East of Eden: The Evolution of John Steinbeck’s Iconic Novel

Today marks the 70th anniversary of when East of Eden was published. To celebrate, let’s look at the story’s journey from novel, to film, to miniseries.

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70 years ago today, John Steinbeck published what he considers to be his magnum opus: East of Eden. Steinbeck’s story put a modern spin on the Biblical Cain and Abel story by setting it in Salinas Valley, California during the events of the American Civil War and World War I. The story follows two sets of brothers and their mirroring conflicts. As in the Cain and Abel story, brothers Adam and Charles (and later, Cal and Aron) fight for their father’s affection in a narrative that questions morality and free will. Steinbeck also fleshes out the classic story with his own characters. Highlights include the Hamiltons next door, Adam’s cook, Lee, and Adam’s evil and manipulative wife, Cathy. Although East of Eden wasn’t popular among critics, it certainly was among the masses. The novel became a bestseller just a month after its release, and it’s still highly regarded today as one of Steinbeck’s best works. In fact, East of Eden was so popular that it inspired not one or two, but three adaptations since its publishing.

1955 Film

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East of Eden was first adapted just three years after it was published in 1952, which is just another testament to its popularity. The 1955 film, directed by Elia Kazan, shares its name with Steinbeck’s novel. However, it’s different in a few key ways. The movie’s two hour run time doesn’t leave much room for Steinbeck’s entire, intricately written plot. Instead of rushing through the whole thing, screenwriter Paul Osborn cleverly decided to focus just on the final third of the book, which revolves around the conflict between Cal and Aron. This means that the cyclical element gets a little lost without the paralleling Charles and Adam conflict, and we don’t get as much insight into Adam’s history with Charles or Cathy. However, the writers and actors did a wonderful job of bringing the movie’s shorter, more concise plot to life. Although it doesn’t follow Steinbeck’s book to a T, the East of Eden movie was very well received. It became as much of an instant classic as the original, winning 12 awards in total.

1981 Miniseries

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26 years later, East of Eden was also adapted into a miniseries on ABC, which was again, aptly titled East of Eden. Unlike the movie, the miniseries was practically lost after its original air date in February of 1981. It wasn’t until ABC released a box set of the show in 2009 that the miniseries became widely viewable in its entirety. Because the miniseries is a little longer, it has time to cover most of Steinbeck’s plot. Notable changes from the movie include a more in depth look at Cathy’s character, the reintroduction of Lee’s character, and a focus on the more generational aspect of the plot. With these changes, the miniseries returned to the novel’s focus on breaking cycles and the ability to choose between good and evil. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off in the same way that the book or the 1955 film did, launching it into obscurity.

Netflix Adaptation

There’s actually a third adaptation of East of Eden in the works right now – another miniseries that should be coming to Netflix in the next year or two. It’s still in the very early stages of development, but what we know is that Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan, is writing the show and Florence Pugh will be starring as Cathy. If you haven’t read the novel yet, now is the perfect time to get started. Readers have been celebrating East of Eden in different forms of media for 70 years, and now it’s your turn to see what all the hype is about!

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