By NATALIA FALLAS
Ah, the timeless tale of the Joad family as it embarks on a journey to leave the Dust Bowl and find work in California. What an American classic. Read the book, they said. It’ll be good, they said. Yet my 15-year-old self did not appreciate it when my 10th grade English teacher handed out The Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell to Arms in our last month of school with both texts purportedly to be on our final. She lied, but I still ended up reading both seminal classics by Steinbeck and Hemingway. At the end I was both angry and sad: Angry because I read countless pages about the red clay dirt of the Dust Bowl, and sad because poor Frederic Henry lost everything dear to him World War II. But despite this disposition against Steinbeck and the Joads, I gave the 1940 John Ford classic a shot. And I’m glad I did.
Maybe I was too young when I read the book to appreciate the story, the trials and tribulations and the human spirit that the Joads had to possess to continue on. I understood it was fantastic prose, but the substance went right over my head apparently. In any case, the film adaptation shed a new light on the classic even if they tweaked the ending to not look so bleak. Hell, maybe that’s what I wanted from the novel in the first place. I was too immature at the time to understand the original closing scene where the Rose-of-Sharon breast-fed a poor, dying man after having a stillborn but her breasts full of milk. Deemed too controversial to show back in 1940, the writers had to change the ending to the family driving down the road with Ma Joad delivering one of the best lines of the film: “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.”
But why does this film resonate with me so much all of a sudden? I cannot imagine myself being in that situation, trying to make enough money simply to meet my basic needs. Most of us do not. And as some of us look for jobs and internships and the such, we all seek some compensation with our own definitions of how much we deserve or need to be paid. But imagine being so desperate that you are willing to do anything for a measly sum. We may joke that we are willing to do anything to work in a certain field, but this film really shows us an extreme that we may be unfamiliar with. It gave me a fresh new perspective on life. If the Joads could find a way to remain some sort of family unit, clinging on each other to survive, to help others, etc., then I have a shot as well. It is a version of the classic trope of the American Dream that does not seek extravagance and monetary luxury, but rather seeks a luxury to live in simple comfort no matter the initial cost and hardship.
Aside from that, one also realizes why this film has held up for so many decades. We see brilliant performances from some Hollywood royalty, for instance Peter Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad, a man who gets a second chance out of jail and finds his calling in helping the migrant worker. Then of course, there is John Ford, a director whose films are commonly found in the greatest canon such as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. It is evident that he can capture a great human story set in the American West. Lastly, the dialogue in this film is great. It is not superfluous and manages to deliver a great line or speech in every scene, especially Tom’s speech before he heads off to follow his true calling.
So if you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and didn’t get it, or if you have read it but haven’t watched the film, this should be next on your Netflix queue.