(Original Review, 2002)
There's no reason why we should judge a film on the basis of how faithful or otherwise it is to the book: it should be judged by how good it is as a film. The ending of the book could not be depicted on film in those days because censorship would not have allowed it, but there's no reason to assume that Ford would have filmed Steinbeck's ending had he been able to. The artistic vision Ford was expressing was not Steinbeck's, but his own. My own view is that Steinbeck was a fine novelist, but that Ford was a great film-maker. Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a fine novel, but Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a great film.
What about Ma's speech? Actually, Ma Joad's speech is in the novel. Just not at the end. Immediately after that speech, Ford cuts to a long line of lorries, all containing people just like the Joads, and none of them knowing where their next meal is coming from. Ma Joad's defiant speech is magnificent (well, I think so anyway), but putting it into context immediately with the horrendous reality of the situation achieves a sort of poetry rare in cinema. On one level, the optimism of her speech is undercut by the reality; but at the same time, we are aware that the people in those lorries share the defiant humanity of Ma Joad. Despair and defiant optimism are perfectly balanced. I think it is a wonderful ending, and, like everything else in this film, could scarcely be improved upon.
Politics is like an infection in literature. It turns fleshed out characters scabby and itchy in the reader's mind. Rand allowed politics to over-steer her writing. Gaunt is a voice-box for politics. If you are writing and you ever hear one of those lying political voices trying to wheedle around your own your own voice to find expression in your work, - imagine you are up on a castellated stone parapet . You have thick leather gloves and a metal bucket of boiling lead next to you. Down at the gate this political voice is trying to get in. Pour that molten lead over this character. His skin and flesh will come off like three-day dead goldfish rotting in a glass tank - most satisfying. It will be quiet after that. This is important: Steinbeck wrote symphonically with the full range of human experience and nature. That is the music underlying his work. Ships and castles in clouds, political types imagine there is some kind of political structure underlying his work - that is the surface reflection; it is not there. I really dislike the scratchy shrill and the breathy wheedling voices of politics. They should not be in literature unless spoken as characters. If you are a writer, that is what your imagination is for.
For literature about the dustbowl and migration to California, I prefer Sanora Babb's "Whose Names Are Unknown". Better writing, more moving descriptions and more inspiring than "Grapes of Wrath". As it turns out, Steinbeck read the first four chapters of Babb's book before he even started writing "The Grapes of Wrath2. And Bennett Cerf who pushed "The Grapes of Wrath" did not react warmly when we received Sanora Babb's manuscript. It's unfortunate because Babb's book really is the better of the two.