The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – Film #0011

Directed by John Ford 
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989 
I first watched it on March 7th, 2021 

What It’s About:

During the Great Depression, a large family is forced off of their farm in Oklahoma. They decide to travel to California, where they are led to believe that employment is abundant. Once there, they must cope with the grim reality that awaits them. 

My experience with the film:

Can an 80+ year old film about a very specific period of time still feel relatable all these years later? Well, after one year of a pandemic, with millions of people unemployed and/or struggling with finances, and the country on the verge of an eviction crisis, while the richest people in the country have only gotten richer over the last 12 months, no, I wouldn’t say that this film is relatable at all. 

In all seriousness though, I was surprised not only by how timely this film felt, but also how much I enjoyed it. I somehow managed to never read this book in high school. (Perhaps because we read Of Mice and Men instead?) We did technically watch a filmed version of the Grapes of Wrath stage play in one of my history classes (why we didn’t just watch this movie instead, I don’t know), but I remembered absolutely nothing about the story, except that it was about the Great Depression and that it involved people traveling, so I went into this film expecting it to be really depressing. (It also probably didn’t help that a lot of the literature that we read in high school, including Of Mice and Men, was depressing.) But, while the ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous, it does seem to have a sense of optimism.

My surprise continued as I did my post-watch research and learned that the ending of the film was not the same as the book and, in fact, the order of events in the film and in the book are quite different—the more optimistic stuff from the end of the film is in the middle of the book, and the depressing middle of the film is toward the end of the book. However, it turns out that John Steinbeck (the author of the novel) was actually quite pleased with the film. After learning more about the contents of the novel, I can understand why. While the film is somewhat more optimistic, it still captures the experiences of the downtrodden characters that are portrayed in the novel, to the point that several people (see the resources mentioned below) have stated that the film feels at times more like a documentary than a fictional film because of how accurately it depicts the conditions that people like the Joads went through. 

I’ll also admit that I learned (or possibly re-learned—it’s been a while since high school history class) quite a bit about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl from the film. This reinforced yet again why I’ve enjoyed watching and learning about these NFR films (and why the NFR itself is important). The NFR isn’t just a collection of “good movies.” It’s a collection of films that portray and capture significant parts of American culture, history, and art. I’ve learned about a lot more than just movies while working on this project, and I look forward to the long road ahead as I continue to watch all of the films on this list.  

Availability:

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-grapes-of-wrath 

To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:

For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory

Follow the NFR Completist on Twitter and Instagram

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