Elements Lost: The Consequences of Musical Scores in Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck participated heavily in the adaptations of many of his works both on stage and on the screen. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) was an “event” book in its time, spurring acclaim as well as criticism. Steinbeck adapted his work into a screenplay soon after the novel’s publication, perhaps anticipating its critical success. The first performance of the play took place in November of 1937, and the first film adaptation made its debut in 1939; since then, countless stage productions have swept the country, two more English-language versions of the film have been produced (one, a made-for-TV movie produced in 1981, and the other, a critically-acclaimed feature-length film released in 1992). Carlisle Floyd developed an opera based on the book in 1970. Stage and film adaptations of the novel have met great success abroad as well, with more than seven feature-length productions in Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages in addition to the many made-for-TV and serial adaptations. The novella’s appeal to American audiences is clear; the themes of the American dream, the myth of the West, and image of the hard-working man are routinely met with excellent critical reception in the United States. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Steinbeck’s novel, its non-teleological perspective and tone, is lost (or greatly reduced) in visual adaptations of his works by nature of the medium itself, particularly in the soundtracks (Railsback and Meyer). The films’ musical scores illustrate the challenges in translation from page to stage and screen.
While film and theater use music to supplement other forms of storytelling, operas, by contrast, are inseparable from their musical scores and necessitate direct translation from novella to music. Stephanie Jensen-Moulton describes the challenges of translating Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from literature to opera, with specific regard to the overall tone of the work. Jensen-Moulton explains that Steinbeck’s non-teleological style is impossible to translate into an opera because “the attempt at an objectively journalistic tone in the novel dissolves as music directs perceptions about characters and plot events” (130). Jensen-Moulton’s article, “Intellectual Disability in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men” is particularly concerned with the treatment and characterization of Lennie, which necessarily differs between novel and opera.
While the novel sticks more closely to Steinbeck’s depiction of the Lennie, the musical score of the opera categorizes its characters. In the novel, Steinbeck frames Lennie as childlike, innocent, and kind, albeit lacking in self-awareness; Steinbeck does not characterize Lennie as a menace to society outright, but rather relates circumstances in which this proves true. The opera, by contrast, relies on what Jensen-Moulton describes as the “kill or cure” trope that characterized social thought about mental illness at the time of the opera’s composition (1970), which deviated only slightly from the cultural beliefs of the 1930s, in which Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men. In other words, the nuance of Lennie’s character disappears in the opera. Lennie is composed “in terms of his polar extremes of sweetness and violence, solidifying pre-existing tropes of intellectual disability,” which makes the killing of Curly’s wife appear more calculated than accidental (Jensen-Moulton 133). The opera is a unique production that demands extensive adaptation when translating from page to stage. Though different from film and play adaptations, the opera is similar to all other adaptations in some of its essential aural and visual elements.
The history of the American film score provides some insight into the manipulative qualities of music, and the role it plays in film adaptations of Steinbeck’s novels. In 1941, Marian Hannah Winter published an article exploring the role of music in "sound film." She explained that “During the early years of motion pictures in America few film scores were composed” at all, and when they were, there seemed to be “an exaggerated respect for the ‘symphonic’ approach—a concept that continues to account for some of the most exasperating and persistent atrocities in film music” (Winter 164). This was due in part to the fact that no “serious” composers were involved in film during the twenties (the early years of sound film), meaning that those who did compose for films at the time were not the best, the brightest, nor the most innovative. Another difficulty in Hollywood music, as Winter explains, was the perceived purpose of film scores: “‘Music to underscore the emotions’, ‘music illustration to express emotions’—these and other fluffy phrases have been used to describe what is essentially a cheat, musically and cinematically” (Winter 164). The late 1930s saw some promising change, however. By 1939, “serious” composers began working in Hollywood, and a uniquely American sound was in the works.
Two years after the publication of the novel, Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) premiered and was received with acclaim. The director, Milestone, and composer, Aaron Copland, worked to create what they felt was an authentic American film reflective of the American themes in Steinbeck’s novel. One year after the film premiered, Winter published an article focusing on the function of music in film, wherein she credits Copland with helping Hollywood move away from what she felt were overbearing, symphonic scores. The section of her article detailing Copland ends with an optimistic sentiment which has proven true over the last seventy years: “The possibilities of sound film are beyond anything that has yet been accomplished. Its exacting technical requirements, and the humility required of composers whose music becomes merely a component of a sound track, are compensated for by the excitement of creating in a new art-form” (Winter 164). Copland’s score for Of Mice and Men greatly impacted the entirety of American film because it pioneered a uniquely American sound that broke from the European ideal that previous scores had mimicked. Though one of the great achievements of the film, the score not only enhances certain aspects of the storyline (such as mood), but consequentially shifts Steinbeck’s work away from its non-teleological perspective (Bick 435).
Mark Isham’s score for the 1992 film adaptation, Of Mice and Men (directed by Gary Sinise), is much more varied in style and orchestration than its predecessor, demonstrating the evolution of the soundtrack in American film, but also fails to maintain the non-teleological perspective of Steinbeck's novel. Isham’s soundtrack features a wide range of instruments, and, consequentially, tone and tenor; the score transitions from soft woodwinds to dark and brooding piano and strings. This score contrasts that of Copland’s 1939 version in that the music truly functions as a soundtrack, at times barely audible as opposed to loud and dominant. Just as in the 1939 version, the 1992 soundtrack functions to sway the audience's sympathy, diminishing Steinbeck’s non-teleological narrative. Isham’s attempt to preserve the non-teleological aspect of the novel is most clear in the film’s musical cue entitled “The Fight,” which is barely perceptible throughout the scene. While Copland and Rosenman use music as a kind of guide for the plot—increasing in volume during moments of action or great distress—Isham’s score plays a more supportive rather than primary role. Though quiet, the music in this scene does deviate from the non-teleological tone of the novel in that it garners audience support for Lennie. The music begins softly as Curly begins punching Lennie, so that the audience focuses more on the action than on the music. When George finally convinces Lennie to fight back and Lennie begins to crush Curly’s hand, the music increases in volume only slightly, and is reminiscent of the musical cue where the audience first meets Lennie at the beginning of the film. This repetition serves to remind the audience that although Lennie appears violent and dangerous in this scene, the film is sympathetic toward him, framing him more as a victim of circumstance rather than as a potential threat to society.
The essential manipulative qualities of musical score, along with changing social values and evolving cinematic techniques, effectively diminish the non-teleological tone of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Copland’s innovative sound allowed for the uniquely American voice of Steinbeck’s novel to permeate both its 1939 film adaptation, and later, Isham’s film score 1992 adaptation. The 1992 adaptation also reflects new ideas about mental health, which developed after the novel's publication. Thus, readers and viewers will notice a dramatic shift away from Steinbeck’s original non-teleological approach to Lennie as a character and the 1992 adaptation’s sympathetic alliance with him. The challenges of film adaptation are great, especially when translating Steinbeck’s particular tone, but the critical acclaim of both Of Mice and Men films reveal the qualities of Steinbeck’s work, which transcends genre and medium.
Bick, Sally. “Of Mice and Men: Copland, Hollywood, and American Musical Modernism.” American Music, vol. 23, no. 4, 2005, pp.426-475.
Burt, George. “East of Eden: Climactic Scene.” Indiana Theory Review, vol. 11, 1990, pp. 145-164.
Jensen-Moulton, Stephanie. “Intellectual Disability in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.” American Music, vol. 30, no. 2, 2012, pp. 129-156.
Millichap, Joseph. “Realistic Style in Steinbeck’s and Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.” Literature/ Film Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3, 1978, pp. 241-252.
“Of Mice and Men (Film and Television Versions (1939, 1968, 1981, 1992).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 257-258.
Winter, Marian Hannah. “The Function of Music in Sound Film.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 1941, pp. 146-164.