For the Educator

Great classics spawn derivatives and, in the case of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, some of the derivatives from that source have become celebrated classics in their own right: Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” are two examples, and certainly the memorable Hollywood film of The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell has taken its place in that hallowed canon.

It is not easy to adapt such a highly acclaimed source as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath into a film. To preserve the integrity of each component of the text while sustaining the intricacies that forge the organic unity is a special challenge because the text breaks with traditional patterns of structure and texture. The narrative is interrupted at several different junctures with the “voice” of an “outside” persona who, through a series of sustained poetic images and detailed observations, helps build and reinforce the dramatic tension and thematic drive of the text. The prevailing mode of dialogue, which contributes greatly to the shaping of characterization, is colloquial dialect. The film, however, directed by John Ford, meets the challenge.

Following are activities crafted to give students insight into ways to think about the process of adapting the text into a film and thus understanding of and appreciation for why the adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath into film has engendered such praise and critical acclaim.

For the Student

The Hollywood version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is considered a “masterpiece” example of how the “magic” of a great text can be preserved when adapted into a film. How does one approach this challenging process of adaptation? Obviously individual script writers and film directors have individual styles of approach, but there are certain common denominators that must be addressed when undertaking the challenge.

To evoke you to think about possible “starting points” in the adaptation process, work with a collaborative partner to undertake the following project:

Assume the roles of script writer and film director charged with the responsibility of transferring the dynamic development of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath into a full-length feature film. To jump-start this creative process, consider these sequential steps:

Step 1:

Record, in brief detail, your perception of the following main elements of the content as they are developed in The Grapes of Wrath.

  • the exposition - (the setting and background information the reader needs to know to follow the storyline of the text)

  • the primary complication

  • the basic natures of the main characters and their relationship to each other; a list of minor characters and their roles

  • high points of tension in the complication: a “climax” in the traditional sense?; a series of “high points”; a combination of both?

  • the denouement (the untangling of the complication) – or explanation of why you don’t think there is a formal denouement or untangling of the primary complication

Step 2:

Create a story board – a conceptual plan for the development of your film script. If possible, secure a large poster board, note cards, and tacks for attaching note cards to the board.

Think of the “story board” as a large puzzle that you are going to assemble, through trial and error, to effectively capture the Steinbeck text on film.

Start by going back to Step I, and recording at least five details (write each detail on a separate note card) that you perceive as the most important to expanding each of the main components of the text listed in Step 1: (the exposition; the complication; relationship of characters; high points of tension; the ending)

Step 3:

Now begin to plot out, by aligning your note cards on your story board, a master plan for turning The Grapes of Wrath into a film. Experiment with the sequencing of the main structural units and how you would integrate thespecific textual details into the expansion of the structural units – the goal being to create a conceptual overview of the proposed film. To help you in this process, consider, among others, the following questions:

How are you going to open the film? A panorama view of the initial setting? A scene with family member dialogue that immediately takes the viewer into a first level of understanding of the complication? An “outside” narrator? A focus on Tom Joad’s arrival at his old homestead?

How are you going to sequence and treat the details? Follow the text exactly? Identify and then focus the film development primarily on what you consider to be the main elements of each of the structural units? What happenings and/or conversations would you emphasize? What aspects of the text would you subordinate?

How will you handle the ending? Stay true to the text? Write a new ending into the script?

Step 4:

Consider adding another “layer” of planning on your story board in which you plot such aspects as camera angles, lighting, and sound design for the detailed development of the structural units of your conceptual plan. Consider such options as close-ups, zoom lens shots, panorama sequences, dual exposures; direct lighting, chiaroscuro

Also, give careful thought to the purposes you want music and other sound devices to serve. Explore various ways music and sound devices can reinforce and illuminate visual elements of the film: setting; tone; foreshadowing; emotional context, etc. Add comments to your story board that delineate the music and sound design for elements you want to illuminate, reinforce, and/or use as transition or foreshadowing.

Step 5:

Reappraise the story board display of your conceptual plan, giving particular attention to the following: Do all aspects of the plan contribute to the logical development and enhancement of the way you want to capture the novel in film? For instance, does the plan mirror what you want emphasized and subordinated within the script design? Are the sequencing of the structural release and internal development of each structural unit of the script, including camera angles and sound design, effectively integrated?

Consider filming a segment(s) of your conceptual plan.

Step 6:

If possible, view the original Hollywood film version (or segments) of The Grapes of Wrath and compare aspects of that version with the text and with aspects of your conceptual plan. Give particular attention to the way the ending of the film is configured in relation to the ending of the text.

Note that the film of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first of 25 films to be selected to be archived in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress (1989).

Next: The Text as Opera



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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