Of Mice and Men
dir. Lewis Milestone; writ. Eugene Solow; featuring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Betty Field, Charles Bickford.
Of Mice and Men
dir. Gary Sinise; writ. Horton Foote; featuring John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Ray Walston, Sherilyn Fenn.
It's said that mediocre books make great movies and great books make mediocre movies. John Steinbeck's works make mincemeat of this commonplace, as his best literature has almost uniformly been adapted for very good films.
Perhaps it's the inherent human drama of his writing that translates so well. Of Mice and Men, for instance, is close to being a play with its efficient stage direction and compact structure. The focus is on revelations and development of characters. All delivered colloquially with an underlying earnestness, that begs for careful treatment.
The two best-known films of the book stick pretty closely to Steinbeck's outline and brilliant dialogue, opening the action up only slightly to make the telling of the story more visual.
George and Lennie brought to life
The 1939 black-and-white Of Mice and Men set the standard for earnest and touching portrayals of tough but soft-hearted George Milton and strong but slow-witted Lennie Small. Both Burgess Meredith as the small man and Lon Chaney Jr. as the big guy come into their own as great film actors in the respective roles.
In retrospect, however, they may have been too effective. George is a bit too cheery and Lennie a bit too "gee whillikers" endearingly slow, given the hard lives the itinerant workers are supposed to have lived and the provocations of the nasty folks they run into. Perhaps though we can chalk this up to the more obvious and melodramatic acting that audiences of that era expected.
The film opens not with the river setting where George and Lennie recount their recent escapades, as in the novella, but a little earlier with the pair running from a posse, escaping by hiding under weeds in a ditch, and then taking the bus and hiking to their next job, which leads them to the river.
From there on in however, starting with that wonderful interplay of the two of them as they bed down by the water, the scenes unfold pretty much the same as in Steinbeck's story.
Classic scenes from the book include broken-down old ranch-hand Candy (Roman Bohnen) finally agreeing to let his broken-down old dog be taken out and put down, while he and the other men nervously await the shot. And Candy, Lennie and George dreaming about the small farm they're going to buy and settle down on as rulers of their own lives for a change. Lennie being bullied by pugnacious boss's son Curley (B-movie western star Bob Steele), until responds and goes too far, not recognizing his own strength. Lennie trying to hide the dead puppy. Curley's wife (Betty Field) sexually teasing all the men but coming onto Lennie as a friend.... And that inevitable ending.
A few minor changes: Lennie carries a dead bird instead of a dead mouse at the beginning. The temptress at the ranch is somewhat raunchier than in the book. The blackness of the "stable buck" is played down somewhat.
But you get wrapped up in the story so completely, with such fine and sensitive portrayals of all the major and secondary characters, that after a while you can't remember what was different in the book. And at the end when George ultimately takes care of Lennie as he must—in a scene written and played to perfection—one cannot imagine another conclusion that could at once be so fitting and so disturbing.
For despite the motion picture strictures of the time, all involved find a way to make a relatively realistic, yet profoundly affecting, account of brotherly love.
George and Lennie as they really were
The 1992 version Of Mice and Men is almost completely a knock-off of the 1992 film—except it's now full colour and, more significantly, the realism is heightened. The sentimental gloss has been stripped off, so George played by Gary Sinise, who also directed effectively, really is desperately annoyed with the big guy he looks out for. And Lennie really sounds and behaves like a mentally challenged man; amazingly we get this uncomfortable depiction from the usually cerebral and sophisticated actor John Malkovich—a revelation both of Malkovich's talent and of the man Lennie Small would have been in real life.
The story starts just slightly before the earlier film, as Lennie unintentionally annoys a young woman, leading to her screaming and a group of men chasing Lennie and George, who escape by hiding under weeds in a ditch exactly as before. They take a little longer to get to their riverbank camp but once there the scene unfolds again almost exactly as Steinbeck wrote it and as the earlier film presented it. (This time, moreover, it is a dead mouse Lennie carries.)
The movie was scripted by the great Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies), who knew enough to let alone those great lines and passages from the book and earlier film. All the same important scenes are played out here, though with a slightly harder edge. The only notable exception is that the slight "stable buck" subplot is eliminated.
The final scene, when George gives Lennie his ultimate gift, is again grimmer, not stretched out for suspense and melodrama as in the earlier film, but delivered with understated emotion. It's over before we know it, shockingly quickly. A less satisfying conclusion than in the 1939 film, but with an unsettling impact of its own.