Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Women of East of Eden

I love Steinbeck and I love old movies, and yet somehow never watched East of Eden (the one with James Dean) until this week. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, I'm going to talk about it now, so major spoiler alert for both book and movie.

Of course, it's a great movie, and James Dean is super hot and everything, but what got my attention was the way Cathy/Kate, his character's wayward mother, is portrayed. In the book, she is PURE EVIL. She tears through the novel wreaking havoc just for the hell of it. She starts out by burning down her house with her parents inside. Later she marries Adam (the book's protagonist), then cheats on him, then abandons him and their children, shooting him in the process (he survives). She returns to a life of prostitution, seemingly because her life was insufficiently depraved, and of course sex work is evil.

The movie corresponds to only the last third of the novel, and omits the parent-burning and infidelity. It also gives Kate a voice, which she uses to explain the husband-shooting:

Kate: I shot him because he tried to stop me.

I could have killed him if I'd wanted to, but I didn't.

I just wanted him to let me go.

Cal: Why?

Kate: Because he tried to hold me.

He wanted to tie me down.

I'll admit it, at this point I stood up from the couch and cheered. Shortly after this she lends her son (the movie's protagonist) a chunk of money because she finds it humorous that money from her brothel will support her highly religious estranged husband. You guys, this is pretty awesome. This movie took a character that, in the book, was basically the embodiment of evil and turned her into a fiercely independent, flawed woman with a sense of humor.

And the female love interest (Abra), often a fairly empty role in movies, has depth as well! Though, on the surface, she seems very much a "good girl", she alludes to wanting a more physical relationship than her boyfriend (Cal's brother Aron) does, and wonders if this makes her "bad." She also has this bit of dialogue:

The way I figure it out...

Aron never having had a mother...

he's made her everything good that he can think of...

and that's what he thinks I am.

That's who he's in love with. It's not me at all.

Ahem. There may have been more standing and cheering in my living room at this point. It's probably a good thing I do most of my movie-watching solo.

Again we're talking about a supporting character, but Abra's motivations (sexual frustration and the feeling that she's not seen for who she is) are clearly established. She pursues Cal specifically because he is a good match for her, and she takes the initiative throughout their courtship despite feeling conflicted about it.

For all I go on about the Bechdel test, it's this sort of thing I really want: women portrayed as actual people, with both flaws and virtues, character backgrounds, who are doing/have done their own soul-searching, and have agency. That is what so many movies lack, and fixing it is likely to fix the representational problems that the Bechdel test highlights. If female roles are fleshed out like male roles, then movies will likely have more of them, because audiences like watching characters they can understand and identify with. Furthermore, female characters will have more substantive conversations with each other, because they'll come into contact with each other more frequently, and they'll actually have things to talk about.

Unfortunately, while the character of Kate was altered for the better, in my opinion, the character of Lee was completely excised, leaving only white characters in the movie version. It's too bad, because it is Lee's ideas about free will that shapes the novel and motivates the ending. He also has some things to say about racism, which would have been nice to have in the movie. Omitting him was really an unfortunate decision, and one I do not think was necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment