Thursday, April 8, 2010

East of Eden: Movie, Book, and Legends of the Fall

A couple years ago, I saw East of Eden on the airplane and fell madly in love with both it and James Dean. It is possible that I fell in love with the movie because James Dean was in it. I'm not sure. Anyway, I was convinced it was the most perfect movie I had ever seen, absolutely faultless, and oh, why couldn't I give Cal Trask a hug, the poor unloved thing? I guess it is difficult for a movie to live up to a first impression like that. It is true that with each subsequent viewing, I like it less. It has many good points: the acting is brilliant, the cinematography is beautiful, the soundtrack lends a lot of atmosphere to the film, and it is wonderfully dramatic. The last thirty minutes have me glued to my seat and on the verge of tears.

However, it also has some faults, faults I was blind to as a thirteen year old. First of all, everything except the last thirty minutes is kind of dull once you know what happens. Second of all, Julie Harris and James Dean don't have such good chemistry. Third, the plot is completely messed up, especially after you read the book.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The whole point of the movie is that Cal Trask is really not such a bad guy and his brother Aron is just as bad in his own way, or at least, not much better. By the end, you are supposed to realize that Aron is a jealous boy who wants to believe his brother is a bad person, regardless of whether he is or not. The problem is, Aron's jealousy begins to surface once he has every reason to be jealous. Cal Trask steals Aron's girlfriend, Aron knows something is going on, and he's not supposed to be jealous?? Aron doesn't start acting particularly jealous until after Cal and Abra kiss on the ferris wheel. At their father's birthday party, Aron is sulking in the background, watching Abra pay far more attention to Cal than the boy she claims to be in love with. Really, there is nothing abnormal or mean-spirited about that. Most of us would act far worse.

Of course, that does not change the fact that when we watch this movie, we sympathize with Cal and dislike Aron. Poor Cal, in love with his brother's girl, nasty Aron, who gets everything he doesn't deserve. And then that horrible Aron has the nerve to call Cal "mean" and "vicious" right after the birthday party! Well, if you were in Aron's shoes, Cal would seem mean and vicious. And wartime profiteering is not exactly a morally upright thing to do. I feel that the point of this movie is not so much that you "can't always tell who's good and who's bad" but that different people seem good and bad from different points of view. Cal isn't any better than Aron and Aron isn't really any better than Cal. We just react to this movie the way we do because it is told from Cal's point of view and, well, James Dean is kinda sorta adorable. Now, in that light, think about the ending. It isn't exactly fair, now is it? The ending is my favorite part, I love it beyond words, I wouldn't change it for anything...but no, it isn't fair.

If you read the book, you will discover that the movie doesn't do justice to it. However, I felt that the part of the book the movie did cover was done better than it was in the book. In the book, it feels anti-climactic. In the movie, several events happen right after each other that take place over the duration of maybe a year in the book. But, the book has no Cal-Abra romance, the motivations are more understandable, it is far more interesting, and the moral ideas are less black and white. Faaaar less black and white. It's kind of disillusioning, how sleazy some of the best characters are. There are a few things they changed for the movie that perhaps didn't work so well. First of all, Abra is a whole lot prettier in the book. Since she's just an average, okay-looking girl in the movie, it suggests that Cal might have fallen in love with anybody that belonged to his brother. (So suggested my sister, the cynic.) Second of all, Kate is completely evil in the book. I don't think she has one redeeming quality, and boy, is it better that way! The movie Kate is just a bit too "whore with a heart of gold," and that is a pretty shallow stereotype in comparison to the psychopath the book's Kate is.

One of the first things my sister noticed when I showed her this movie is how similar it is to Legends of the Fall. I saw LOTF recently myself and the similarities are astonishing. I don't understand how it could be just coincidental, but the messages of each film are so different I don't see why LOTF would need to borrow from EOE. Some examples:

  1. Both stories involve rivalries between brothers, particulary between two brothers, one of which is "wild" and the other is rule-abiding.
  2. These brothers compete for the fiancee of one of the brothers.
  3. The mother is out of the picture, having left the ranch long ago.
  4. The time periods are roughly the same.
  5. The brother engaged to the girl everybody wants dies in WWI.
  6.  The father has a stroke and loses a lot of money.
  7. The wild brother says he will earn back the money his father lost.
  8. There is a man working with each family of a different race. (This is only in the book.)
  9. The naughty brothers both move their eyebrows the same way. :)
  10. Both movies have awesome soundtracks

Perhaps not the most shocking list, but watch the two movies in days of each other and see what you think.

East of Eden (Film): 9/10
Book: 9.8/10 :)
LOTF: Maybe 8/10


Kendra said...

Legends of the Fall was adapted from a short story of the same title and though I haven't seen the film East of Eden, it is one of my favorite books and I've never thought EOE and LOTF were overly similar. maybe I just never paid attention. I love legends of the Fall, though, it's a beautiful film

Debbie said...

I had an obsession with James Dean when I was in high school during the 1970's. You couldn't find too much memorabilia on him back then but now it is everywhere. We shared a birthday ... I thought that was a 'sign' ... he was beautiful and brilliant. Loved him in Rebel Without a Cause. I've read tons of books on him and love him to this day ... although not quite so obsessively! LOL!

Millie said...

Fascinating post!

I agree about the whole "less perfect every time you watch".

The first time I saw it, I was just sitting on my like three in the morning...saying, "WOW!" (Also, It happened to be like the 50th anniversary of his death or something like that...completely accidental).

I still love it, utterly. It's just not quite an experience. While I find, that Rebel gets BETTER every time.

EOE is still so amazing. Gawsssshhhh! James Dean is so completely and utterly adorable. I mean SERIOUSLY. I couldn't care LESS what happens to any of the other characters...hehehe!

Great post!

vagabondshoes said...

I have always wanted to read East of Eden, I have seen Rebel Without a Cause but have refrained from East Of Eden until I read it. Great post!

Rochelle Zimmer Bishop said...

Absoluty, LOTF is a knock off of EOE. Love them both.