Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Man has a choice and it's a choice that makes him a man."

I've been wanting to discuss East of Eden for a while, which I watched in English class as a companion piece to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. (And thank goodness I didn't have to watch Demi Moore play Hester Prynne.) If you happen to wonder what a Puritan society and a WWI-affed Salinas Valley setting have in common, it's all has to do with the inner conflicts of good versus evil and a guilt-ridden human being's natural urge to achieve ultimate redemption. Who knew that Cal Trask and Reverend Dimmesdale had so much in common? Not to mention the religious undertones in East of Eden (Cal and Aron = Cain and Abel!)... Of course, that's what English class is for.

Admittedly, I'm not a huge John Steinbeck fan. I've never cared for his morally ambiguous storytelling and minimalistic writing. I have read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and I have no interest in ever touching those novels ever again. So obviously, Elia Kazan's 1955 adaptation of Steinbeck's East of Eden surprised me. I have never read East of Eden (the novel), although Oprah certainly made me aware of its existence.

Since I've never read Steinbeck's novel (and I will--someday), I can only judge Kazan's film. And it's a terrific film indeed.

On the surface, the film seems to be simply about the rivalry between twin brothers, Aron and Cal. Aron's good, Cal's bad. But the story is much more complex than that. I immediately sympathized with Cal and his efforts to impress his father. I rooted for Cal while the poor kid tries to earn back the money his father lost in the lettuce business by investing into the bean business. I even cheered for Cal when he won the heart of his brother's sweetheart.

Cal is likable because he's direct and honest. He may lack social grace, but he can't help himself. On the other hand, Aron's just a suck-up and a bore. No wonder Abra wants to leave her pragmatic side behind and take a chance on Cal.

All this is attributed to James Dean's magnetic presence on-screen. Dean's charisma never ceases: A good actor should never hide his greatest devices. East of Eden may feel a little dated, but Dean's performance was ahead of his time. Even when I intensely disliked Dean's character in Giant, I couldn't help but feel a little for Jett Rink in his final scene. Dean's performance in Giant may have been his greatest work on film, but East of Eden proved that he was a mature leading man, an improvement from his performance in Rebel Without A Cause.

East of Eden was deservingly nominated for four Academy Awards back in 1956 in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Leading Actor (Dean, posthumously), and Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet). Van Fleet won Best Supporting Actress for her minor yet effective work as the estranged mother of Cal and Aron.

I am aware that there is a remake set for a 2009 release date. It's unfortunate that director Ron Howard is no longer attached to the film because he would have been a very appropriate choice.

On a sidenote, is no secret that I love well-done fan-made music videos of great films. I recently found this wonderful East of Eden music video, set to The Killers' song, "Read My Mind."


  1. I just watched this today.

    Incredible! I loved every second of it. I definitely agree that James Dean is magnificent in this as usual. It broke my heart when Cal's father rejected the money, and while at first I found Aron to be likable because he accepted his brother for his oddities while Abra was afraid of him, it just goes to show that you can't read a book by it's cover. All of us have good and bad, no one is simply good or bad. I love that about this film.

  2. Shawn, I'm so glad you loved East of Eden.

    All of us have good and bad, no one is simply good or bad.

    So true. All the characters in the film have their complexities. Each character has their moment to shine. And the best part is, it never feels forced at all!

    Dean is wonderful as always. I continue to debate whether he's better in Giant or East of Eden. (I think he tries too hard in Rebel Without a Cause.) Giant probably takes the cake because Dean is able to let us sympathize with such a terrible character. But both performances are both great in their own right.

  3. I love John Steinbeck. The novels, yes.

    I watched East of Eden and it is very different from the book.

    However I am from the school of thought that a movie and a book are completely different media and don't have to be exactly the same in story to be a good adaptation of each other, but just thought I'd mention that, especially as if you don't like Steinbeck writing I don't recommend this one for you. It's a long read, much loner than Of Mice and Men.

    For one thing, it only shows part of the book. The last part. There's a whole back story that's missing. I didn't mind that too much and some say even Steinbeck preferred it that way.

    I enjoyed the movie a lot especially James Dean's performance except I wish they had retained Lee as a character. He was an educated Chinese servant who provided some great pearls of wisdom and humour and support to Cal and Aron in the book. As they chopped him, naturally they changed the plot somewhat (for instance in the book Lee lends Cal the money to start up the beans business, in the movie, Cal gets it from his mother).

    All in all, a good movie but there will be some book purists who will resent the fact that more than half the book is chopped out.

    It could have been called "Half of East of Eden" (and still people would complain not half of it was all there)

  4. @Maria - I'm perfectly fine if a film isn't loyal the book. As long as it gets the general gist of the novel, I'm satisfied. I'm not the type to nitpick a film because it doesn't include my favorite scene from the book.

    To me, film is as worthy as literature. A film should be judged on its own merits.

    After reading The Grapes of Wrath, my opinion of Steinbeck has improved.