Film adaptations of novels have been around for a long time. Although it is complicated to transform a novel into a film, many film writers and directors continue to endeavor in it. Often, film adaptations of famous novels garner strong opinions—either positive or negative. In this literary analysis essay, I will compare and contrast John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men and the 1992 film adaptation by Gary Sinise. In this essay, I will use the Pluralist paradigm in analyzing and critiquing the film adaptation, and I will focus on the novel’s and film’s depiction of the setting, the storytelling’s relationship to time, the depiction of characters, as well as the important plot points. I conclude that, based on the Pluralist perspective, the film adaptation of the novel Of Mice And Men is rather successful as it managed to stay true to the spirit of the novel while remaining palatable for Hollywood. Although the film presents a slightly toned-down essence of the novel, the film captured its mood and tone well enough.
The Pluralist Paradigm
Karen Kline presented four paradigms in critiquing film adaptations. Each one focuses on a different aspect of film adaptation and thus has different expectations—translation, pluralist, transformation, and materialist. In this essay, I will use the pluralist paradigm, which does not expect the film adaptation to be totally identical to the novel (Agatucci n.p.). Rather, the pluralist perspective accepts differences but also expects similarities between the film and the novel it adapts (Agatuccie n.p.). The film adaptation focuses on presenting its own “coherent fictive world” that, instead of depicting the events of the novel, captures its spirit—its mood, tone, and values (Agatuccie n.p.). Thus, in the pluralist paradigm, the film is allowed to be its own work of art, as opposed to being a supplement to the novel. This paradigm acknowledges that literature and film are two distinct media with different techniques.
The pluralist paradigm is the most appropriate approach to the film adaptation of the Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. The film does not attempt to visualize the events of the novel and instead captures its spirit and attempts to depict it in a way that suits film as medium. The resulting film adaptation thus, is one that has similarities but also crucial differences where film and literature diverge.
Comparison of the Film Adaptation and Novel of Of Mice And Men
The story written by John Steinbeck depicts the difficulties and bleakness of the lives of poor migrant workers during Depression-era America. The film adaptation captures the same bleak narrative but with some changes to make the story more suitable for the cinema. The resulting output is thus a film that is inspired by Of Mice And Men, recognizable to those who have read it, that also stands as an independent work. The key elements that demonstrate this thesis statement are setting, the storytelling, characters, and the plot.
Steinbeck’s novel devotes a lot of time describing the bleak setting in which the story takes place. The majority of the story takes place in a ranch in California. The environment here is depicted as harsh. The workers live in a bunkhouse with a solid door and small windows—almost prison-like. The other places in the ranch depicted in the novel are a barn, a ranch worker’s room, and a small part of the woods near the ranch where the characters work. Steinbeck’s writing style is descriptive but he does not describe the nature surrounding the ranch. He does this to drive the point that agricultural workers during the Depression Era worked in inhuman conditions, no different than animals and prisoners.
In contrast, the film adaptation of the same name displays the beautiful nature of California in various scenes. The beautiful mountains of California are often scene in the background whenever the characters are outside. The depiction of the scenery in the film gives it a romantic aura. The romantic scenery serves as a stark contrast to the bleak narrative told by the movie, as well as the appearance of the characters. Sinise’s decision to choose the opposite of the author’s depictions may be a point of contention when viewed from a literal perspective. However, this decision helps the film drive the same point Steinbeck delivered in the novel. By providing a visual foil, so to speak, for the bleakness of the life of the characters, Sinise achieved the same effect the novel had on its readers.
Storytelling and Time
One of the major changes done in the film adaptation is the storytelling. Whereas Steinbeck wrote the story in chronological order, the film tells the story in flashbacks. The film starts where the novel ends, with George on a train looking sad. In the novel, the readers already know why George is on a train alone, but the film audience does not. The reason for George’s predicament is explained by the rest of the film in the form of flashbacks. This strategy gives the film audience, regardless of their familiarity with the novel, a preview of how the story ends. So, they are given this pleasure of knowing the ending but also gets them on the hook to see how it happens. This way, the audience can focus on the characters and the turn of events instead of simply anticipating how the story will end.
Sinise’s inversion of the storytelling’s relationship with time also adds weight to the story and other elements. Thus, the audience appreciates the gravity of the trauma George experienced from the turn of events and/or his actions in the plot. By showing the effect of the events on George at the beginning, Sinise eliminates the potential interpretation that George was driven by his irritation rather than desperation. So, although George appears emotionless when he shot Lennie by the river, the audience understands that he is not unaffected.
Showing the ending at the beginning of the film is a common trope in cinema. In Of Mice And Men, Sinise utilizes this trope successfully to help the reader access the emotions in the novel that film adaptations often cannot depict.
The film adaptation perhaps took some liberties with the depiction of another important story element, character. The two most salient differences are with Lennie and Curley’s wife. Both of these characters were depicted in a more subdued manner in the film adaptation.
In the novel, Lennie is described as much larger than the film depicts. Lennie towers over everyone else in the novel. This highlights Lennie’s estrangement from his colleagues and his loneliness. However, John Malkovich, the actor depicting Lennie is hardly any taller than the other characters. The film also does not depict Lennie’s hallucinations, and instead only focuses on his mental disabilities. These would have drastically altered Lennie’s character had it not been Malkovich’s stellar acting. Lennie’s loneliness, estrangement, and mental disability were not missed in Malkovich’s acting, which arguably stood out as a result of Sinise’s decision to strip the character of its idiosyncrasies. The film’s depiction of Lennie is a great example of how to use film elements to achieve the same effect as the novel.
The film’s depiction of Curley’s wife is less successful than Lennie’s, however. In Steinbeck’s version, Curley’s wife is extremely cruel toward Curley. She is an antagonist not deserving of sympathy. However, in the film adaptation, is less cruel and more sexy and flirtatious that she does not appear to deserve her death. Because the film subdued her antagonistic characteristics, she ends up garnering sympathy and becoming a victim.
Sinise made similar decisions on two characters with vastly differing results. The liberties Sinise took with Lennie seems more well thought-out and, therefore, had a positive impact on the film. The depiction of Curley’s wife does not have the same effect, but the character still served its purpose in the plot. Perhaps her cruelty is implied in her use of her charms to manipulate a mentally disabled man only to antagonize her husband. Sinise made decisions in terms of depicting characters that diverge from Steinbeck’s novel. But these decisions served to strengthen the film adaptation as its own work of art.
Important Plot Points
Sinise also changed some important plot points in the film adaptation. He cut the scenes where the characters talk about their dreams, and he depicted the accidental killing of the puppy and George’s murder of Lennie.
The film cuts a defining moment from the novel—the scene where all the characters are gathered talking about their dreams. This scene is a defining moment for the novel because it contextualizes the novel in the Depression Era where workers endured inhumane working conditions in hopes of attaining a better life. However, the film does not do this. In fact, the film removes the narrative from the context of the Depression Era and instead focuses on the relationship between and struggles of Lennie and George. In the pluralist perspective, this is an acceptable choice since film is a limited medium that often cannot handle multiple subject matters. By focusing on the relationships and struggles of the main characters, Sinise made Of Mice And Men timeless in its relatability and palatability.
Once again, the differences between film and literature become apparent in Sinise’s choices. Instead of making Lennie cry while lying next to the puppy he accidentally killed as Steinbeck does, Sinise harnesses Malkovich’s acting to depict the trauma and sadness Lennie felt. Lennie pacing back and forth while carrying the puppy in his arms is just as impactful as the image of a large man crying next to a small puppy, which would have been thought as overly dramatic in the context of film.
Another change implemented in the film adaptation is how George kills Lennie. In the novel, George tells Lennie a story before shooting him, but in the film does it point blank and almost stoically. Both depictions, arguably, show how George values Lennie. In Steinbeck’s novel, George tries to make the process easier for Lennie; but in the film, George does not manage to do it—he had to shoot Lennie as quickly as possible so that he could go through with it. The latter choice is cruel on Lennie’s part, but also more traumatic for George.
Furthermore, the film does not allow George to be consoled by any of the other characters, as Steinbeck did in the novel. The film returns to the first scene where George sits on the train alone. But this time, the audience fully understands what happened and how alone he was.
This compare and contrast essay demonstrated the various differences and similarities between the novel and film adaptation of Of Mice And Men. The director of the film adaptation, Gary Sinise, made numerous decisions that deviated from John Steinbeck’s writing, but most of the differences were the result of the application of film elements and tropes into the novel. In the end, these differences were justified as they helped the film adaptation depict the bleakness and cruelty in the life of poor migrant workers.
Agatucci, Cora, ed. "Film Adaptation: Four Paradigms." Rev. of “The Accidental Tourist on Page and on Screen: Interrogating Normative Theories about Film Adaptation" [Literature Film Quarterly 24.1 (1996): 70-84]. Humanities 210 [online handout], Central Oregon Community College, Fall 2006. <web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum210/coursepack/filmadaptation.htm>.
Of Mice and Men. Directed by Gary Sinise, with performances by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1992.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men, Covici Friede, 1937, United States.