The Grapes of Wrath Movie vs. Book

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore the differences between John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' and the 1940 film adaptation. We will examine how the film deals with the novel's controversial message and how the imagery translates from novel to film.

Lost in Translation?

John Steinbeck didn't think his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a harrowing journey across Depression-era America's Dust Bowl, could ever be faithfully adapted for the cinema. He's quoted as saying, 'I am quite sure no picture company would want this new book whole and it is not for sale any other way. It pulls no punches at all and may get us all into trouble but if so - so.' But when Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to adapt the novel into a film in 1940, they demonstrated the limits of translation and the huge differences between literature and cinema.

The process of adaptation, or the translation of a work of art from one medium - like literature - into another medium - like film - involves a certain degree of artistic license. Movie critic George Bluestone's 1973 review of The Grapes of Wrath continues to be the authority on the topic of how Twentieth Century Fox adapted Steinbeck's novel into a film. 'If the novel is remembered for its moral anger,' Bluestone writes, 'the film is remembered for its beauty.' The article hits the nail on the head. Adapting a great work such as The Grapes of Wrath, screenwriters and directors need to take a certain degree of artistic license. Novels weave language in ways that cannot be translated into cinematic imagery appropriate for mainstream audience. But the controversial social and political messages in Steinbeck's novel did not translate accurately to the screen, as some may have hoped.

Steinbeck was both impressed and surprised by his reaction to the film. It was Henry Fonda's portrayal of lead character Tom Joad that made Steinbeck change his mind: Fonda made me 'believe my own words.' This lesson will take a look at the differences between the movie and the novel, and whether the movie is a good substitution for the book.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Henry Fonda


Some critics say that the film remakes rather than adapts the novel. By omitting entire scenes and changing the ending, the film manages to alter or even negate the socialist message embedded in the novel. Also known as collectivism, leftism, and welfarism, the political policy of socialism refers to the belief that people have the right to govern themselves. Its advocates uphold the right of every single citizen to live a good life, despite the limitations of economic, health, or age restrictions. As such, socialists support government programs like Welfare and Social Security, which distribute wealth among the citizens in a democratic nation.

Uneasy with the radical message embedded in the novel, film studio Twentieth Century Fox altered the story in their filmed version. Fearing that the Joad family's story would instigate sociopolitical upheaval, the studio dulled down the message. As a result, Ford's version focuses on the dramatic heart of the story rather than the political message.

Some critics condemned the producers for censorship, an act of suppressing controversial themes or scenes that they deemed unacceptable. Some said that Fox Hollywood-ized the novel (sanitizing it for a popular audience). But others agree that novel and film are two separate media, requiring different modes of expression.

A Happy Ending

The most prominent difference between novel and film comes at the ending. The novel ends with a call to action, indicating that the struggle will continue. The film, however, leaves viewers with a satisfying happy ending.

Instead of ending the story as in the novel, with a violent strike followed by a dismal plea for life, the film ends with the happy discovery of a 'clean camp' run by the Department of Agriculture. Some say that the new ending reinforces the strength of the government to aid its citizens. Bluestone says that the ending negates the main themes of the novel: struggle and retribution. Nevertheless, critics and viewers generally agree that the Hollywood-ization of Steinbeck's novel was a necessary evil. The happy ending makes the story appealing to people from all walks of life and both ends of the political spectrum.

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