Who doesn’t know of John Steinbeck’s classic novel “Of Mice and Men”? It is a novel that almost everyone educated in the United States has either read it or pretended to read it. But how many have seen the 1992 film “Of Mice and Men”? The relative obscurity of 1992 screen version of this timeless drama does not mean that it was poorly done. Just the contrary is true, it is one of the best film adaptations of a novel that I have seen.
The novel and the film are very similar. The Steinbeck’s novel could be though of as the screenplay’s first draft. There were some small changes, but they were instituted for the good of the film. I liked the film better than Steinbeck’s novel. “Of Mice and Men” is a story of people who express their troubles clearly, holding on to thin dreams as they go about their thankless business.
The novel, set in the 1930s, is a story of friendship of migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Smalls. The pair travels from ranch to ranch, dreaming of someday making enough money so they can buy their own plot of land and a stake in their future. George is a father figure and protector of the strong simple-minded Lennie. Lennie’s strength is his gift and his curse. Like the child he is mentally, he loves animals, but he inadvertently crushes them to death.
Women, to him, are rather like animals, soft, small, and gentle. And there lies the tension that powers this narrative to its tragic conclusion. The film version and the novel are very similar. There is minimal description in the novel, enough to set the scene, and the rest is dialogue. The film’s story is very pure and lean as Steinbeck’s original.
Producer/director Gary Sinise and screenwriter Horton Foote don’t try do anything fancy, they don’t try to make it anything other than exactly what it is, a timeless simple story. Sinise and Foote make American Literature teachers everywhere proud; they have left the film’s story uncluttered. Everything is very clear, and makes sense within its context. They remembered “Of Mice and Men is a classic for a reason, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The screenplay and the novel are not synonymous but they are very close to being that way. Sinise and Foote held very true in their adaptation. All of the changes made were minor and to nothing to detract from the narrative. There were many more scenes in the film than the novel. It is believable to think the novel was originally a play and then was adapted into book form because there are only four different scenes in the entire novel. Chapter one is set at the Salinas River, chapter two and three are in the bunkhouse, chapter four in Crook’s room, chapter five is in the barn, and chapter six is at the river again. Scenes had to be added to the film to keep the audience from getting bored.
Dialogue was deleted to help move the story along. The only way we get background information about George and Lennie in the novel is through their dialogue. There was less dialogue in the film because the audience can learn the background information from visual cues from the added scenes. For instance, in the novel, George and Lennie speak of walking ten miles after being forced off the bus by the driver. But in the film, we see the driver kick the pair off of the bus. Similarly, George only speaks of the trouble that Lennie had gotten them into in the town of Weed. But in the movie we are able to see what happens. Curley’s wife, played by Sherilyn Fenn, plays a larger role in this film than in the novel. This character steadily develops as layers are peeled back like an onion. The wife in this version is far more predatory and dangerous than in Steinbeck’s novel. Initially she acts quite sluttish, but she eventually shows to be naive, lonely, and trapped in an abusive marriage. She acts as a feminist voice that Steinbeck probably never intended. The film version is different because downplays the novel’s political subtext, a call for humane socialism where people take care of one another. Instead, the film version focuses on the human condition on the individual level only. We are given characters, a setting, and events. The drama of this story comes from two men who have formed a friendship that works – they have a bond in which each takes according to his needs and gives according to his abilities. The two main characters truly need each other.
When George is not there, Lennie would get into trouble and when Lennie is not there, George would think of throwing away his dreams. I liked the film better than the novel for several reasons. The novel gave good descriptions of the characters but I learned more about them and the story form the film because I was watching and listening to them, rather than just reading about them. John Malkovich’s (Lennie), Gary Sinise’s (George), and Ray Walton’s (Candy) performances made the film very worthwhile. Malkovich and Sinise are touching and pleasurable to watch together. Malkovich uses his baldness with bulky costumes to become convincingly large and stupid. He takes the time to show us that the wheels are turning very slowly and uncomprehendingly beneath his broad forehead. Many actors would have easily overacted playing Lennie. They’d end up looking cartoonish, but Malkovich does well because he exercises remarkable restraint. Sinise does a lot for this film by doing less. He lets Malkovich’s character be the attention getter, while he does well in the quieter caretaking role. Sherilyn Fenn impressed me in presenting a new take on Curley’s wife. But Ray Walston as Candy may have turned in the film’s best performance. All Candy had in life was his old smelly dog, but one of the ranch hands shot him because “he was of no use anymore”. Walston delivers the best lines of the movie when he says, “I wish someone would shoot me when I’m of no use anymore. But they won’t, they’ll just send me away.” The film is a success because it was well photographed. The film captured some of California’s picturesque golden wheat fields.
The entire film was very pretty but it maybe too pretty. I had pictured Candy and Slim to be more dirty and grizzled men. I thought Ray Walston looked a little too feeble to play Candy but his acting made up for any shortcomings he had in his appearance. Slim looked a little too young and handsome to be the character I had envisioned. Overall, the casting and photography was excellent. Another reason why I liked the film better was because of its dramatic conclusion. At the end of the novel we know what that George has Carlson’s gun and then we know what is going to happen. At the end of the film, we don’t know George has the gun and we can’t see that he is holding the gun to the back of Lennie’s head. This makes for a very dramatic ending. Because I read the novel, I knew what was going to happen, but I still was very drawn into the action. The film was a very good adaptation of a great book. It is a wonderful story of friendship,loneliness, and pain. This was an excellent film because it was dramatic but it never went too far and became sappy and overdone. This film is great because the creators realized how important the original text was in making this film. They did not fool around with it; the story says all they want to say.