The movie focused much more on the plot of the book than any historical event or retelling. We see the Joads’ journey from Oklahoma to California, watch them struggle with the challenges put upon them, and see them riding off into the distance, ready to survive no matter what. The most important aspect of the film, historically, is the setting. We see the dried out Great Plains, the destitution of camps, and the role of the government versus the landowners throughout the film. No historical figures come forward — everything comes out of a general scope of what the 1930s looked like.
Many of the sources I looked at upon research, however, did less to emphasize the landowners’ cruelty and out-of-control monetary power and more to discuss the government’s role in it all. The government, already struggling with the Great Depression, didn’t know what to do with the Dust Bowl storms and its subsequent victims. They offered relief to farmers, and farmers continued to try growing crops that would eventually earn them money and feed their family. The sources emphasized that it was the farmers’ choice to grow cotton, since its prices were high. Naturally, it was the banks who hiked up the price upon the first crop failure, knowing cotton would become more valuable, so they are not innocent in bribing the farmers to betray the land. The government’s role, however, continues when they stop giving aid to farmers who grow cotton. They stop helping the farmers almost altogether, and support larger landowners to buy small farms and consolidate their resources. Fewer owners meant more control over the land. The government was desperate to stop the Dust Bowl storms before it wasted the land, so the more control, the better.
Both the movie and the book miss the government’s role in this, but it does point directly to the landowners for the poor wages, working conditions, and opportunity for the refugees who fled their overrun land. Both adaptations were made in the midst of the Great Depression and at the tail end of the Dust Bowl crisis, too, so they didn’t have the whole picture just yet. History has the advantage in this case. This fact makes The Grapes of Wrath all the more historically significant, though. Its primary and secondary sources are nearly one and the same. John Steinbeck worked with the refugees coming into California, and John Ford made the movie only one year after the book’s release. Everyone involved lived to see what the historical account meant to tell, so they could interpret it as the people saw it at the time. This is only in terms of events and society, leaving out politics and people.
No historical figures show up throughout the movie or the book (except for the book’s Hoovervilles being named after President Hoover), but political ideas certainly showed up. The Grapes of Wrath is considered an American classic that details the lives and minds of people who struggled during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl storms. Ironically, it also depicts many ideas that would be seen as “un-American”, especially in terms of its political ideology. The 1930s saw Communism in the USSR starting to change the political landscape, challenging old ideas about capitalism and democracy. The book definitely favored this new ideology, promising that one day the refugees forced off their land and into other landowners’ places would rise up and take back what they deserved as people. The primary antagonist is the very essence of capitalism. The heroes are the working class people and the small government communities that are strictly democratic (by which everyone participates and there is no sole leader). The movie does reduce these ideas some by way of cutting out the narration of the workers gathering and becoming angry enough to do something about their situation. Instead, it focuses on the unionizing process and just mentions the ways of the government camp. It also cuts out all of the instances in which the Joad family joins with another family to become one unit for the sake of protection and care. It shows Casy becoming an important leader among the strikers and Tom following his footsteps as he leaves his family.
The ways that the movie does represent the left-leaning ideas of the book is by way of mentioning the fact that everyone who doesn’t agree with someone is a “red”. It also shows in the rearrangement of the story. The government camp comes last, foregoing Steinbeck’s nearly fatalistic last few chapters and instead offers the camp as the move forward, the progress and the potential final destination. Out of that camp, the Joads’ lives look like they will get easier. Out of Steinbeck’s government camp, they become desperate to find work and wander into more trouble. The movie makes the government camp to be a logical step in the process to recovery from the Dust Bowl as opposed to that little glimpse into what the world could look like, if only people were allowed to become self-sufficient.
Historically, the movie works better as a primary source than a secondary one simply because there wasn’t enough time between the event and the film to have history form around it. The movie is a political statement that humanizes the people who suffered the wrath of the Dust Bowl and the economics that refused to support them once they’d lost everything. It follows the book in the same regard. Both have a lot to say about the 1930s because it was part of the time, not because they wanted people to look at it as a historical account of what happened.