In Dubious Battle: A Film Festival Viewer Compares Steinbeck’s Novel and James Franco’s Movie Adaptation

Image of scene from James Franco's film adaptation of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle

Recently I attended the screening of James Franco’s movie adaptation of In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck’s 1936 strike novel, at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County, California. Franco, who directs and acts in the motion picture, was present for the event, which I believe was the first time In Dubious Battle was screened publicly in this country. In his remarks Franco talked about casting and directing the film, and my general impression was that he believed he was being faithful to the theme of the novel.

As it happened, I was in the process of reading In Dubious Battle for an upcoming book club event in Monterey, California, where I live, and I noted changes in the film that surprised me, and that I felt violated Steinbeck’s intention in writing the novel. This itself is not unusual, since—as Steinbeck learned when Alfred Hitchcock mangled Lifeboat—some directors seem to think they can write a better story than the author. In the course of the Mill Valley Film Festival screening, I made a number of notes for my book club presentation comparing Franco’s movie and Steinbeck’s book.

The action of Chapters 1-4 includes Jim’s introduction to Mac, Joy, and Dick—California labor agitators sympathetic to the Communist Party—and their journey together to the Torgas Valley, the fictitious venue of In Dubious Battle. Although Harry Nilsen, a Communist Party figure, isn’t mentioned in the film, it follows Steinbeck’s story faithfully enough at the start, with one exception.

In James Franco’s treatment, Joe, the father of Lisa’s baby, abandons her when she becomes pregnant; in Steinbeck’s novel, he is still on the scene and appears in a minor role later in the action, in the course of which Lisa politely spurns Jim’s advances. In Franco’s version, Joe has to leave to make room for a romantic relationship: Jim loves Lisa, but chooses the cause over happiness with her. Hollywood always needs a romantic angle, even when that requires altering an author’s story and intent.

Chapters 5-8 in the novel present the development of plans for the strike, showing how Mac and Jim organize the effort and motivate the workers, and how Jim is increasingly radicalized under Mac’s guidance. Steinbeck’s character London, targeted as a leader by the strike organizers, is well cast in James Franco’s film. In Steinbeck’s version, Dan, an elderly apple picker, falls from the tree when the ladder he is using collapses. In the movie, Mac admits breaking the ladder so the workers will get mad and the cause will be advanced. For Mac, Dan is expendable. Unlike other changes made in the film, this one seems in character, and in harmony with Mac’s idea that ends justify means—contrary to what Steinbeck believed.

By contrast, the character of Joy, another expendable worker, is miscast. Steinbeck portrays Joy as a little guy who has been so badly beaten in the past that he may have become unhinged. In the course of a key scene in the novel, Joy is recognized by Mac and Jim while stepping off a train before being shot and killed, presumably by a vigilante sniper. In James Franco’s version, Joy is an old man, and he’s killed by a policeman after delivering a rousing speech—according to Mac, the most worthwhile thing Joy has ever done.

But the biggest negative change in characterization made by the film occurs in the presentation of Doc Burton, a key player who is described in Steinbeck’s novel as a fuzzy-cheeked young man. In James Franco’s version, he’s depicted as an older man and has a minor role. Most of the ideological dialog between Doc, Jim, and Mac—to me, the heart In Dubious Battle—has been eliminated.

In Steinbeck’s original, Mac and Jim make the argument that the strikers’ collective cause is more important than their individual lives and welfare. In response, Steinbeck’s Doc expresses doubt, raising questions about ends justifying means, violence begetting violence, and the dubious outcomes that flow from unexamined motives. This gives the story the skepticism and objectivity I think Steinbeck intended readers to take away from In Dubious Battle. Omitting Doc’s dialog, as James Franco does, robs the title of its point and encourages the viewer to take sides, like the director.

On the other hand, the portrayal of the deal made by the strikers with Anderson, the sympathetic farmer, is true to the novel, as is the interest expressed by the character Al in joining the Communist Party. In Steinbeck’s version, another grower’s house is torched, and Al survives. Here the movie is less clear, leaving me uncertain whether Anderson’s house is torched and Al is actually killed, or the rumor has been concocted to anger and motivate the strikers, like Dan’s death. Omitted entirely is the character of Dakin, the destruction of his truck, and the transfer of strike leadership to London that results.

Franco’s film, like Steinbeck’s novel, shows the strikers’ volatility, their rejection of the growers’ offer to employ London if they go back to work, and the sheriff’s threat to run them off Anderson’s land if they refuse. In the movie the tents where the workers live are white and new, and the breaking through of the barricade becomes a major scene. These changes, presumably made for visual and dramatic effect, don’t violate the spirit of Steinbeck’s story. The changes made in the story’s ending do.

In the novel Doc Burton’s absence is noted when London calls a meeting to decide whether the strikers will stay and fight or to leave, and a boy enters to report that Burton has been found in a ditch. Jim insists on going to Doc and is ambushed and shot. After carrying Jim back to camp, Mac says, “Comrades, he didn’t do anything for himself.” In the film it is Mac who is shot and killed, not Jim, and in a major reversal, it is Mac who becomes a martyr to the cause that Jim will carry on. As in the novel, we don’t know whether the strikers finally decide to fight or flee. Either way, however, they lose—out of a job and blacklisted if they leave; in jeopardy for their lives if they stay. Like the battle for labor rights, their immediate outcome is dubious. Whatever may happen to them personally, it is Mac who has put them a position of increased vulnerability. Absent the dialog written by Steinbeck for Doc Burton earlier in the story, this point is lost on viewers.

Steinbeck favored objectivity where James Franco takes sides, and the film concludes with a summary of pro-labor legislation enacted, supposedly as a result of In Dubious Battle, in the years that followed. To seems likelier to me that The Grapes of Wrath can be credited with influencing laws in favor of labor rights in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
James Franco is to be commended for producing, directing, and acting (as Mac) in this, the first movie adaptation made of In Dubious Battle since it was published 80 years ago. By downplaying Doc Burton and emphasizing Mac, however, Franco has substituted certitude for objectivity about ethics, motives, and outcomes in the long struggle for labor rights. This, to me, is his film’s most serious flaw.

In Dubious Battle Motion Picture by James Franco, Steinbeck Fan, Premieres

Image of scene from James Franco's motion picture of "In Dubious Battle"

Image of James FrancoMovie reviews, like book reviews, sometimes influence audience behavior. But as John Steinbeck proved, loyal fans often ignore reviews if they really like an author or an actor. When James Franco’s motion picture adaptation of In Dubious Battle is released in the U.S. later this year, it’s doubtful that fans of Steinbeck or Franco will be affected one way or the other by the breathless reviews and red carpet hoopla In Dubious Battle received at film festivals in September. Reviews were mixed following the movie’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, but Franco won points for making the first motion picture adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1936 strike novel, and that may be what fans appreciate most when they see the movie for themselves.

Reviews were mixed following the movie’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, but Franco won points for making the first adapatation of Steinbeck’s 1936 strike novel.

Franco reread In Dubious Battle while rehearsing the role of George for the Broadway stage revival of Steinbeck’s 1937 play-novella Of Mice and Men, which has been filmed twice despite being, in Franco’s view, far less suited for the screen than the earlier book. During a press conference at the Deauville Film Festival following Venice, he explained that he decided to make In Dubious Battle now because “as a storyteller [I knew] it would make a great movie” and because its “central conflict had a topical resonance” he felt audiences would understand. That point seemed lost on critics at the Venice Film Festival: some got facts wrong about the novel; others ignored Franco’s intentions and concentrated on his personality and appearance. The response from critics may be more discerning when Franco’s movie opens at the film festival in Toronto, where reviewers won’t have to explain Steinbeck’s story to readers, or the parallels between Steinbeck’s time and today.

Rebel with a Cause: Filming Faulkner and Steinbeck

Image of James Franco as James DeanWhatever the final verdict on the film, Franco also deserves credit for both directing and acting (as Mac) and for attracting an amazing cast, including Bryan Cranston, Vincent d’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Selena Gomez, and Natt Wolff. Franco has appeared in dozens of movies, and he’s best known by mainstream moviegoers for playing slapstick characters in Animal House pictures like The Interview. But he has portrayed intelligent characters intelligently in highbrow films and acted and directed in adaptations of novels by Faulkner even harder to film than Steinbeck.

Whatever the final verdict on the film, Franco also deserves credit for both directing and acting (as Mac), and for attracting an amazing cast.

Like Faulkner, Steinbeck learned his limits when he tried to write for Hollywood, and he preferred to leave the job of adapting to specialists like Franco’s friend Matt Rager, the screenwriter Franco turns to when he makes literary movies, including biopics about authors. In several of these films Franco portrays tormented artistes from Steinbeck’s era—including Hart Crane, James Dean, and Alan Ginsburg—about whom Steinbeck could be critical. Franco grew up in Palo Alto, where Steinbeck went to college, and he writes fiction that appeals to the kind of reader who, unlike Steinbeck, is naturally attracted to Crane, Dean, and Ginsburg.. Like these figures, and like Steinbeck, Franco follows his own drummer as an artist, and his fans—like Steinbeck’s—respond in the same spirit. For American fans, Franco’s independence, courage, and passion for Steinbeck are cause enough to celebrate the making of In Dubious Battle, despite ill-informed movie reviews at foreign film festivals.

What The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Christianity Today Had to Say About John Steinbeck

Image of the New York Times newsroom in 1942

Three recent newspaper stories served as reminders that John Steinbeck remains relevant to readers, and useful to editors, experts, and leaders who make policy in his name. Of Mice and Men dominated the August 22 New York Times report on a Texas death penalty case working its way to the Supreme Court. The Grapes of Wrath appeared in the headline of a report on Syrian refugees published the same day in Christianity Today. The 1939 novel was used by a college professor with conservative ideas about government in an August 20 editorial for The Charlotte Observer. The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times piece by Adam Liptak explored the legality and ethics of the so-called Lennie standard, named for the character Lennie Small and used to decide when a person of limited intelligence should or shouldn’t be executed for murder. (Barbara A. Heavilin, who writes frequently about John Steinbeck, explains the immorality of this misreading of Steinbeck”s novel in a related blog post.)  Jeremy Weber’s Christianity Today report on refugees in the Bekaa Valley—“Grapes of Wrath: Refugees Face Steinbeck Scenario in Lebanon’s Napa Valley”—compared conditions there with California during the Great Depression. In his editorial for The Charlotte Observer“Addressing the problems of the modern-day Joads“—Professor Clark G. Ross misrepresented Steinbeck’s intentions in The Grapes of Wrath, just as those justifying the death penalty do in misreading Of Mice and Men.

Why The Charlotte Observer Got John Steinbeck Wrong

Professor Ross describes teaching The Grapes of Wrath to a group of students who are studying the Depression for the first time. His detached view of the Joads as a “fundamentally Christian, not over-educated family” dependent on government support for survival suggests that the wrong lesson was learned about the present. While faulting both Republicans and Democrats for failing workers losing their jobs to foreign labor, he claims that politicians can’t save these “modern-day Joads” anyway, because government isn’t the solution to social problems. Steinbeck thought it was and Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help, was his proof. Unconvinced by Steinbeck’s example, Ross characterizes Steinbeck’s vision as  “centered on a benevolent government within a communist society, one that would provide employment and shelter, as well as self-governance.” The commie charge isn’t new.

Steinbeck thought government was the solution to social problems. Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help in The Grapes of Wrath, was his proof.

Conservative critics raised the specter of communism to discredit Steinbeck and his novel when it was published more than 75 years ago. Critics in California denied that Okies like the Joads even existed, or if they did were as numerous as Steinbeck claimed, and they failed to feel the Joads’ or Steinbeck’s pain. Professor Ross expresses sympathy, but it’s distant and distorted by doctrine. Like that of Joad Deniers at the time, his claim that Steinbeck’s version of good government can’t succeed requires a belief that government can’t be the solution because it’s the problem. “History has proven,” he says of Steinbeck’s dream, “that such public provision of goods and services really cannot work.” Arvin, the migrant camp known as Weedpatch, proved the opposite.

How John Steinbeck Did Research and Described Experts

“History has proven” is a sad tautology, and economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions, as The New York Times and Christianity Today did last week. Steinbeck put a human face on every subject when he wrote, and the effort often hurt. He lost his first newspaper job because he got bogged down in the human side of the stories his editor assigned. He researched The Grapes of Wrath in person, by doing, reporting on Dustbowl refugees in the field for the San Francisco Examiner, staying at Arvin to learn how it worked, making mercy runs to migrants stranded by floods in the Central Valley. Of Mice and Men was similarly inspired by actual people and events; as Barbara Heavilin notes, Lennie Small was based on a real person.

Economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions.

Years after writing these books Steinbeck had a chance meeting on a train with a boyhood friend from Salinas. By then the author was back in the journalism business, producing a syndicated newspaper column that allowed him personal privilege, which he used, to speak his mind. Tongue in cheek, he tacked the meeting onto a tall-tale column about religion, describing his old friend, now grown, as a “professor of anthropology . . . or some such vermin.” Vermin seems a strong word to describe an expert, even if the friend was in on the joke. On the other hand, the misinterpretation of Steinbeck’s meaning by authorities in Texas, and by an academic in North Carolina, suggests why he used it.

Muhammad Ali and John Steinbeck, Together, in This Week’s Hollywood Reporter

Image of Muhammad Ali: "I am the Greatest"

John Steinbeck boxed when he was in college, but he disagreed with Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of a later time, about America’s intervention in Vietnam when that war became controversial. At their peak the two figures were alike, however. As fans will be reminded when they read this week’s Hollywood Reporter, each man was the greatest in his field, and both displayed courage under fire for convictions that made others angry. The online edition of the magazine leads with an item about John Legend and Andra Day’s new arrangement of “The Greatest Love of All,” a song originally written for The Greatest, the 1977 movie about Muhammad Ali. The next piece on the page looks back even further, to the heyday of the Garden of Allah, the Hollywood hotel with the famous pool where actors, writers, and musicians went to hook up and get wet in the 1930s and 40s: “George S. Kaufman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker all flocked to the Garden for its permissive (read: alcohol-soaked) atmosphere and smart, starry clientele.” This association of Muhammad Ali and John Steinbeck may be accidental, but Steve Hauk, the writer of fiction based on John Steinbeck’s life, recalls meeting Ali for real in a telling true-life story—“The Day I Met Muhammad Ali”—published here for the first time.

Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway Lead John Steinbeck in Search for Single-Author Websites

Screen shot of the official Mark Twain website

If author websites are any indicator of continued popularity in American literature, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway are the current winners. According to my count of websites devoted to 82 American authors represented in panel titles at this week’s meeting of the American Literature Association, just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them. Like Mark Twain (at six sites), Ernest Hemingway (nine), and John Steinbeck (four), William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac are the subject of at least four sites each, including one or more blog sites connecting their life and work to contemporary issues.

Just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them.

By my count, 65 writers in this year’s American Literature Association lineup are the subject of single-author websites of one kind or another. Most are societies, study centers, or collections devoted to the author’s writing. Some are houses or museums associated with the author’s life, and 28 are blog sites that foster popularity by recording reader passion and encouraging public conversation about the author’s ideas. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac have sites representing each category, but with four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author. Uniquely (but unsurprisingly) among the American authors I checked, Mark Twain is also the subject of a website representing the interests of an author’s estate.

With four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author.

But if blogging also equals attention span in American literature, at least a quarter of the writers on the American Literature Association marquee continue to have meaning in the lives of readers. Besides Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Kerouac, the list of American authors with an active blog site in their name includes Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Dreiser, Margaret Fuller, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Olson, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and August Wilson. Another, Thornton Wilder, is the subject of a blog site started by family members—an idea for John Steinbeck that is, due to circumstances, unlikely to see the light of day.

Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis Grapes of Wrath Motion Picture Off or On?

Cover image of The Hollywood Reporter with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis

Steven Spielberg’s motion picture remake of The Grapes of Wrath with Daniel Day-Lewis may finally happen if a suit by Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of John Steinbeck’s widow Elaine, is successful. The legal filing against Steinbeck’s son Thom and others—the latest in a war of litigation among Steinbeck’s various heirs—was reported on April 4, 2016 by the motion-picture news magazine The Hollywood Reporter. According to the report, Universal Studios abandoned plans in 2014 for a motion picture remake of East of Eden because of alleged interference by quarreling heirs, but Steven Spielberg’s interest in remaking The Grapes of Wrath, with Daniel Day-Lewis in a starring role, appears to be the cause of the latest filing by Kaffaga and Steinbeck’s literary agents, MacIntosh and Otis. (James Franco’s interest in making a motion picture adaptation of Tortilla Flat was also mentioned in the piece.) Read The Hollywood Reporter for details, and stay tuned for the next chapter in the ongoing Steinbeck family saga.

 

Phoenix, Arizona Toasts Of Mice and Men with a Ward 8

Image of a Ward 8 cocktail paired with Of Mice and Men

The new production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by the Arizona Theatre Company got more than a 10-out-of-10 review from The State Press, the Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona newspaper published by students at Arizona State University. “Books & Booze: ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck,” this week’s column by Carson Abernathy, pairs Steinbeck’s Depression-era work with a Gilded Age cocktail called Ward 8, composed of whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine. Abernathy’s novel concept for making modern fiction palatable to college readers is appealing: he ties the book in question to a drink from the past and rates the writing for style, characterization, cohesiveness, and relevance. (Lolita and The Sun Also Rises were similarly paired and reviewed in recent columns.) We think Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Nabokov would drink to Abernathy’s bright idea.

Photo for The State Press by Johanna Huckeba.

James Franco Writes About Motion Picture Adaptation of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle

Image of James Franco in Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle

It isn’t surprising that James Franco has made a specialty of John Steinbeck. The 37-year-old actor grew up in Palo Alto, California, where Steinbeck attended college. Following high school, Franco dropped in and out of jobs and trouble—as Steinbeck did at the same age—before majoring in writing at UCLA, studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, and pursuing a PhD in English at Yale. Like Steinbeck during the Great Depression, Franco is attracted to social causes by personal experience: exposing troubled kids to literature and advocating equal rights for gay people. A prolific writer, he recently blogged about his motion picture adaptation of Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel In Dubious Battle, scheduled for release this year. Franco’s connection to Steinbeck is strong, so the movie should be good.

New Music Continues: Bill Frisell’s “John Steinbeck” Commissioned by Brooklyn Rider String Quartet

Image of jazz guitarist and John Steinbeck composer Bill Frisell

Passionate about sound and programmed to appreciate performance, John Steinbeck took piano lessons as a boy, listened to classical records when he wrote, and liked new music, old music, chamber music, opera, and jazz as an adult. American musicians—including a contemporary string quartet group—have remained passionate about John Steinbeck in return. Steinbeck’s spirit has animated folk songs by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, inspired operas by Carlisle Floyd and Ricky Ian Gordon, even motivated the composition of recent organ music by Franklin D. Ashdown and Lothar Bandermann. Such eclecticism seems especially appropriate for an author who sang in the church choir as a child, loved Bach and Broadway equally, and wrote an early, unpublished novel called “Dissonant Symphony.”

Image of Brooklyn Rider string quartetFor the latest addition to the growing body of music inspired by John Steinbeck, applaud  Brooklyn Rider, a young string quartet with Steinbeckian crossover audience appeal. In 2014 Brooklyn Rider commissioned new chamber music works from a group of distinctively different composers including Bill Frisell, an acoustical guitarist blessed with an expert back-up band and a big following in the world of jazz. Each composer selected for Brooklyn Rider’s recording project was encouraged to “look outside the sphere of music” in writing a short chamber music piece inspired by a person, place, or idea of the composer’s choice. Bill Frisell picked John Steinbeck. The resulting CD, Brooklyn Rider Almanac, is an example of contemporary recorded music at its best—clear as sunlight on the sea, full of color and character, and as varied in style, feeling, and form as the books of John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only artistic figure chosen by a composer for the project (Daniel Cords picked the painter Keith Haring), or the only author: Aoife O’Donovan celebrates William Faulkner in a fiddling romp through the mind of Faulkner’s character Quinten Compson, Benjie’s brother in The Sound and the Fury. But Bill Frisell’s piece—titled simply: “John Steinbeck”—is the last cut on the album and stands out as the shortest, and the most surprising, of the 13 works recorded. Partisans of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner at the time accused Steinbeck of being a sinplistic sentimentalist while praising books such as The Sound and the Fury for hard-edged modernism and challenging complexity. Did Bill Frisell write his tough little string quartet as a belated musical rebuttal to Steinbeck’s critics? “John Steinbeck” certainly tests the ear and requires effort to understand, more like Faulkner than Steinbeck, who refused to write for the critics or to criticize fellow writers who did.

Cover image from The Brooklyn Rider Almanac CDI think the Salinas Valley native who listened to records while writing The Grapes of Wrath in his California Coast Range retreat would get the point of Bill Frisell’s peak-and-valley piece, chamber music inspired by an artist who agonized and rejoiced with the characters he created in a small room high in the mountains, observing monkish solitude as Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms played in the background. You decide. Close your door, shut your eyes, and listen to Brooklyn Rider Almanac from start to finish, then repeat the last piece on the album as you contemplate the personal context and social sense that inform The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck was a sociable loner, a pretty good description of a string quartet player—or a jazz performer like Bill Frisell, creating a printed score for recorded chamber music instead of improvising as usual. Like a string quartet’s lead violinist, Frisell is the first among equals when performing with his group. In “John Steinbeck” he communicates the lonely predicament of a working novelist who, like a composer putting sound on paper, has only himself to praise or blame, peak-or-valley, before the record ends.

Only Connect!—James Franco’s Upcoming Film of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle Full of Coincidences

Image of James Franco, John Steinbeck fan

According to Hollywood’s Variety magazine, the actor James Franco and the screenwriter Matt Rager have teamed up to adapt John Steinbeck’s 1936 labor-movement novel In Dubious Battle as a 2015 motion picture featuring Franco and a constellation of interconnected stars. Neglecting Tortilla Flat (1935), Variety incorrectly identified In Dubious Battle as “Steinbeck’s first major work” in its news flash about the film. But casting details corroborated by other sources reveal coincidences and connections to John Steinbeck reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s advice in A Passage to India: “Only connect!”

Casting details reveal coincidences and connections to John Steinbeck reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s advice in A Passage to India: ‘Only connect!’

James Franco grew up in Palo Alto, California, where John Steinbeck attended Stanford University in the early 1920s. As a PhD student at Yale, Franco met Rager, a former English teacher, and the pair went on to collaborate in film adaptations of two novels by William Faulkner—As I Lay Dying (2013) and The Sound and the Fury (2014). Franco starred in both movies; each featured another young actor, Danny McBride, who will appear in Franco and Rager’s adaptation of In Dubious Battle. The comedian Seth Rogen—James Franco’s co-star in the controversial 2014 flick The Interview—appeared with Franco in The Sound and the Fury and portrays Steve Wozniak in the upcoming Silicon Valley bio-pic, Steve Jobs. Coincidentally, the real Steve Wozniak lives in Los Gatos, the upscale town where John Steinbeck wrote his labor-movement masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1938.

James Franco grew up in Palo Alto, California, where John Steinbeck attended Stanford University in the early 1920s.

In another Steinbeck connection, James Franco played George Milton in the recent stage revival of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-drama Of Mice and Men. The 1938 Broadway production of the labor-movement play, directed by George S. Kaufman, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play Award. The 1939 film version, directed by Lewis Milestone, featured Lon Cheney as Lenny and Burgess Meredith as George, the role that helped make Meredith famous. It also introduced Meredith to Steinbeck, and they became close friends. Six years later Meredith starred as the legendary reporter Ernie Pyle—another friend of John Steinbeck—in the World War II bio-pic, The Story of G.I. Joe.

In another Steinbeck connection, Franco played George Milton in the recent stage revival of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-drama.

A 35-year-old actor named Henry Fonda also became Steinbeck’s friend following the Fonda’s break-out performance as Tom Joad in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Like John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and James Franco, Fonda was a political liberal with progressive social views. Like Meredith, he visited Steinbeck in Los Gatos, a 20-minute drive from Franco’s hometown of Palo Alto. Hollywood sources reported that Steven Spielberg had plans to produce and direct a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. If he doesn’t, James Franco might. The 37-year-old clearly connects with John Steinbeck. E.M. Forster, who appreciated the importance of such empathy, would approve.