Friday, August 26, 2011

East of Eden. A

John Steinbeck's sprawling masterpiece was a bit grab bag of a novel, with no real direction except geographically-east to west. The famous 1955 adaptation with James Dean cuts out the entire first half of the book (it's a pretty hefty tome, about 600 very full pages) and deals mainly with the character Cal (Dean) the loose cannon but loving son of Adam Trask, whose compelling history, going back to civil war days in Connecticut, is only referenced sporadically in the film. And references are the way East of Eden manages to tell most of Steinbeck's massive story in such a short amount of time. The book took its time developing every character and moving through a span of about fifty years. Much of this history, especially Adam's relationship with his wife turned whoremaster, is developed through conversations about the past. But Steinbeck's novel is still so substantial a work that the movie, because it's a movie, pales in comparison. One of the most important characters from the book, Adam's servant, Lee, is left out entirely, and the satanic evil of Adam's wife is toned down quite a bit, too. Still, the movie manages to get across some of the book's important themes, most notably the consequences of love's absence, and also nicely develops the biblical parallels. It's also impeccably acted, not just by Dean but Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Burl Ives. I first saw East of Eden about three years ago, and its main impact was that I realized how good an actor Dean was. I've spent the last few weeks reading Steinbeck's novel, loving it, and all the time looking forward to seeing the movie again. Now that I have, my appreciation for it has been strengthened. Knowing what went on before the movie begins makes it all the more powerful. Thus it's to the viewer's detriment to not have read the book prior to seeing the film.

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