- Steinbeck Today
Books by John Steinbeck continued to make news in 2016. News stories about social problems cited Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath extensively, and In Dubious Battle, the first book in Steinbeck’s Dustbowl trilogy, was made into a movie for the first time. Sea of Cortez and East of Eden also attracted attention from writers, artists, and filmmakers inspired by Steinbeck’s life. The deaths of Martha Heasley Cox (in 2015), Nancy Hauk (July), and Thom Steinbeck (August) served as a reminder that the era of those who knew John Steinbeck and his circle is coming to an end. Professor Cox’s multimillion-dollar bequest to the Steinbeck center at San Jose State University ensures that the author’s legacy will endure for future generations of readers, scholars, and fans.
No commercial movie has been made of The Grapes of Wrath since John Ford’s 1940 classic, so Steinbeck film fans were understandably excited by word in the Hollywood Reporter that Steven Spielberg may still be considering a remake, despite continued legal problems surrounding the rights to Steinbeck’s books. Of Mice and Men, the first Steinbeck novel to be adapted for the stage, has been adapted for the screen at least twice since 1938, and it continues to be performed by professional, community, and university theaters throughout the United States. The 2015 Broadway revival of Lennie and George’s story starred James Franco, a Steinbeck fan who has portrayed James Dean, Hart Crane, and Allen Ginsberg in movies with literary depth. In 2016, Franco directed and starred in Matt Rager’s new adaptation of In Dubious Battle, the first time Steinbeck’s novel about strike violence in California’s Central Valley has been filmed. In the past Rager partnered with Franco to adapt Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, interior novels that—unlike Steinbeck—defy easy translation to the screen. In addition to Franco, In Dubious Battle features Selina Gomez, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, and Bryan Cranston, actors who have played intense roles with intelligence in the past. Trailers of the movie, which premiered in Venice and Toronto in September, began appearing in August. At the time of this writing, it was scheduled for U.S. release this winter. [End Page 210]
Like Steinbeck, Faulkner, and the Hollywood types they met when they were writing for the movies, characters from Steinbeck’s fiction frequently like to imbibe. Steinbeck’s bibulosity was celebrated by the editors at State Press, the Arizona newspaper that paired Of Mice and Men with a cocktail called Ward 8 for a weekend feature called “Books & Booze.” The piece promoted the Arizona Theatre Company’s production of the play, one of a number around the country in 2016. Speculation that Arizona Theatre would cancel its next season reminded readers of another fact of life in the arts that Steinbeck learned the hard way: it can be uncertain, even in the sunniest of settings. Steinbeck’s future as a writer looked cloudy when he and his wife, Carol, went to live in Los Angeles after getting married. Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was a hotbed of reactionary politics then but has changed character since Steinbeck’s time. During the past season, the Costa Mesa Playhouse, a community theater in Orange County, produced Of Mice and Men as well as Red Scare on Sunset, a campy satire on McCarthy-era hysteria by the cross-dressing actor-writer Charles Busch. Accusations that Steinbeck was a communist began in the 1930s when he was writing his Dustbowl novels; his three-decade pursuit by the FBI—whose director, like Busch, may have worn dresses—had moments of humor that would make the kind of play this fan would like to see.
The reactionary rhetoric of the 2016 campaign was a reminder that Steinbeck, a lifelong liberal, refused to apologize for his work or to abandon his effort to reach a large audience. As a result, his greatest books have become touchstones for writers and readers on issues of social, economic, and ecological justice. Other authors of his generation have come to stand for other aspects...