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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges (1991)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape directed by Lasse Hallstom (1993)
The story is told from the perspective of Gilbert Grape; a 24 year old who lives at home with his two sisters, mentally handicapped younger brother, and their hugely obese mother.
This could be considered a kind of coming of age story, as it centers on a short time period in Gilbert’s life where there are big changes that happen which cause him to grow and change.
For starters, he is having an affair with a married woman and decides to end things with her; shortly after this the woman’s husband dies and she moves away. There is also a new girl that comes in town that Gilbert falls for and she brings out another side of him in a way. Plus, his brother is having his 18th birthday, which is a big deal. And in the end, the mom dies. All of these things of course impact Gilbert.
Thoughts on book
Initially, I disliked Gilbert, and the other characters too for that matter. Gilbert was negative about everything and was very disingenuous with everyone he talks to. Then, as the story continues, I got less annoyed with him and felt for his situation. Then I was surprised how emotional the ending made me feel. Ultimately, I ended up loving this book, something I hadn’t anticipated on. I liked how Gilbert would tell us what was on his mind, then would end up saying something that didn’t match what he was thinking. This is one of the reasons I found him annoying early on, because this showed what a phony he was. But as it went on, I enjoyed this style. You also get to see his endearing qualities and as you walk in his shoes so to speak, you can’t totally blame him for the ways he acts out. In the end, he comes to peace with a lot of the things he had been struggling with internally and has a very satisfying character arc.
There are a few things that made me cringe, but I think they were a combination of, 1) a different time period, so mentally handicapped people were referred to differently, 2) an example of small town people/hicks. For example, even though Gilbert clearly loves his mentally handicapped brother, Arnie, he often refers to him as “the retard”. Obviously, this is a slur in today’s day and age, and it seemed negative when Gilbert used the term, but maybe it also wasn’t as bad to say that back then. I don’t know. Then, the new girl in town, Becky, is only 15 years old and all the guys in town are going crazy over her. Guys who are ten plus years older than her! This though, could also be looked at different considering it’s the late 80’s/early 90’s and they’re small folk on top of that. But it’s still gross. And even the 80’s/90’s seems too recent a time for it to have been okay for a 25 year old to date a 15 year old.
His younger sister Ellen is said to be the prettiest girl in town, and there are like two or three times where she makes some kind of sexual comment to Gilbert. For example, he finds her really annoying and is often upset with her. She then says that he’s just angry because she’s his sister and he’s mad that he can’t have sex with her. Uncomfortable things like that, which again I guess can be chalked up to the fact that they are in a small town, bordering on hicks.
Speaking of small towns, I liked how excited Tucker, Gilbert’s friend, was about the Burger Barn chain coming to town. He is so excited to work there and feels this is going to make his life better. He takes such pride in the business in an endearing way. This is a good example of small town life, because no one in a city would be feeling this optimistic about some fast food place opening up near them.
I had seen this movie before, but it was like 15 years ago. Even so, I had a fairly clear memory of what it was about. So, I did go into the book knowing what would happen (assuming the book and movie were similar). This movie is most well known for DiCaprio’s performance as Arnie Grape, as well as Darlene Cates who plays Momma.
The story was adapted into a screenplay by the author of the book, Peter Hedges. After this, he went on to be a screen writer, so this book and movie really changed his life. Since the author himself is the one who adapted the story, it made me feel like I couldn’t be too upset about changes that were made, since the author himself apparently made the changes. Though I’m sure there were things the director wanted to do a certain way and Hedges had to go along with it. But still, having that in mind gave me a different outlook on the movie. Though there are of course still changes that I wasn’t a big fan of.
Johnny Depp is in the lead role of Gilbert. In the book, Gilbert is said to be 24, and here Depp is 30, not too far off, I guess. Though the movie never specifies his age. Anyway, I think Depp is a great actor and he was good in this. I don’t think it’s his best role ever, and he does kind of get outshined by DiCaprio. Having said that, he has great chemistry with the other characters, especially Juliette Lewis and DiCaprio. He has a couple scenes with Momma which are also very touching.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Arnie Grape, the special needs brother. DiCaprio was 19 at the time and this role got him his first of many Oscar nominations. At the time he was in the running to be the main kid in the movie Hocus Pocus, but Gilbert Grape interested him more. Everyone was telling him to do Hocus Pocus because it was offering more money, but he is quoted saying, “[I decided] I’ll audition for this movie Gilbert Grape. If I don’t get that, I’ll do Hocus Pocus. I found myself trying so hard, investing so much time and energy into Gilbert Grape, I worked so damn hard at it and I finally got it, and it was such a weight off my shoulders.”
I like how he talks about how hard he was working. Clearly, he is talented, but too often people think that if someone has a “natural talent” it means they don’t have to work hard. Not true! Talent is a very small thing, putting in hours and hours of work is where you succeed.
He is amazing as Arnie. I’m sure some people today would think it is inappropriate to have someone who doesn’t have a mental handicap playing someone who does, but isn’t that the point of acting?? I get there is a line here, such as having a white person play a person of color. But acting is about pretending to be someone you aren’t. If we keep saying a person can’t play a certain character because they aren’t dealing with that the actual character is dealing with, well then we aren’t even talking about acting anymore!
Darlene Cates is in the role of Momma. A couple years prior, she made an appearance on a daytime talk should called Sally Jesse Raphael in a segment called “Too Heavy to Leave the House”. She had been house bound for like five years, partly due to health issues, but also by choice because she didn’t want to go out in public. Someone in relation to Gilbert Grape saw her on the show and they reached out to her to play Momma. Cates said, “I had to make a choice, I could stay where I was and be miserable, or I could take a risk and do something exciting. I talked to author Peter Hedges. There were some things in the book I didn’t like. We talked about those extensively and I trusted him…As we went along, I was so proud of the way the character was portrayed and so proud of the way that the children came around to see that this woman had these good qualities, and how much she really did care about her family.”
As far as her acting, she does an amazing job! The movie made her character more likeable, and there are some scenes in particular that I’m sure were added due to her conversation with Hedges. Roger Ebert said of her performance, “Darlene Cates, making her movie debut, has an extraordinary presence on the screen. We see that she is fat but we see many other things, too, including the losses and disappointments in her life, and the ability she finds to take a grip and make a new start.”
Juliette Lewis is Becky and I think she is perfect for this role. I thought it was an odd choice to give her short hair, but aside from that she was perfect.
Mary Steenburgen is well cast as Betty Carver; the attractive older woman Gilbert is sleeping with.
John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover play Tucker and Bob, Gilbert’s friends. Reilly you will of course recognize from all the comedies he has since been in. Prior to comedy, he was in a lot of dramas and here he is great as Tucker. Glover you will recognize from the Back to the Future movies.
I’ll start with the Grape children. For starters, Ellen, the youngest Grape, was so annoying in the book! There are the weird comments she makes which I mentioned, but she is also just so lazy and unhelpful. Amy and Gilbert have to do so much and any time she is asked to help in some way all she does is complain and make smart alec remarks. She is also very social and is always going out on dates and with friends. The movie shows all this to some extent, but not as much as the book. She also doesn’t help much with Arnie, and one day Amy asks her to go get him because he is somewhere in town. Gilbert is driving by and sees her literally dragging him. Gilbert gets out of the car and yells at her for having treated Arnie so poorly. This scene is shown in the movie, but she is trying to get Arnie away from the water tower and is being rough with him; which makes a bit more sense because getting him away from the tower was important. Whereas in the book she was being rough with him because she was simply losing patience. The book also talks about how when there is a crowd, she will act like she is the most doting sister to Arnie. So just an all around lazy fake.
Amy is the oldest of the Grapes and is ten years older than Gilbert. In the book, she is pretty overweight herself, though of course not nearly as bad as Momma. In the book you could always feel the stress she was under, as she was basically the head of the family. You almost felt like she would crack at any moment. Gilbert and she are close and are there to help each other out.
The movie just didn’t convey the strain she was constantly under. They also had her be skinny. The scene where Arnie’s cake drops is a big deal in both book and movie, because it means having to go to Foodland for a new one. In the book it feels more devastating, because when you’re frayed at both ends, a seemingly small thing can feel like the end of the world. In the movie Amy was of course upset about the cake, but she didn’t seem to show the emotions the book Amy felt. The book also went more in detail about how Amy had been working so hard on the cake for a couple days.
In the book, Arnie was also getting chubby whereas DiCaprio is skinny. Aside from that, there weren’t really any other differences to his character that I can think of. There are scenes that changed, but the character himself stays true to how he was in the book.
Larry and Janice
In the intro, the movie mentions that there is another Grape named Larry but that he moved away. In the book there are two Grapes that moved away, both of whom are in between Amy and Gilbert. Janice went to college for psychology, then became a flight attendant. She will call home and visit a handful of times throughout the year.
No one really knows what Larry is doing with his life, but he comes home one day a year-on Arnie’s birthday. He will arrive in the morning and leaves in the evening. Both Larry and Janice send a check home every month to help support the family.
Albert is the name of the Grape dad. In the book we are told that Larry is the one who found their dad hanging in the basement. In the movie it never specifies who found him.
In the book, Momma talks about how Albert was always saying sorry and what good is sorry. This is the only insight we really get into his character. It seems that even before she gained all that weight, she was always getting onto Albert for some reason or another and was just kind of a difficult person to live with.
In the book we learn that Gilbert cried the day his dad died, and that he hasn’t cried since. He was in second grade at the time, so it’s been like 17 years or something.
When they have to install support beams, because Momma’s weight is making the floor sink, it just so happen to be in the same spot where Albert had been hung.
For most of the book we only see the negative side to Momma because Gilbert has a lot of negative feelings towards her. In the book there is a moment when she chokes, and he and Amy do their best to help her, she is too big for the Heimlich, however Gilbert is able to dislodge the food nonetheless. In this scene he is thinking how he doesn’t want her to die. But then later he is talking to Becky and sort of makes it seem like he kind of wishes she had. Basically, he has a lot of complicated emotions about her.
In the book, Arnie is definitely her favorite child and is always repeating, “I just want to see my boy turn 18, is that too much to ask?” In the movie they do have this line, but it’s repeated more often in the book.
In both, there is the part where she is sleeping and Gilbert turns the tv off, because it is on 24/7 and he’s tired of it. When it’s turned off she stirs, then he turns it back on and she falls asleep again. This happens repeatedly. In the book we hear Gilbert’s thoughts and how this makes him feel like his mom is more aware of the tv than him. There is also a character in the book named Lance who went to school with Gilbert and went on to be a news anchor. Everyone loves Lance, and his mom will make him feel less than because he didn’t achieve what Lance did.
The movie gives us a scene with her and Gilbert where she tells him she never meant to get this way, and that she doesn’t want to be a joke. Gilbert comforts her and it’s really touching. Later, Becky comes over and he asks Momma if she can meet Becky. Since Becky is a good, nonjudgemental person, Momma’s size doesn’t seem to bother Becky. The book didn’t really have any touching scenes between him and Momma, and Becky never met her. There is the part in the book where Momma says to Gilbert says, “I see you and I know that I’m a god. Or a goddess. Godlike! And this house is my kingdom. Yes, Gilbert. This chair is my throne. And you, Gilbert, are my knight in shimmering armor.”…”Shining, I think, Momma, is what you mean.”…”No, I know what I mean. You don’t shine, Gilbert. You shimmer. You hear? You shimmer!”
The movie also has her calling Gilbert her knight in “shimmering armor”, without the part before about being a goddess and all that. So, the movie makes it a bit more touching of a sentiment.
We can guess that she tells Gilbert he shimmers, not shines, because he hasn’t allowed himself to live up to his potential. Not only that, but he also hasn’t allowed himself to be happy and to fully shine. Shimming also means the light is reflected, Gilbert lives for others, and so he reflects their light rather than let his own shine.
Speaking of Gilbert, he seems to have a martyr complex. He puts others needs before his own and is miserable for it. It causes him to feel resentment towards his family because he has sacrificed so much yet doesn’t get the credit for it he feels he deserves. When someone has a martyr complex, also sometimes considered a victim’s complex, they don’t let themselves be happy and are pretty much always miserable and blaming those around them, those they are making sacrifices for, for their misery. This often happens to someone who has an unhealthy relationship with someone with an addiction. Momma obviously has a food addiction, and it is affecting everyone in the family. Gilbert seems to have the biggest martyr complex about it though. Amy obviously has made a lot of sacrifices for Momma as well, but she finds ways to be okay with it, at least in some ways.
This is shown with Gilbert in the movie pretty well, the book shows it more so of course, but that is to be expected since we spend so much time in his head. There is the scene in the movie where Becky asks what he wants, and he can only think of things he wants for the benefit of others, namely Arnie and Momma.
When Johnny Depp was talking about this movie in an interview he said how “…love can be painful…there’s a fine line between love and resentment…”. Even if you don’t have a martyr complex, love can be difficult and painful, and as he says there is a line between doing something for someone out of love versus doing it because you feel you have to and then it turns into resentment. Ultimately, in every relationship, whether it is with family, friends, or romantic, you need to do what you feel good about. If you do something you really don’t want to, you will simply resent the person you did it for. I’m not saying to be selfish though, if whatever it is, is really important to the person you love though, you can also try and find a way to do it in a way that you will feel good about or that will make it enjoyable for you. You just can’t keep making sacrifices for people, and then feel contempt when they start taking it for granted because it has just becomes the norm.
Gilberts Breaking Point
In both, Arnie goes through a phase where he refuses to have water touch him. In the book this goes on for a couple weeks or so, and Gilbert tries all sorts of ways to get Arnie in the water, but nothing works. Amy says that that’s Gilberts only job is to make sure Arnie is clean for his birthday party. The night before the party, all the girls are gone because they took Momma to the beauty salon after hours to get done up for the party. Gilbert is alone with Arnie and sees he has stuck his hand into the Foodland cake. Gilbert has had it and drags Arnie to the tub and ends up hitting him repeatedly. He stops when Arnie is saying something about his eye. By the way, in the book Arnie has one glass eye because one of the siblings accidently threw a dart in one years ago.
Anyway, after this he takes Arnie to bed. The girls return home and Gilbert feels terrible and feels like he needs to confess to someone what he has done, but he doesn’t. He goes to bed, but still feels guilty and decides to go apologize to Arnie right now. When he goes in Arnie’s room though he is gone. He ends up finding him in the school pool with Becky and he is clean. Gilbert is so overwhelmed with gratitude that he cries. He thanks Becky, and when Arnie gets in the car they hug. It says, “We hold each other-there’s a battle to see who can squeeze the hardest. Either Arnie forgot or he forgives too easily.”
In the movie, after he hits Arnie, he drives off and is gone for a while. Then he sees Arnie with Becky swimming in the lake. Amy is driving looking for Arnie, and they find him and take him. After Arnie is taken back home, Gilbert shows himself to Becky and the two of them spend the night together. When Gilbert comes back the next day, they all know what he did, and he apologizes to Arnie who forgives him. Momma is upset he left like that, but they talk and make up.
In the book there is a scene between him and Momma where she is unhappy with her life, but it doesn’t end up being as touching a scene as this one is in the movie. In the book she talks about how she is making the floor sink in and how her kids all want to kill each other. She then tells Gilbert to tell her he hates her. He is hesitant, but she pushes him to so then he says it. After he says it, it reads, “Momma’s eyes seem to swell. She looks at me hard and long. She thought she was going to enjoy my hate, but it has broken her. I can’t watch, so I barrel out of the house.” And this happened a couple days before she died. He never apologizes or brings it up though, because she did literally ask for him to say it.
In the book you could feel Gilbert’s building frustration and resentment about everything, so when he starts hitting Arnie, you kind of aren’t too surprised. He also had been trying so hard, again and again, to get Arnie to bathe and nothing worked. Whereas in the movie, he didn’t seem to try too hard, or try at all really. The movie also didn’t have that building negative feeling, because times that should have been so frustrating would have some kind of lighthearted music playing in the background that made whatever was happening just feel like a fun childhood memory type thing. When in the book, he would get genuinely annoyed with Arnie and couldn’t stand him, even though he loved him. We as the reader could feel that frustration and feeling like we too are at our wits end like Gilbert is. There wasn’t really the lighthearted feel the movie kind of added.
In the book the whole family is there for Arnie’s birthday, plus some friends that were invited over. Later, as the party kind of comes to a lull, Arnie says he wants to go to Burger Barn. In the movie, Gilbert was at the Burger Barn opening, but in the book, he refused to go there and hated anything that was corporate. But since it’s for Arnie, he goes on his birthday. When they get there, a table is set up for them so they can order as if at a restaurant. Then a cake is brought out and they sing happy birthday to Arnie. Tucker, Gilbert’s friend is the assistant manager and is the one who orchestrated the whole thing. Gilbert is so touched and full of gratitude, that he goes in the back and gets teary as he thanks Tucker.
This scene, as well as any talk of Gilbert not having cried in years up until the night before the party, is left out of the movie. Though there is a scene when he is talking about his dad, how when he was alive you could never get a reaction out of him. As if he was already dead. Becky then says, sounds like someone I used to know. Of course, referencing Gilbert, and how he has started to be more open and expressive than he was when they first met.
Speaking of Becky, in the book all she did was get on my nerves. In some ways this seemed fitting though since she is only 15 after all. Of course she is going to be annoying and immature. She and Gilbert have an odd friendship/relationship in the book, and they just have one small kiss once. She invites him to breakfast one day, and when he arrives, she is still asleep. When she wakes up, she just rolls out of bed and just sits outside while he eats with her grandma. Afterwards though they do go walking together and talk. But it still seemed odd.
In the book she is there visiting her grandma who lives in Endora. In the movie, there are RV’s that travel through town and Becky and her grandma are part of it. However, while passing through Endora the truck breaks down and they are stranded there for a week or so. When talk of repairing the truck comes up, or when the grandma is trying to start is and it either is or isn’t working, I enjoyed the emotions that were shown by both Gilbert and Becky. They obviously don’t want the truck to be fixed, because when it is, it means Becky has to leave.
I think the character Becky is the only one that I liked better in the movies. She wasn’t annoying, and she complimented Gilbert’s personality. Whereas the Becky in the book was just annoying 90% of the time.
In both Momma goes upstairs to sleep on her bed, something she hasn’t done in months, if not years. When they go back up there, they find she has died. In the book it is Gilbert and Amy who find her; Arnie had been asleep near her. In the movie they have Arnie go up and he finds she has died. This was a great change, because DiCaprio is so incredible in this scene! It is so heartbreaking and truly amazing acting on DiCaprio’s part.
As far as the rest, I like how the book handled it. As they sit around Momma, Gilbert says to her, “you know they will need to use a crane to get you out”. Amy asks what he is saying, and he says nothing.
Gilbert, in both book and movie, says how he won’t let her be a joke. This is a callback to earlier, when his mortician friend Bob, tells him and Tucker how they will make fun of the dead, naked bodies. He says it’s harmless because no one can hear, and the person is dead anyway. Gilbert knows that his mom will be the brunt of countless jokes and refuses to let that happen.
Without explaining, he starts collecting things and taking them outside. Amy gets it and starts doing the same. Without explaining, one by one each Grape understand what needs to be done and they start moving things outside. Larry and Gilbert then go in and toss gasoline and light the match. The movie has the same thing happen basically, but there is more explaining. Larry also isn’t there in the movie.
The movie ties up the ending by going forward a year and explaining what everyone is up to. The sisters moved to some other city where Amy got a job; and Gilbert and Arnie join Becky and her grandma in their travels. Whereas, the book simply ends with the house burning and that is that. Both endings are fine. I don’t mind that the movie tells you what happens, but I’m also fine with the book not telling us. I guess because you know they are all going to be okay, so it didn’t worry me.
There is a line from the book I thought was really beautiful which reads, “I’m not saying we all of a sudden decided that our mother was a Saint Mary. But even though she was angry, even though she was soooo fat, she was our mother. And we could see in each of us a trace of her. And we knew in some weird way that she wasn’t gone, she had just moved into us and now it was time for us to move on.”
The biggest change in regard to Gilbert’s affair with a married woman, is that her husband didn’t know it was happening. The movie doesn’t straight out say he knows, but it is definitely implied. In the book, Mr. Carver himself is having an affair with his secretary. In the book he and Gilbert do interact because Mr. Carver is who Gilbert uses for his car insurance. In the movie, Mr. Carver is always trying to meet with Gilbert, but it seems it is his way of giving Gilbert a hard time because he suspects something. In both he dies by drowning in the kiddie pool, though some suspect foul play.
In the book we learn that this has been going on with Mrs. Carver for seven years! However, in the beginning of the book he is telling her he wants to end things with her. Similar to how it is in the movie.
Once scene in the movie I really liked is when Mrs. Carver is in the store saying bye to Gilbert, as she leaves, she tells Becky “he’s all yours”. I felt like this was kind of sassy, as if she’s saying, enjoy my sloppy seconds. But regardless, when she leaves Becky asks if he will miss her and he says yes. I love this scene because Gilbert was honest, and because Becky likes the fact that he will miss her. It shows he has feelings and cares and is also just a nice person. Becky could have been jealous when he said that, but instead has a more mature look on it. In the book there is one part in particular where he is thinking of all the things he will miss about Mrs. Craver. This scene also kind of sums up those thoughts he had. Even though he doesn’t get specific in the movie, he acknowledges he will miss her and the look on his face shows his sincerity and the feelings he has for.
Book or Movie
I will get straight to it and say I like the book better. The movie is a great adaptation though, and there are some changes they made I liked. I just really loved how we could better see the changes made in Gilbert in the book and were able to see in his head. I also liked the more fleshed out characters books always have.
I had seen the movie before and don’t remember being particularly touched by it, which is why I was surprised when I realized how much I liked the book. The ending is just so perfect and even though it doesn’t tie things up with telling us what happens from there, it ties things up in the important ways, which is showing the internal changes that have taken place. As I said, I didn’t need to know what happened with Gilbert or anyone else, because I knew they would be okay.
As always, there is still a lot more in the book and movie I didn’t touch on as much. Lance, for example, plays a bigger part in the book whereas he isn’t even in the movie. However, that is one change I’m totally fine with. It also goes into more how Gilbert hates that things are changing, and new, corporate things are coming in and taking over the small town stuff. His loyalty to Lamson’s Grocery is legitimate and he truly does stand by the small town stuff, even though he wants more than anything to get out. Speaking of Lamson’s Grocery, I enjoyed reading about the relationship he had with Mr. Lamson, viewing him as a father figure. The movie also shows how close they were and I liked their scenes together.
Both also have the scene where Momma goes into town to pick Arnie up from jail which I didn’t mention. (The scene is pretty similar in both book and movie).
So even if you have seen the movie and thought it was “meh”, I would recommend the book and maybe you will have the same feelings about it as I did! The movie though is also worth watching, for DiCaprio’s performance if nothing else. Anyway, I guess that wraps it up, and now you know what was eating Gilbert Grape!