Our review of Of Mice and Men, published October 22nd, 2001, is also available.
George, tell me like you done before, about the rabbits.
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a landmark in American literature. This Depression-era classic has been adapted for the screen once before, in 1939, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. in the leading roles. Long-time friends Gary Sinise (Apollo 13) and John Malkovich (In The Line of Fire) first became acquainted with one another in a stage production of the tragic story; later, with both men rising in stature and clout in Hollywood, they were able to create a new film adaptation of the tale as a labor of love. Sinise directed and produced the film, in addition to reprising his stage role as George; Malkovich takes on the role of the childlike Lennie.
Stenbeck's novel stands as a classic due to its haunting themes of friendship, loyalty, and the nature of compassion, dreams, and despair. Sinise captures the original feel of the novel very well with a film that never strays far from its literary roots.
Facts of the Case
George Milton and Lennie Small are unemployed drifters, wandering the California of the 1930s. They travel to wherever they can find work. The jobs they do find seldom last long, since Lennie's superhuman strength and childlike mentality inevitably get them into trouble and force them to move on. They find a job working as farmhands at the Tyler Ranch, harvesting barley. It seems like the two men might finally find a bit of stability and be able to build their stake in order to buy the place they have always dreamed of, "a little house and a couple of acres, a place to call home."
The period of happiness is all too brief, however. It starts to unravel when the foreman's wife (Sherilyn Fenn, Twin Peaks) takes an inappropriate interest in Lennie, drawn by his immense strength and vulnerable innocence. Her advances confuse Lennie and ultimately destroy the world that George has worked so hard to create.
In his commentary track, Gary Sinise speaks of how he first came to know and love this material. He first saw a theatrical adaptation of Of Mice and Men at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis when he was sixteen years old. Later, after founding Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company, he staged his own production of the play in 1980. Later, after starring as Tom Joad in a Broadway production of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in the early 1990s, he became acquainted with Elaine Steinbeck, the author's widow. He told her about his dream of making a film adaptation of Of Mice and Men, and she gave him the rights to the novel. Working with legendary screenwriter Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird), Sinise managed to create an adaptation of Steinbeck's classic that is faithful to the spirit of the original while recognizing the different demands the cinematic format places on the source material.
Among the changes that Sinise made to the story were some edits for length, of course, but he also expanded the scope of the novel considerably. Steinbeck's book takes place over just three days, and is largely confined to two or three locations. Sinise wisely moved many of these scenes to create a more visually interesting film. He captures some beautiful shots of the California countryside, and gives a real sense of George and Lennie's world.
One of the more substantive changes that Sinise and Foote make in the story is a greatly expanded role for Curley's Wife, played here by Sherilyn Fenn. This character (who, as in the novel, has no name of her own) is far more sympathetic here than in Steinbeck's original. We get to know some of her backstory, and we get to see her as a real person, with her own desires and dreams. Sinise states in the commentary track that he feels this makes the story even more tragic, and adds another layer to the tragedy of George and Lennie; I would definitely agree. Appropriately, much of this character's new backstory seems to have been developed from Steinbeck's personal correspondence responding to queries about his novel.
Steinbeck's characters are brought to life thanks to great performances from the entire cast. Producer/director Sinise brings his trademark quiet, honest realism to the role of George. John Malkovich is outstanding as usual in his role as the hulking, simple Lennie. I was a little disappointed with the direction he chose to take the character, but that aside, Malkovich is amazing. His eyes are constantly in motion, as though he really is seeing the world with Lennie's childlike sense of wonder and lack of comprehension. He truly becomes Lennie; Sinise comments that Malkovich completely adopts the character's innocence and allows none of his usual cynicism or sarcasm into the performance. The two really benefit from their long association and their experience on stage together; their characters interact wonderfully, sparring back and forth almost like an old married couple at times.
The supporting cast is outstanding as well. Ray Walston (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) is a natural as Candy, the worn out old-timer who buys into George and Lennie's dream of a place in the country. Richard Riehle (Office Space) is also good as Carlson. Finally, Casey Siemaszko deserves credit for bringing Curley to the screen in all his detestable cockiness, straight out of the book.
MGM has created a Special Edition of Of Mice and Men that is truly worthy of the label. This two-sided disc has the film, theatrical trailer, and commentary track on the first side, and the bulk of the special features on the reverse. Sinise is relatively quiet and reserved in his track, which seems appropriate given the seriousness of the film. There are numerous gaps in the commentary, usually in places where he wants to emphasize certain points by letting the film speak for itself. Gaps in commentaries are usually a detriment, but in this case they seem natural and appropriate. He makes for pretty dry listening at times, but it is worth it to hear his explanation of his respect for Steinbeck and the very careful approach he took in adapting the material for the screen.
Sinise further explains his approach to the film in a half-hour long featurette entitled "In Conversation: Gary Sinise and Horton Foote." As the title suggests, it consists of Sinise and Foote sitting on a talk show-like set discussing their experiences making the film. This is far more interesting than it sounds. Among the more interesting tidbits we learn that Foote actually met Steinbeck; the two had considered working on a film adaptation of The Red Pony together.
Sinise also provides commentary for eleven deleted scenes with a total running time of about eighteen minutes. Sinise's father Robert is an accomplished film editor, and handled editing duties on Of Mice and Men. Gary's comments are more fluid and extensive during these deleted scenes than they are during the movie proper. He explains very well the process he and his father went through in deciding what to cut and what to keep, which scenes moved the story along and which did not.
There is a lot of test footage included on this DVD. First off, we get Sherilyn Fenn's screen tests. This lasts about seven and a half minutes, and shows the same scene, acted out with Sinise, three different times with different approaches and camera angles. In addition to this footage, there is also about twelve minutes of hair, makeup, and costume tests for the various actors involved in the production; Sinise talks for the first few minutes to introduce the footage, but the rest is without any audio.
The final piece of extra content is a short featurette entitled "The Making of Of Mice and Men." This is a very short featurette, at just under six minutes. It is more substantive than that short running time might suggest, and seems to be a cut above the "electronic press kit" materials included on many DVD releases. However, the brief length does not allow for much in-depth examination of the film. It is notable primarily due to a brief on-camera appearance by Elaine Steinbeck.
Video quality on this disc is outstanding. The transfer is stellar and lets every detail of the beautiful cinematography shine through. There is perhaps a bit of edge enhancement here and there, but other than that there are almost no other flaws. Colors are rich and fully saturated, blacks are deep and solid, and shadowed areas show an amazing amount of gradation and fine detail.
Sound quality is surprisingly good as well. This is only a lowly Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix, but it beats some of the higher-end mixes I have heard lately. The rear channels get a surprisingly strong workout here, whether it is from the musical score or atmospheric sounds of a town, driving down a country road, or harvesting wheat in the fields.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are only two major areas where Of Mice and Men stumbles a bit. First, even with Sinise's innovative changes to the material, there are times when the script follows the book a bit too closely. As he notes in his conversation with Foote, Steinbeck's novels are filled with dialogue, and he really uses his characters as his primary means of communication with the reader. This is why his works have been adapted into stage plays and work so well in that format. Sinise and Foote did an excellent job of paring down that dialogue and fitting it into a more cinematic form, but there are still places where characters give long speeches that are just a bit clunky, just a bit much. The other slight disappointment is Sherilyn Fenn. She's a good actress, but I found her interpretation of the character to be just a little off.
Of Mice and Men makes an excellent companion piece to the novel, and a very good film in its own right. It is a tragedy filled with great characters, great themes, and great questions. Like the novel, it is bound to stay with the audience for a long time, and only grows more meaningful with each successive exposure to it.
Not guilty! Sinise, Malkovich, and all the others are to be congratulated for adapting such a classic work of literature so faithfully and so successfully. MGM is also to be commended for assembling a Special Edition that is every bit as good as this fine film deserves.
We stand adjourned.
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• Commentary by Gary Sinise
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