Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday: An Emergence through Film

Cannery Row (film)

Cannery Row movie poster featuring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger (1982)

The Novels

Cannery Row (1945) and its sequel, Sweet Thursday (1954) illustrate how Steinbeck left behind the realism of his earlier writing and embraced postmodernism after World War II. Some scholars suggest that Steinbeck lost his interest in phalanx theory and began to approach writing differently after visiting Russia in 1947. Personal tragedy and Cold War anxiety also percolated into Steinbeck’s works. The death of his friend, Ed Ricketts, and divorce from his wife, Gwyn Conger, paralleled the political and intellectual stress of the Cold War. Like many Americans, Steinbeck was “cut adrift from accustomed moorings” (DeMott 1-7).

Cannery Row captured Steinbeck’s search for meaning during this period. It focuses on the acceptance of life as it is.  Often described as a story with no plot, this piece of literature simply details little pieces of what goes on in the lives of the inhabitants of a community. Steinbeck pushes against the grand narrative style that characterizes older literature (McDermott, 308). In fact, one critic claims that Cannery Row is “a book virtually without plot or dramatic conflict” (Tibbetts 83). 

In Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck conveys a sense of uncertainty and discontent. The narrator asks, “Where does discontent start?  You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you.  You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields.”  This passage conveys the novel’s philosophical and existential tendencies. At the same time, the novel also represented the possibility for transformation and recovery, which Steinbeck had experienced in his personal life. Language—in postmodern fashion—was central to this reconstitution. Steinbeck explained the shift in tone between the two works, saying Cannery Row symbolized what had happened, whereas Sweet Thursday encapsulated what could have happened. Sweet Thursday emphasizes the idea that change is constant.  World War II brought change to the occupants of Cannery Row and they are forced to change their lives and their businesses to be flexible for wartime.  Steinbeck explains, “everybody fought it more or less, in one way or another” (Sweet Thursday 303). 

Cannery Row movie

Scene from Cannery Row

Movie Portrayal

The 1982 film adaptation, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, combines the two novels together.  Despite some criticism, the movie effectively captures the spirit of the books, especially Sweet Thursday

The director, David Ward, “found a lot of incident but no plot in the first book, and little incident but a lot of romance in the second book” (Tibbetts 83). This led him to emphasize the relationship between Doc and Suzy more than Steinbeck had. (Tibbetts 84). Ward also reinvented the character of Doc, making him a big-league pitcher who becomes a marine biologist after beaning a batter (Rallsback, 49).

Ward’s difficulty in securing a studio contract for the film inspired these changes. Studios thought that Steinbeck’s characters and plot lines would not translate well in film. To tackle this issue, Ward consulted with actors who appreciated Steinbeck’s work. Paul Newman recommended that Ward rewrite Doc’s character, which he found passive and less interesting than the other characters. Eventually, MGM supported the film’s production. 

Several critics found the film artful, albeit out of place in the movie culture of the 1980s. Several tropes of Steinbeck’s period, such as the lovable bum, fell flat on later audiences. Cannery Row had changed, too. Now a gentrified tourist destination, it was no longer a suitable set for the film, which was produced in a studio (Millichap 173-174). Just as Steinbeck’s style and subjects evolved in the context of personal and national changes, the film was also a product of its time. Thus, it raises questions of authenticity, context, and timelessness in both literature and film. 

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. "Cannery Row Movie Review & Film Summary (1982) | Roger Ebert." RogerEbert.com. N.p., 01 Jan. 1982. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

DeMott, Robert. Introduction. Sweet Thursday. By John Steinbeck. Penguin, 2008.

Millichap, Joseph R. Steinbeck and Film. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983.

Steinbeck, John. Sweet Thursday. 1954. Travels with Charley and Later Novels, 1947-1962. Library of America, 2007. 

Tibbetts, John C. “It Happened in Monterey: ‘Cannery Row.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 82–84., www.jstor.org/stable/43796188

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday: An Emergence through Film