East of Eden

Film and television productions based on the novel by John Steinbeck:

East of Eden (1955)
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Director Elia Kazan; writer Paul Osborn; featuring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos

East of Eden (1981)
[SHOW CREDITS]
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Television mini-series: director Harvey Hart; writer Richard Shapiro; featuring Timothy Bottoms, Jane Seymour, Bruce Boxleitner, Soon-Tek-Oh, Sam Bottoms, Karen Allen, Hart Bochner

East of Eden

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

East of Eden (1955) scene

Aron (Hart Bochner) and Abra (Karen Allen) commune in the 1981 mini-series, East of Eden.

The story of the Trasks

It played once on television in 1981 and wasn't shown again for years, although it was released on videotape a decade later and eventually on DVD.

The spotty history of the East of Eden mini-series might make you think it was something embarrassing. But in reality it was well received originally and still holds up well after three decades.

Plus, it provided the breakout serious role for—not the actor playing Cal, as you might expect—but Jane Seymour as Cathy, biological mother to Cal and Aron, and "Madame Kate" to the town. Relishing the role of the scheming, sociopathic woman—Steinbeck's incarnation of evil—Seymour practically hijacks the film after her entrance about a quarter of the way in.

The mini-series starts, like the novel, before the birth of the sensitive Adam and his younger, tougher brother Charles, and the first of its three instalments focuses on their growth and evolving relationship. Of course, even in a six-hour production, much of the novel has to be telescoped, so we don't get quite as much detail about the life and "military" career of their blustering father (depicted perfectly by Warren Oates).

Bruce Boxleitner and Jane Seymour

Boxleitner and Seymour as lovers

And we don't get all the ups and downs of the agonies of Charles' life as the unloved son, played with an edge by Bruce Boxleitner.

Nor do we get more than a sampling of favoured son Adam's miserable life in the army, trying to live up to his father's image until he rejects that way of life entirely and sets off on his own adventures. And in later sections, we get only a few scenes of the family of Sam Hamilton, played with gusto by Lloyd Bridges.

But it's enough. TV writer Richard Shapiro (best known for creating the Dynasty series) has brilliantly condensed the essentials of the novel to tell the basic story, allowing acting and cinematography to flesh out the rest.

The major failing however is in the character of Adam, tasked with holding together by force of personality all the threads of Steinbeck's sprawling saga. Sadly, Timothy Bottoms is not up to it. His Adam Trask is wistful, looking off at nothing most of the time, pulling his lips in slightly to register great happiness or sadness. He's hardly there at all.

Small wonder Cathy is hops into the arms of fellow bad seed Charles on her and Adam's wedding night.

Bottoms is supposed to age something like thirty years from his youth to his fatherhood of nearly grown sons Cal (Sam Bottoms, Timothy's real-life brother) and Aron (Canadian actor Hart Bochner), but there is still something callow and too laidback about him even as he's turning grey.

The younger actors, Bottoms and Bochner, are up to the job of filling out the brothers' roles more completely than in the earlier movie, making us forget for a time Dean and Davalos. They are ably supported by Karen Allen as Abra, though she is not as strong as Julie Harris had been earlier.

And, most fortunately, we have Lee in this version to hold the latter half of the series together. Initially, Korean-born actor Soon-Tek Oh seems a little weak as the wise servant but he grows into the part strongly as time progresses to play a pivotal role in the drama. His personal story too is somewhat curtailed in the film and by the end we wish he had more screen time.

All in all, East of Eden the mini-series is quite an achievement, perhaps too long and drawn out for the average film buff, but a must-see for readers who want to relive the literary experience in only slightly condensed form.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

Related:

Novel
East of Eden

Author
John Steinbeck

Movies
Of Mice and Men

Movies
The Grapes of Wrath

missing graphic
East of Eden
(1981, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

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missing graphic
East of Eden
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
Of Mice and Men
(1939, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
The Grapes of Wrath
(1940, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
East of Eden
(1955, DVD)
Get at Amazon: USCanUK