Monday, November 17, 2008

Reading Log: Sweet Thursday At The Movies

Sweet Thursday is the fourth of John Steinbeck's books that I've read, after Of Mice And Men, Cannery Row, and The Grapes Of Wrath (in that order). I haven't done a writeup yet on Grapes, but I own that one and Sweet Thursday is already overdue from the library, so it moves to the front of the line.

I've also watched the movie adaptation of Cannery Row, which is apparently being released on DVD soon. I'll be discussing it along with this book. You may be wondering why I'm lumping the movie Cannery Row in with the book Sweet Thursday; it's because, despite its title, the movie is actually an adaptation of the later book.

Fair warning: there will be spoilers from here on in. If you don't want to know what happened in a half-century-old book or its quarter-century-old movie adaptation, then get thee to a nunnery. Or at least quit reading this entry.

Sweet Thursday is a sequel to Cannery Row, set in the same place about a decade later. Some characters have gone, new ones have entered, and some have been through life-changing experiences. The gap between the books included World War II, and at least two characters from the first book have stories of their wartime military service told.

Sweet Thursday is much more linear and cohesive than Cannery Row. The first book was largely a series of related but independent scenes, many of which had little connection to each other and could have been told in a different order without harming the overall work. Sweet Thursday has a unifying plot.

The plot is a fairly clich├ęd and predictable love story, but it's well told. It's your standard boy-meets-girl. As per the formula, they take an instant dislike to one another, but you know all along that they'll wind up together in the end. The familiar plot can be excused, because it's pretty well established that there are really only so many plots in all of literature (and any other media). Complaining that a novel has a familiar plot would be like complaining that you don't like a new song because another songwriter already used D minor.

Sweet Thursday succeeds because the characters are as likable as the ones in Cannery Row (no surprise, since many of them are holdovers), the side stories are entertaining, and the whole book is quite funny. Cannery Row had a sense of resignation about it. This book, although it shares the same setting, has a sense of celebration.

From the introduction, in which some of the derelicts from Cannery Row break the fourth wall to discuss their misgivings about that book, it's clear that Steinbeck intends Sweet Thursday as a comedy. That introduction also made repeated use of the word "hooptedoodle", so you can blame Steinbeck for the titles of some of my recent posts. The comedy works, and there are two scenes, both near the end, that made me laugh out loud: when it becomes clear how Hazel intends to help Doc get Suzy's attention, and when we find out that Suzy can't drive (after she's already agreed to drive Doc's car on a long trip).

Sweet Thursday is light entertainment compared to the deeper themes of Steinbeck's other novels that I've read, but it works very well on that level. In those other books, Steinbeck wanted to make the reader think about the human condition. In this one, he wanted to lighten up and make the reader smile. It's a credit to his ability that he succeeds at both goals.

As for the movie, although it's called Cannery Row, as far as I could see it's based entirely on Sweet Thursday. The opening credits say that it was based on both books, but I can't remember a single line or scene that was specific to the first book. I can only assume that the studio considered Cannery Row to be the more marketable title. Perhaps they thought that a few literate moviegoers (they still existed back then) might pass on a movie called Sweet Thursday because, recognizing the title, they would think they had missed the first movie. Shades of "But I haven't even read Henry The Seventh yet!"

I would not recommend the movie, and I certainly wouldn't want anyone to judge the book (or any of Steinbeck's other work) based on this mediocre adaptation.

For starters, I didn't buy Nick Nolte as the intellectual Doc. Although a capable actor, he simply doesn't have the air of a genius. It's worth noting that in a monologue where Doc states his actual IQ score, the movie lowers it considerably from the book. The IMDB Trivia page for this movie speculates that the producers did this deliberately to avoid stretching the audience's credibility past the breaking point.

Nolte is too rugged and rough around the edges for Doc. He would have been perfect for Mack, though - in fact, when I first heard that Nolte was in the movie, I assumed that would be his role. Jeff Goldblum would have made a good Doc, I think. I also never pictured Doc as dressing like Indiana Jones.

It was cool to see Mrs. Roper as the brothel proprietor, though.

The movie moved both too quickly and too slowly. Perhaps it was a result of the compression necessary to turn a novel into a film (or in this case two novels, although as noted they dealt with that by ignoring the first one), but some of the character development seemed much too fast. In the book, I believed Suzy's acceptance of her new lot in life at the outset of the story. The movie had her making the transition from waiting tables to prostitution just a bit too quickly and smoothly for my way of thinking. Perhaps I travel in the wrong (or right) social circles, but that doesn't seem like a casual career switch to me.

However, the movie bogs down in other scenes. There are two in particular, neither of which have any basis in the book: an interminable and torturous dancing sequence, and a baseball game that seems to take longer than the actual pennant race.

The baseball game brings up another sore point for me with the movie: there was no need to add the silliness about having been a baseball player to Doc's backstory. The books had no hint of that, and it doesn't fit the character that Steinbeck created.

Worse, the filmmakers then used that nonsense to tie Doc's backstory to the backstory of the Seer in the most trite fashion imaginable. In the book, the Seer doesn't get or need an explanation; he just is. He exists and relates to the other characters entirely on his own terms. The movie takes away his mystery, destroying everything interesting about him in the process.

The other changes were a mixed bag. I can almost buy Mack being a boogie-woogie piano player, but I can't understand why the screenwriters decided to cut my favourite line of dialogue from the book, from very near the end:

She was headed for the door. She whirled and faced him. Her brows were straight and her mouth taut. Then she took a slow breath and her lips became full and turned up at the corners and her eyes shone with incredible excitement.

"Brother," said Suzy, "you got yourself a girl!"
Instead, the filmmakers chose to frame this scene just like the ending of almost every other romance movie ever made. Violin swells, a long wordless kiss, blah yadda blah, and roll credits. This movie would have been much better if the director had been willing to take some risks instead of using the same cookie-cutter as every other hack in Hollywood.

The bottom line is that I'd definitely recommend the book (as long as you read Cannery Row first, of course), but the movie is only for fans of mediocrity.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the view from my bedroom window. How bad can life be?

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