Gang Aft Agley
January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment
Of Mice and Men is a basic and unflinching story about a friendship. It doesn’t get talked about much, even compared to Steinbeck’s other works, perhaps because of its terseness, or perhaps because of its seeming lack of alternate paths for its story to take.
It holds a bit of a special place in my heart, albeit for a strange reason. I was an unhappy mathematics major struggling through calculus when I took an elective class in Major American Authors during my sophomore year. I don’t remember the particular authors we studied, though I don’t recall that they were at all obscure, probably along the lines of Hemingway and Faulkner and perhaps a contemporary writer such as Joyce Carol Oates. For a major paper we had to select one of five short novels and write a paper on it. My paper on Of Mice and Men came back with an A and the suggestion from the professor that I might have a chance with literature should I decide to switch my major, and ultimately a shot at finding happiness within the humanities.
The story has twice been made into a film, once in 1939 (just two years after the publication of the book) with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. in the roles of George and Lennie and later in 1992, starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. I watched the Meredith/Chaney version (directed by Lewis Milestone) the other night. It is a lean and muscular picture, and Meredith and Chaney are excellent.
It fails both the Bechdel test and the Does the Dog Die test (twice). Much like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a character who is unnamed in the book gets assigned a name in the film: Curley’s wife, played by Betty Field, is known as Mae. This change makes her slightly more human, I think, than even Steinbeck might have intended. Trapped in an unhappy marriage in what is a very male-oriented story, she is presented as a threat to the ranchers and the pursuit of their dreams. Lennie is instructed to stay away from her with language that suggests she is a bad person with intent to do harm. To Lennie, she is a soft animal to be petted, but her desire to be treated as a human is sinister, a weapon that would expose the men’s lack of self-control. (In one scene, the only other scene involving a woman, George follows the other ranchers to a tavern, but doesn’t want to spend too much on drink and isn’t very interested in the company of the ladies there.) In a story where independence—having one’s own place and “livin’ off the fat of the land”—is the faraway dream, lust is a crime, a truculent distraction to the weak of mind.