June 19, 2006
Way East of the Mark
I read John Steinbeck's East of Eden for the first time a few months ago and loved it. Great characters, terrific backdrop, enticing plot twists, wicked she-bitch from hell... So I decided to watch the movie version over the weekend. Wasn't it supposed to be a classic?
As I waited through the boring, five-minute musical overture of waves hitting against a rocky coast (not smart enough to hit fast-forward until I'd viewed most of this vast nothing-ness) I should have taken it as a sign for the boredom to come. But no...I saw "James Dean" and "directed by Elia Kazan" in the credits and waited with tingly anticipation.
Of course, I knew I wouldn't get a complete retelling of the epic novel. After all, it spans three generations and is simply too long to fit into a two-hour movie. Still, I figured that even if they began the story with Cal and Aron (generation three) there would still be enough juicy stuff to make for a good flick.
I was disappointed right away when I realized that one of my favorite characters from the novel (the Chinese cook, Lee, who is in many ways the voice of wisdom in the tale) isn't even represented in the movie. "Oh well, at least I have Cathy," I thought. But sadly, I didn't have Cathy...at least, not the way Steinbeck depicted her. Instead of being pure evil -- the book's symbol for satan, she was just sort of boring and weak and occasionally even downright tender with her grown sons. Did Kazan even read the book??!!
I'd say 80 percent of the movie has pretty much nil to do with the important elements of the novel (Where in the book did Cal climb down off a ferris wheel or swing from the rafters of a gym????). Except for James Dean (Cal), who offers the one semi-captivating portrayal, this book is trying and tedious. I am beside myself with guilt for making my boyfriend watch it with the constant disclaimers, "I think it should get more exciting...".
In the novel, there is this long-running debate between three of the characters (including the MIA Lee) about biblical semantics regarding free will in the Cain and Abel story of Genesis. The last deathbed scene of the book brings this discussion full circle. Naturally, the movie didn't even attempt to take on this level of profundity and instead ended with a really lame substitute that left me utterly aghast at its stupidity.
In summation, I feel like I could direct finger puppets to create a better adaptation than this one.
Incidentally, however, I just realized there is a 1981 miniseries version of the book starring Bruce Boxleitner, Lloyd Bridges and Jane Seymour (?!?!) as Cathy Trask. This version does include Lee and won two Golden Globes, so maybe it's worth checking out. Can anyone recommend it? -- Amy