A man’s secure within his plans,
Within his mind and strength of hands.
The world he’s in, though, makes demands
That cast his hopes in doubt,
That turn his rock to shifting sands,
His promised lands to drought.
A plan is never set in stone,
And though the future is unknown,
Both good and ill are all our own,
As it has always been.
When sown and grown and maybe blown,
New plans must then begin.
MPAA rating of 1992 version: PG-13
MPAA rating of 1939 version: Approved (should be PG)
I’m one of the few people for whom John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was not required reading in high school. Thus, even though I had a vague notion of the plot due to its general fame, I was able to watch Gary Sinise’s 1992 adaptation without knowing how the story would actually play out. Only after that did I also investigate the original adaptation with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., one of the famous 1939 classics. In order to review both with one stone, this will be the first of a new feature called Version Variations, where I’ll be contrasting two versions of the same story. (Of course, if one happens to be animated, that will still fall under Cartoon Comparisons. Can you tell I like alliteration?)
I’ll start with the remake, the personal passion project of Gary Sinise, who directed and starred as George, the Depression-era migrant worker who travels with the large but simpleminded Lenny Small (John Malkovich). George watches out for Lenny, shielding him from trouble when possible and encouraging him with promises of a ranch of their own, complete with rabbits to pet and feed. While they both work hard and make progress toward their goals, most people probably know theirs is a tragic story; circumstances are the real enemy, and sometimes the slightest of mistakes can send things spiraling out of control.
Sinise is just as talented a director as he is an actor, displaying a steady hand for the gut-wrenching moments and an eye for detail during the lovingly recreated harvesting scenes. As well as Sinise translates the novella to the screen, most of the credit goes to Steinbeck. As works like Lifeboat and Cannery Row illustrate, he was a master at creating distinct and sympathetic characters, like the dog-loving old man Candy (Ray Walston, aka Boothby from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and the bitter black cripple Crooks (Joe Morton). In addition to swiftly developed characters, the structure of the story is perfection, with poignant foreshadowing that only becomes clear by the end. And of course, at the heart of the film are Sinise and Malkovich, giving some of the best performances of their careers, with Malkovich in particular nailing the childlike innocence that makes Lenny all the more pitiful.
As for the 1939 adaptation, which included Steinbeck’s personal involvement and approval, it’s almost identical, testifying to the faithfulness of both versions to the book. Directed by Lewis Milestone and scored by Aaron Copland, this black-and-white version features Burgess Meredith as George and the hulking Lon Chaney, Jr., of Wolf Man fame as Lenny. One thing I liked from the outset was a clear reference to the title’s source, since “of mice and men” comes from the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse.” Much of the characterization and dialogue are the same, with one difference being the slightly altered countenance of the only female character Mae (Betty Field in the original, Sherilyn Fenn in the remake), the bored and rebellious wife of the boss’s arrogant son Curley. The 1939 Mae is more vocal and antagonistic than the 1992 version of the character, who is known only as Curley’s wife as in the book. In addition, the 1939 film lacks the frequent profanity that Sinise included, though due to the book’s reputation for censorship I suspect Sinise was a bit more faithful in that regard.
The quality of the performances is certainly admirable, though some of the acting feels dated and overplayed. While Chaney can’t compare with Malkovich, Meredith and Sinise are equally excellent as gruff but caring George. The one role that I found even better in the original was that of Candy (Roman Bohnen), the old farmhand urged to kill his aging dog. As good as Ray Walston is in the remake, Bohnen steals his scenes with tearjerking effect, making me wonder why he wasn’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Both versions are powerful examples of adapting a classic book. Both have their strengths, yet Sinise’s version sidesteps the original’s weaknesses and wins my preference, despite the needless profanity. Perhaps it was simply because I saw the 1992 adaptation first, but it had a much greater emotional impact for me, aided by how the eventual climax wasn’t given away as quickly as in the 1939 version. Still, the original has enough dramatic power and artistry to recommend it too, such as a scene that slowly zooms backward as George walks across the barn toward the end. Neither earned any Oscars, though the 1939 version was nominated for Best Picture, Sound Recording, Musical Scoring, and Original Score. I may or may not ever read Steinbeck’s novel, but these two adaptations do his work proud.
Best line (same in both versions): (Slim, speaking of Lenny) “A guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella.”
Rank for 1992 version: List-Worthy
Rank for 1939 version: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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