skip navigation
share:
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind EAST OF EDEN

John Steinbeck was already one of America's major authors when he published his sprawling novel East of Eden in 1952. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for his story of a desperate Dust Bowl family, The Grapes of Wrath, successfully adapted to film by John Ford in 1940. A hallmark of Steinbeck's best-selling books is a strong sense of period and place, especially California's Salinas Valley where he grew up and where East of Eden is set. His son Tom said much of his popularity can be credited to his compassionate views of his characters and their socio-political situations. He once told his son that the purpose of writing is to reconnect people to their humanity. Although some of the characters in East of Eden behave badly, either through malicious intentions or sheer ignorance of the consequences of their actions, Steinbeck infused the novel with the notion that humans have the capacity to choose their path in life and change the essence of who they are.

Steinbeck very much wanted to write a story that was deeply rooted in the region where he grew up and to impart to his readers in great detail a feel for what the Salinas Valley was like in the early 20th century.

The novel East of Eden tells the story of two families, the Hamiltons (modeled closely on his own family) and the Trasks. The early part of the book focuses on the brothers Adam and Charles Trask, and their conflict over Cathy Ames, a monstrously manipulative and dangerous young woman (said to be based at least in part on Steinbeck's second wife Gwen). Adam marries Cathy, and shortly after she gives birth to twin boys, she shoots him in the shoulder and runs away. The story then follows two main threads: Adam establishing himself as a wealthy landowner and raising his boys Cal and Aron with the help of his highly educated Cantonese servant Lee, and Cathy moving to Monterey where, now known as Kate, she becomes a prostitute and, through murder and manipulation, the owner of the town's most successful brothel. As the boys grow, Aron becomes the apple of his father's eye while Cal remains a restless loner, convinced he is a bad seed.

Tom Steinbeck said his father wrote much of the book from his own life, both his anxieties about being a father to two boys and his difficult and complex relationship with his own financially strapped father. In addition, John Steinbeck dedicated the book to his two sons.

Tom Steinbeck said East of Eden is a cautionary tale, the type his father favored because he could illustrate for people situations similar to what they might be going through and, by showing how his characters dealt with things, help them work out problems they were facing. "That's what storytelling was for," Tom said. "That's how my father thought literature was functional."

Steinbeck became good friends with director Elia Kazan when they worked on Viva Zapata! (1952), for which Steinbeck wrote the screenplay. Kazan read East of Eden when it was still in galleys. He took the book directly to Warner Brothers and made his easiest sale ever. Thanks to the hit he previously brought Warners, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), as well as the critical and commercial success of films for other studios, among them Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954), Jack Warner was willing to allow Kazan his pick of projects. Kazan said he told Warner he wanted to film the new Steinbeck book, to which the studio head replied, "Okay, let's go to lunch." Warner gave him free rein over budget, cast, and final edit. Steinbeck was paid $125,000 for the film rights to East of Eden, plus 25 percent of the profits.

Kazan was attracted to the story because he also had a strained relationship with his own father, a stern and unforgiving man, like Adam Trask in the novel, who never really approved of his son's path in life. Kazan also wanted to make a film that was an attack on the puritanical point of view embodied by Adam Trask.

Kazan later said he didn't like the first part of the book very much. It would also have been unwieldy to adapt the multi-generational story. Around this same time, the director had been thinking about the importance of unity in a work of art and reflected on screenwriter John Howard Lawson's notion that unity comes from the climax. Kazan decided to focus on only the final section of the novel dealing with the conflict between Cal and his father and brother and had to approach the thin-skinned Steinbeck gently and tactfully about making changes to the story. He also had to approach Steinbeck with his plan to bring in another writer to work on the adaptation with Kazan. The author genuinely liked and trusted Kazan and allowed him to proceed without interference.

Kazan chose Paul Osborn over Steinbeck to write the screenplay. Osborn was a successful playwright, author of the fantasy melodrama On Borrowed Time (filmed in 1939) and the screenwriter responsible for The Yearling (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and other films.

The character of Lee, the Trasks' philosophical house servant was eliminated. A greater focus was placed on Abra, who became the mouthpiece for the notion that there is a better way to live than the years-old conflicts that plague the Trask household.

Kazan credited Osborn with achieving the biblical quality Steinbeck was aiming for, suggesting Osborn might have been more in tune with this because his father was a minister.

Initially Kazan thought he might cast Marlon Brando, with whom he had made Streetcar and Waterfront, in the role of Cal. Early in 1954, while they were still working on the script, Paul Osborn suggested to Kazan that he go see a young actor named James Dean, attracting much attention for his small role in Andre Gide's The Immoralist on the New York stage. Kazan was familiar with Dean from the Actors Studio, the famous theatrical training ground Kazan had founded. The two had even worked briefly on a small project there. Kazan didn't think much of Dean but, responding to a quality he thought might be right for the part of Cal, decided to call him in to the Warner Brothers office. He said Dean just sat there surly and unresponsive. Unable to carry on an articulate conversation, Dean offered Kazan a ride on his motorcycle. It was a risky and harrowing experience Kazan regretted agreeing to, but he also realized right then that he had his Cal. He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck. The author's reply after the meeting was that he didn't like Dean personally but "He's it!" Dean gave notice to the producers of The Immoralist and was out of the play in two weeks.

Kazan tested Paul Newman for the part of the "good" brother, Aron. Newman didn't get the role, but his playful and intimate screen test with Dean can be seen on DVD releases of the film. Osborn finished the final draft of the screenplay on May 17, 1954. Newman's future wife, Joanne Woodward, tested for the part of Abra.

For the role of Aron, Kazan tested Richard Davalos, an unknown who had appeared in two TV shows and was working as a theater usher between gigs. Davalos tested with Dean in a scene that was later cut from the film. Again, the test and the deleted scene can be seen on DVDs. It has been rumored the scene was cut because it was too homoerotic. That may or may not be the reason for its deletion, but the erotic quality is in evidence in the surviving footage.

Kazan also went to the Actors Studio for other principal parts. Kazan had worked with Julie Harris on a play before East of Eden. She was already a respected stage performer at 28 and had received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her film debut, The Member of the Wedding (1952), a role she originated on Broadway. As a result, she was top-billed in the part of Abra, Aron's girlfriend who comes to have strong feelings for Cal. East of Eden was also the first film for Jo Van Fleet, a 40-year-old actress who had appeared frequently on stage and television prior to this. She was cast for the part of Kate, the boys' wayward mother.

Kazan opted for a contrast of acting styles with screen veteran Raymond Massey in the role of the father, Adam Trask. Massey was an old-school actor who had little patience for the Method taught at the Actors Studio. That contrast and antagonism would prove useful during filming.

by Rob Nixon

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY