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18 May 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Of Mice and Men

Since I first read this 1937 John Steinbeck piece in high school, much has happened. At the time, I had already witnessed the slow death of a loved one to a terminal illness. I didn't go to see the 1992 movie directed by Gary Sinise with a screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (The Young Man From Atlanta, 1995) and Oscar-winning screenwriter (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; Tender Mercies, 1983), Horton Foote, when it came out. What could this faithful production have to offer?

Since high school, I have seen many versions of Of Mice and Men. The reasons for Lennie and George's low economic status have differed from down-and-out white men during the Depression as per the original, to Lennie as a deaf person to both Lennie and George being braceros--men imported from Mexico to work on the farms when the able-bodied men were either forcibly removed into internment camps or gone to fight World War II in Europe or the Pacific. That each of these interpretation works sends a sadly universal message.

The first mention of death in the play refers to a dog and as a dog lover I thought I could understand the pain Candy felt. Previously, my pets (hamsters) had been short-lived as is their nature, my rabbits had died at home during the night and my dogs had been old with cancerous growths that defied the skills of most vets. I had not, until recently, been haunted by the decision of when to put a beloved dog down or wondered where would I be when I became old and unable to work.

In this way, with each year and each decade, this piece's meaning deepens and the pain becomes all too real and applicable to every day life.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it follows two drifters--poor, lonely men. They have been given a work assignment in Northern California. Lennie (John Malkovich) is a tall man of unusual strength, but with the mental capacity of a 3 year old. He has picked up a mouse, one already dead. He keeps it because he likes stroking soft things. We soon learn that he has killed other animals by petting them to death, crushing them without truly understanding the fragility of living things. George (Gary Sinise) makes him throw the mouse away. They sleep one night, under the stars. George makes Lenny promise to meet there again if something should go wrong. The next day, at the farm, they do find trouble. The foreman (Noble Willingham) has a son who dislikes Lennie instantly, perhaps, only because he is big and the son, Curley (Casey Siemaszko), is short. Curley is also picking fights with other men because his wife (Sherilyn Fenn) is lonely and often seeks out the company of the men when Curley isn't around. Steinbeck shows us the only future such men face. Candy (Ray Walston) is old and crippled. His only friend is his dog. Another worker, Carlson (Richard Riehle) badgers Candy about the dog. It is old, useless and smelly. In the end, Candy lets Carlson kill his beloved dog.

The pain is almost unbearable for Candy. Yet Lennie has a plan, one that will save Lennie and George from the lonely fate of Candy or the bitterness of some of the other men who have no future dreams. Lennie and George will save money for some land where they can work for themselves and George can tend the rabbits they will raise for food and money. After Lennie unintentionally revels the plan to Candy, George allows Candy to join their little plan and the future seems assured, until Curly and his wife ruin their plans.

The title was taken from a 1785 poem by Robert Burns. It expresses regret at turning up the winter nest of a mouse on a farm.

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear

When I think of Lennie, I find regret for not having been braver and stronger and protecting the mentally disabled classmates I knew. I think of the afternoons I'd spent with one dog at a school for the developmentally disabled young teens who like Lennie had not more sense than a 3-year-old child around animals. I think of a lot of pain and grief I've given and felt.

Directer Sinise, allows these characters to be ordinary, very believable and flawed men. One can see that without Lennie, Sinise's George is doomed to bitterness. Without George, Malkovich's Lennie would have been beaten and murdered long ago. He has a child's flash of anger that isn't easily calmed down.

One feels that Sinise truly appreciates Steinbeck's words and the power of those words. He shows us the beauty of Northern Californian farmlands lit in golden light and in contrast, he also shows the ugliness of the oppressive and alienating worker system--every man for himself and, in the end, every man alone.

Sinise's Of Mice and Men is a movie worth renting, before or after you read the book and even, to remind oneself of where we as a country once were and thank God that we've become a kinder, gentler nation since.

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