Based on John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel by the same name, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of a young ex-con and his impoverished family as they move from Dust-Bowl-ridden Oklahoma to the promise of work and a better life in California during the Great Depression. However, the trip takes a tragic toll on the family as death follows them on their journey across Highway 66. Even worse conditions arise as they are taken into a migrant workers’ camp and find their hopes for a better life deteriorating quickly. Finally managing to escape (but not without a cost), the family, or what’s left of it, continues on the never-ending search for their own piece of the ‘American Dream’.
Already a controversial subject when the novel was released, the film faced both a heavy amount of curiosity and criticism before it even started production. Many regulations and guidelines were forced upon the movie, both by Steinbeck, who only sold the rights to the book after being assured the subject matter would be treated responsibly, and by the production company, who made sure some extremely controversial parts of the book (most notably Rosasharn’s stillborn baby and nursing a dying man) were kept out of the film. With that said, it is widely agreed upon that the film closely follows the book, mostly due to the dedication of the screenwriter, who was very keen on having the message of The Grapes of Wrath reach a wide audience.
The most impactful and enduring quality of the film is its ability to focus on the human factor in a time of great peril and suffering. This was especially important in the 1940s, when post-war ideology swept the nation, emphasizing factories, mass-production, and turning the identity of American people into numbers in a faceless work force. By humanizing the migrant workers, they become more than a statistic. The unbelievable conditions they lived and worked in become believable, and the hidden atrocities committed by these companies who took advantage of them come into the light.
Another redeeming quality of the film (and the novel) is its attention on the victims of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. Because this was a more confined disaster (rather than the widespread economic disaster of the Great Depression), not much attention was paid to those effected by it by those who weren’t. Finally, the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the destruction and disaster felt in Oklahoma during that time period could be witnessed by others, in the United States and across the world. By following a family as they are forced to leave their entire life, their memories, and their home, their pain is made real, and we can better understand how far hope can take us. The perseverance, kindheartedness, and strength of this family continue to give American society hope for the future in times of great distress.
As Ma Joad so proudly declares in the final scene of the film:
“We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever…‘cause we’re the people.”