The Grapes of Wrath: Thematic Emphasis and Social Context
John Steinbeck’s literary classic, The Grapes of Wrath, released in 1939, and its film adaptation released just one year later came onto the scene during a time of great confusion and change in America. The nation was recovering from the Great Depression, and World War II was escalating abroad. The novel reflected both the anxiety and tenacity that defined the era. In particular, it detailed Americans’ ties to their families, land and animals; the struggle of the poor; sexuality; spirituality; and dignity and honor in the face of betrayal. The movie, however, simplified this complex array of themes. It focused primarily on familial bonds, ties to the land, perseverance, and hope. Why such a large change? The movie left out several very important elements, including the incredibly dramatic scene with Rose of Sharon at the end of the novel. Does this strengthen or weaken the narrative of the movie? The majority of these changes can be attributed to the movie studios of the time, their benefactors, and the ever-shifting social climate (Millichap 26-28).
From the time that Steinbeck began writing The Grapes of Wrath, to the time that it was released in movie form, World War II had broken out halfway across the globe. The United States was still recovering from the Great Depression when the movie was released. These events had a massive impact on the American people and the way that they viewed their role in society and what they expected of the government. Following the Great Depression, Americans felt disenchanted. Unemployment rates had reached staggeringly high numbers, distrust for big business was high, and citizens were looking to the government for help. Families had been displaced and men and women were searching for any work that they could find. Putting food on the table was a daily struggle for families across the country. This economic struggle had an inverse relationship with the film industry; although the industry struggled at first, it largely had recovered by 1935 (Butsch 108). The reason for this success was that films of the time provided a happy and carefree escape from everyday life; stars like Shirley Temple rose to fame because of their happy-go-lucky personas and sparkling personalities. This relationship between film and good feelings likely had an effect on the way that The Grapes of Wrath was scripted and filmed. Although the Depression was technically over by the time that the film was released, it was still very fresh for all Americans and played a role in people’s feelings and attitude. It made sense that directors and writers would choose to leave out some of the heavier topics and focus more on themes of hope and family (Kasson 30-40).
The way that movies were made at the time, called the “Studio System” also had an impact on the themes that were highlighted. During this period, often referred to as the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” there were five major production companies in Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox, the production company responsible for The Grapes of Wrath, was one of them. These companies owned every part of the production process and the theaters where their films were shown. The studios made contracts with directors and actors, filmed on their own lots, and showed their films in their own theaters. This complete monopoly on the production process gave the companies an extensive amount of control over choices that were made in their films and did not allow for much artistic license for the creative minds involved in the filmmaking process. This oversight resulted in films that were marketable to the broadest audiences and highly profitable. They wanted films that the average American would pay to see. The goal was not to stir controversy or start conversations, but simply to make money (Davis 120-125). Considering how popular and widely talked about the novel was at the time, The Grapes of Wrath was an obvious target for studios. However, after the publication of his work, Steinbeck also saw quite a bit of backlash. Some accused his work of highlighting depravity (Morsberger 134). The film studios did not want this negative attention, so it was in their best interest to shift the thematic focus of the film. This is yet another reason that the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath shies away from controversial topics and focuses more on “warm and fuzzy” themes.
The prime example of change from the novel to the film is the absence of the final scene with Rose of Sharon. In the novel, the story wraps up with a scene in which Rose of Sharon breastfeeds an adult who is on the brink of death because they have no food for him. The film closes with Ma Joad delivering a monologue as Al drives the jalopy along the road. These two different scenes provide very different feelings to the end of their respective works (Morsberger 134). The novel leaves us feeling unsure of what tomorrow holds whereas the film finishes with a strong feeling of hope. The difference between the two is particularly remarkable because of how controversial Rose of Sharon's final scene was at the time. Before the novel was published, Pascal Covici, Steinbeck's publisher, asked Steinbeck to remove the scene and write a different ending but Steinbeck refused. Steinbeck insisted that this was the manner in which his book ended (DeMott xi). So why make a change in the movie? At the time, there was a code that stated what was allowed in films, called the Hays Code. This code forbade depictions of sexual hygiene; childbirth (including in silhouette); a man and woman in bed together; and the deliberate seduction of girls (Pollard 50-51). For these reasons, it never would have been possible for Steinbeck's intended ending to make its way to the screen.
As for Steinbeck’s opinion, the author was pleased with Ford and Nunnally’s adaptation of his novel. He felt that the movie was a different entity from the novel because it was its own work. Scholar George Bluestone summed up Steinbeck’s perspective: “The novelist’s final statement is in his book. Since the novelist can add nothing more, the film-maker is obliged to remake the work in his own style” (Bluestone 167). Yet Steinbeck was originally hesitant to sell the rights to his novel to a production company for fear that it would not be able to translate the novel in a manner that still highlighted important themes.
Essentially, due to the economic and social climate of the time, The Grapes of Wrath was adapted to paint a picture of struggle and hope. The movie was made for the people—a way for them to celebrate themselves. They could see their own truth play out on screen and escape from the struggles and trials of their everyday lives. The novel was also of the people. It told fiercely honest stories, highlighted human desire, shared brutal struggle, depicted bravery, and conveyed hope.
Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. University of California Press, 1961.
Butsch, Richard. "American Movie Audiences of the 1930s," in International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 59 (2001).
Davis, Ronald. The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood's Big Studio System. Southern Methodist University Press, 1993.
DeMott, Robert. Introduction. The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin, 1996.
Kasson, John F. The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Morsberger, Robert E. “Grapes of Wrath, The (Film) (1940).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 134-135.
Pollard, Tom. Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars. Routledge, 2016.