Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (continued)

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John Steinbeck comes across as, like many writers, somewhat ambivalent about the value of cinema. The short sequence from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath quoted in the last post is, however, far from a blanket condemnation of cinema. It closes with the suggestion that the light entertainment offered by mainstream Hollywood cinema has a value in helping those that ‘git enough sorrow’ to ‘git away from it’. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest checking this out here.

Nevertheless cinema surely loses the battle when pitted against oral storytelling, which is seen as connected to the people and to their Nation’s intricate, complex history. The difference is between two forms of ‘popular’ storytelling, the latter seen as following this word’s originary meaning, ‘of the people’, the former perhaps not so much..

The tale from the man who was a ‘recruit against Geronimo’ proposes a version of American history that we would not ordinarily hear – that of the sympathy that some soldiers apparently had for their Native American foe. The figure of the Native American man here seems intended as a point of identification for those suffering through the Depression. They likewise might have felt tall and strong like this ‘brave’ and yet had now been cut down ‘All tore to pieces an’ little.’ This identification is clear as the storyteller describes him as appearing to the soldiers ‘like a cross’, linking him to the Christian image of unjust sacrifice.

Steinbeck’s claim to a breaking-down of racial barriers through oral storytelling seems to serve in part as a means of differentiation of this form from cinema. Indeed this sympathy for the Native American, significantly, was absent from movie Westerns at this time. This notion of the importance and value of empathetic identification across barriers in a time of crisis, seen here, is central to this novel as a whole, where the principal barrier is not, however, race but that of class.. Steinbeck’s novel as a whole wants to show his characters as more than their poverty.. as human beings in a fuller sense than capitalism would dictate.

And it’s implied that movies on the Depression don’t offer this kind of empathy. While in the movie the rich couple are pretending to be poor, the poor guy who’s just seen the movie can’t remember the moral of the story – suggesting this was probably pretty banal. The Depression is seen to be exploited as a subject matter only in order to sell cinema-tickets.. It seems all the glamour of Hollywood remains intact in spite of the trouble that the rest of the US was facing.

Still, the paralleling of the ‘Injun’ and cinema as being both in someway bigger than us is intriguing. Perhaps it suggests that cinema has something innate within it that might still have some potential.. The potential to tell the kind of a big story that Steinbeck is trying to get at in his book..

By the by, I gather Steinbeck very much liked John Ford’s movie of the book. I recommend checking this out if you haven’t seen it yet..

4 responses to “Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (continued)

  1. Interesting site you have here…will the “movies and literature” theme be an ongoing series with this blog, or just something you’re exploring now? I liked your thoughts in the previous posting about the perverse pleasures to be taken in imperfection (Dostoevsky’s quote as an example) – many of the great artworks of all mediumes are based on this perception, coupled with the appeal of tension.

    As I side note, and I’m not sure if it’s a slip-up of the program you’re using but I see a lot of double periods (i.e. “..” instead of “.”, sometimes with a space). Gets a little distracting occasionally (not to call the kettle black here; I’ve put up some atrociously spelled posts before which others have pointed out to my chagrin.)

    Keep up the good work.

    Oh, and you’ve been added to the blogroll!

  2. Thanks for the comments dude. Yes I’m hoping to keep going with the Movies in Literature thread as long as I can keep finding nice sections from books – I have maybe 4 or 5 possibles at the moment, but after that who knows! Any ideas?

    As much as possible I’m hoping it’ll be more specific than just movies and literature and point specifically to the way that literature and other art forms discuss the movies.. As opposed to the more commonplace point of discussion which goes the other way around, focusing on movie adaptations of books.

    I like the idea of one form discussing another within it – I suppose the true opposite to my thing would be as much the way that books, writing and the notion of “literature” figure within films themselves, going back to e.g. intertitles.. In the poetry world they have a term, ekphrasis, for poems that describe paintings. I gather this word can be used more broadly too – for any art form discussing a different art form..

    I’m also interested in questions and ideas on the nature of cinema and am hoping in some small way to open this out beyond the realm of film studies, at least for myself anyway..

    The “..”s are actually an intentional grammatical choice! Meant, I guess, to suggest that an idea isn’t fully finished.. Full stops are too definitive and serious! In that way it can be a bit like a semi-colon too, and allows me to find a different writing style to the kind I’m used to.

    And also to give a sense of something like a pause for thought, but not quite as extreme as the “…” we’re used to. I dunno. I just did it at the start and have got kind of used to it as a style! So that I find it hard to imagine the things I’ve written this way with regular full-stops instead.. Makes it feel like my own distinct style or something.. Best not to think about these kind of things tho! Now I’m feeling self-conscious about it (!) and am not sure how I’m going to end this sentence…

  3. You’ll be happy to now I included a link to this entry in my year-end round-up; you can check it out here (lots of other great blogs to visit too):

    http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/dancing-image-in-2008.html

  4. Hey,

    Yes I noticed that – it’s much appreciated! I’ve been looking through that list and found a lot of interesting stuff.

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