This is one of those classics I can't believe I missed for so long, both in book and movie form. I had seen clips from the movie somewhere, and what I had stuck in my head was the close-up of Henry Fonda's earnest face making his "I'll be there" speech. My impression going in: this story has a Message. And so it does.
The focus is on the Joads, a family forced away from their farmland home, journeying to California to become migrant workers. While the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression are pretty heavy subjects, I was still surprised by just how raw the novel is. It's an unsanitized look at these people with all their flaws and problems. And as gritty as it is, I believe that it could have been worse, given the hardships that are hinted at which the Joads manage to avoid.
In the book, in addition to the chapters that follow the Joad family's journey, there are also shorter chapters that take a less personal, larger view of the problems of the times. Some of these were very powerful and worked quite well. I especially liked the chapters on the used car dealership and the roadside diner. As I progressed through the book, however, I began to feel that this device was wearing thin, and that Steinbeck had run out of things to talk about in these bigger-picture chapters.
Overall, it's a well-written novel about a serious subject. And it did get me wrapped up in it so that I was really feeling for these characters. I particularly liked Ma, even from her first appearance in the book. In her introduction, we are told that "her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding." The story gives her a lot more steps to climb. I preferred book Ma to movie Ma, but I liked Tom Joad in both versions very much.
Before seeing the movie, I was worried about Henry Fonda's performance, especially his ability to speak in the country dialect of the book. Maybe it's because the clearest picture I have of Fonda is as the very intelligent, articulate character in 12 Angry Men. But he handles the role of Tom Joad brilliantly, never seeming above it while still bringing out a certain sincerity with dignity that is important to the character. Fonda's performance is wonderfully restrained yet powerful, beautiful against the often over-the-top, make-your-eyes-as-wide-as-possible-for-effect acting going on in this movie. With the exception of the bit where he sings, I found Henry Fonda's performance riveting, and for that alone I would recommend watching the movie.
Would I recommend the book? Yes, although with some hesitation. The novel is really depressing. As I progressed through the book, I found myself anticipating with dread the next tragedy that would befall the family. The book has an interesting theme about sin versus holiness that is nowhere near as prominent in the movie. Both stories show that people do better helping each other, although the book drives the point home harder. Sure, we've all got to eat, but only looking out for your own is selfish and doesn't work for the greater good, we get it. The movie, while still serious, has some lighter moments to it, like Grandpa explaining what he'd like to do in California and the family's reaction to Tom's homecoming. The movie also has a much different ending.
The book's ending is a bit of a shocker; I won't spoil it here in case you haven't read it yet, although I will say that it made me feel that a certain thing was set up in the book only for the ending, which felt somewhat cheap to me. The ending does fit in with the rest of the novel and provides some hope for the future, but the whole thing is still pretty bleak. Which I suppose is the point -- the issues faced by these people could not be easily fixed. The movie's ending is more hopeful and uplifting, although it didn't ring as true to me. Also, in both versions of the story, I was disappointed that Tom's part is finished up before the end.
So, what's the final verdict, book or movie? Both. The story in either form is an interesting look at a difficult time in history. The book definitely has more meat to it and a bigger agenda; the movie is a bit more entertaining while still illuminating the subject. While I don't think I'll be coming back to either book or movie soon, I'm still glad I checked out both versions of this classic American story.