Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Opposite Ends -- Give Us Back The (Whole) Book

Some 15 years ago while I was working on a degree in counseling, one of the professors, an Old Testament scholar, noted the Bible is mostly narrative – story – and if you wanted to read the Bible well you need to read novels. I heard about a book by John Steinbeck called East of Eden.East of Eden is a classic and Steinbeck is legendary as an American writer. East of Eden is said to be the best book written by Steinbeck. At that time I didn't read many novels. My reading beyond the Bible consisted of theology, counseling, and ministry type books. I thought novel type reading was less spiritual. I know, how narrow is that? If you knew my background (another story) it would be understandable.

Wanting not to waste time I went for the best first: East of Eden. I was captured immediately and found parts of my own story within this novel. For me the timing of reading this book was pivotal. Based off of the theme from the story of Cain and Able, Steinbeck writes this wild, heavy and delightful story that takes one through three generations from the East coast to the West with characters as memorable as any classic tale.

About year later a friend who knew my love for the book told me about a reading group who was reading East of Eden. I read the book again (twice now in less than a year) just so I could join the group and be part of this night. I soon discovered that the book had been made into a movie.

I couldn't wait to track it down. It was made in 1955 (a good year), in April (a good month). The blockbuster of it's day, it was nominated for 4 academy awards and best drama at Cannes film festival. It was James Dean's first major role. No sooner did the movie begin then I began scratching my head. Why open the movie with the last part of the book? Why this must be three quarters of the way through the book (actually less than 200 pages left in a 691 page novel). Odd, I thought, as the book never does any kind of flash back in sequence. I was uneasy as the minutes ticked on. I was thinking, one can not begin to appreciate the last part of the book, with out knowing the history before it. I wanted to yell "Give us the whole story!" As key characters came into play, I was now saying "You have no idea how this person got to this moment!" It was painfully clear that we were never going to get the whole story. The movie was great, the acting was memorable and one can understand the reason for the awards; great filming and directing, capturing scenery and dramatic acting (Jo Van Fleet- winner of best supporting actress). But we miss so much without the "whole" story. I know you might be thinking that movies don't do justice to books and by their very nature movies can not include everything in books. Perhaps you think I was expecting too much, but know in my defense that I have found more than one movie/screen play of a book quite satisfying. Also, know that I am not alone in my critique of East of Eden. One NYT's reviewer noted, "The pivotal character holding everyone else together..." is "omitted..." from the movie itself.

Yet for me the worst was yet to come. The ending of the book, literally the last page, ends with the key to the theme of the whole book. From the dying lips of a father, comes, in Steinbeck existential fashion, this pointed ending. As I am now watching and waiting for this powerful end…no…unbelievable, I nearly expire, they change the ending! The theme of the whole book is not just missed but contradicted! I remember yelling, "Opposite ends...give us back the book!” I wanted to throw something at the TV. I didn't, can't say that I ever have, but I sure wanted to.

There is a parallel with another famous book where of the 1,424 pages in the particular copy I have in my hands, nearly 1,110 pages are cut off from the rest of the story. Many too, in this parallel, not only miss the background and depth of meaning of the whole book but end with an ending that contradicts the whole. And I cry "Opposite ends…give us back the whole book!"

Seeking to recovering that which was lost,

Jan Cowles

More to come…

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