle turned itself over and started off down the road again. This symbolized the Joad family’s journey west. They would slowly plod along, get knocked down and then pick themselves up and head on again. Like the turtle, the Joads fight for their lives and for the lives of others. Rose of Sharon fed the starving man, keeping him from dying. Just like the truck tried to run over the turtle, the rich, snobby people of the west tried to run down the little man (Joads). By leaving the turtle scene and the starving man scene out of the movie, there was a lot lost. These two scenes are probably the most important in some ways, like the symbolism that they show.
John Steinbeck added kind of a side road to his book.
This was in the form of short chapters that really didn’t have anything directly to do with the plot of the story, but were very important in their own way. These were the turtle chapters and all the others that showed the symbolism and mood in very interesting ways. The movie did not include these, and probably really couldn’t do it. These chapters couldn’t have been acted out by the same actors because they were more the thoughts and feelings of the author.
The characters are very well described in Steinbeck’s book. The descriptions and the way they talk helps bring them to life. The characters can basically be divided up into groups that include poor, homeless, migrant farmers; the rich landowners; the law enforcement agents; and the Joad family. Each group will be described.
The migrant farmers are the people that are in most of the camps and are jobless. They have a variety of different personality types but share the fact that they are desperately looking for work, food and money. Some will take a mile if you give them an inch. Others, like the Joads and Jim Casy, have high morals and values. They are very proud people who are just looking for a chance to make a living.
The rich landowners are the ones who owned the land that the farmers used to farm. They are greedy and only care about the migrant workers because they know they need them to keep making money. They are worried about money, too, but at least they still have some. They not only own the land, but also feel like they own the migrant workers. They are “Indian Givers” because they don’t hesitate to take their land and profits away from the farmers who have made them rich.
The Law Enforcement agents kind of play both sides of the fence. They may side with the migrant farmers at heart, but a lot of the times they have to do what the rich landowners tell them to do in order to survive. Their attitudes depend on where they are and whom they are around.
The Joad family is the characters with the most substance and interesting characteristics. They are the main characters. They are tenant farmers who can’t seem to stay out of trouble or in work. However, they are victims of their circumstances, and are trying to get out of the rut that they are in. There is no true leader or person that stands out as a leader by themselves, because each family member is strong in their own way.
Granma and Grampa were the ones who originally settled the Joad farm about forty years earlier. They both loved the farm, and may have died because they couldn’t stand the thought of living and working anywhere else. Granma is supposed to be religious, but when she wants him to pray for Grampa she tells Jim Casy (page 121) when he won’t pray, “Pray goddamn you!” Grampa seems to like to irritate Granma.
Pa is the typical head of the family and it is his decision to move West. He is a hard worker and has a lot of pride in his farm. Ma is probably the strongest if one character had to picked. She always did what had to be done, no matter what the cost. This was shown when she kept the family moving even when Granma was dead, and when she told Rose of Sharon that she should nurse the starving man to save his life. On page 405 it says, “Ma smiled. ‘I knowed you would. I knowed!’”. This is in reference to her wanting Rose of Sharon to feed the starving man. She could take the situation, whatever it was, and make something good out of it. She just did whatever had to be done and was very determined to do whatever she had to do. Although she seemed kind of tough in the way she took care of things, Ma was very kind and gentle where her family was concerned.
Tom Joad is the character who seems to be the center of the story. He is an outspoken guy who likes to be in the middle of trouble. He also seems to like attention. He doesn’t like to be pushed around and kind of rebels against the cops when they start pushing him around. Although he comes home to be with his family, he never really shows that he cares deeply for them. His life shows all of the troubles and trials that the whole Joad family has to experience. His friend, Jim Casy, is almost a member of the Joad family. He used to be a preacher, and now believes that holiness is in each person, so he doesn’t preach anymore, he just hangs around people. Casy is always looking out for everyone else’s well being. On page 238 this is shown when Casy says, “You better see how bad that woman is hurt”. He further proves he has a streak of good when he takes the rap for knocking out the deputy so that Tom could be around to take care of his family.
Other Joad family members are also in the book. Noah Joad is the retarded son who got injured at birth. He is kind of slow and not real bright. Rose of Sharon is the daughter. She is married to Connie, but he leaves her. Al, Ruthie and Winfield are other Joad children who don’t really have a very big part.
Although the characters were about the same in the movie as in the book, there were some differences in the way the characters appeared. In the book, the Joads were always very cautious of people that they didn’t know. Pa, especially, wondered about taking other people along with them. He was afraid they wouldn’t have enough food for Jim Casy, but Ma convinced him to take Jim with them. In the movie, Pa seemed to be a little easier going. The movie showed the Joads as more approachable and treating everyone like they were part of the family. They seemed more likely to feed and help everyone in the movie, than in the book. The Joads were ready to take the Wilsons with them to California. In one scene in the movie, Pa Joad seemed almost ready to stay with the Wilsons since Mrs. Wilson was sick. Ma was stronger, and made sure they went on ahead.
Tom Joad was played by Henry Fonda in the movie, which I thought was a really good actor to play that role. Fonda made Tom Joad seem very real, and he was a lot like how I had pictured Tom in the book. Tom Joad in the movie started out like in the book, being kind of quiet and reserved. As the movie went on, Tom became more outgoing than he ever did in the book.
The theme of the novel is that, life isn’t always fair, but that doesn’t mean that people should not keep trying to find a better life for themselves and their families. Tom killed a man in self-defense and served four years for his crime. When Al asked Tom about the killing and if he ever thought about it Tom said, “Sure. I was sorry ‘cause he was dead. I done my time, and’ I done my own time.” (page 156). Tom shows that he was dealt a hand that might not be fair, but that he had paid his dues and was now ready to move forward. The mood that goes with this theme is one of seriousness and depression. Not only does the novel take place during the Great Depression, but there is also a great amount of depression among the people in the book.
Another theme is that of survival. Ma Joad keeps plodding ahead to try to help her family just survive. There were sacrifices to be made to make sure they could survive. Granma and Granpa had to be buried in ways and places that they were not real happy about, but they had to do it that way to survive. Tom had to run away to make sure he would survive. Jim Casy had to take the rap for Tom so the Joads would have Tom’s support and a greater chance of survival. Rose of Sharon had to nurse the stranger to make sure he would survive. On page 348 when Ma says, “Every’thing we do… is aimed a goin’ on”. Survival was the only real goal that the Joads and other migrants could afford to have.
Finally, the theme of reaching out to one’s fellow man is strong in the novel. In the beginning, Ma is just worried about keeping her family together. By the end of the book, she is concerned about the Wilsons, Jim Casy, the starving man and others. On page 397 Ma says, “Or anybody. Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.” As the family moved forward, so did their goals. They were able to be concerned about others instead of just about themselves. Family first, justice, faith, choices and regrets are all part of the theme of what the family went through on their journey to California and to being better people inside.
The mood that was related to this theme is one of pride and improvement. The hard times that the Joads had to experience led them to being better people and this improvement resulted in a feeling of pride. Like the turtle in the road, they just kept going forward to a positive goal.
In the movie, the themes were the same, but not as strong. The theme of life not being fair was shown in the movie with almost the same degree as in the book. However, the themes of survival and reaching out to one’s fellow man were not developed nearly as much in the novel. One of the reasons this is true is that the movie stopped short of the final scene of Rose of Sharon feeding the starving man. This was a very strong scene, and it seemed to show the ultimate sacrifice of a person in order to help another person. The turtle story, as mentioned before, was another strong source of the theme of survival and also was not in the movie.
The theme of helping one’s fellow man was also not as developed in the movie. The movie showed the Joads as being somewhat concerned, but didn’t give good, concrete examples of that. The mood in the movie was a little different from the book. After watching the movie, I thought the story was more depressing than I had after reading the book. The mood of the movie, although consistent with that of the book, could be described as more depressing and as having more anger, anxiety and doubt. This more negative mood and the fact that it didn’t have as much of a mood of improvement and pride was because the positive themes had not been developed as well in the movie.
In translating the novel Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to film, director John Ford made some minor changes in the plot, but remained faithful to the characters, mood and theme. It was very obvious that the novel did the better job in portraying the detail and scenes. It only seems right that John Steinbeck would do the better job at giving us what was his in the first place. His writing style is very interesting, and the little added chapters of thought and reflection that he put in between the regular chapters helped make the novel more meaningful. The movie was produced in 1940, and the technology was not what it is today.
It would be interesting to see what the movie would be like if it was produced in 1999 instead of 50 years earlier. It was interesting that words in a book could paint a better picture than the moving pictures themselves. Steinbeck must have plodded along, heading westward, to achieve such a great final product. Perhaps he saw his journey of writing the book in this way: “The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.” (page 13).
1. Steinbeck, J. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: The Viking Press, 1939.
2. The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by John Ford, Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, 1940.