East of Eden Book vs Movie (1955) Review

written by Laura J.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

East of Eden directed by Eli Kazan (1955)

I am finally covering East of Eden! I have book vs movie videos for The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men!

Book Review

East of Eden was actually the first Steinbeck I ever read! I read it in 2020 and even though I loved it, I didn’t read another Steinbeck until the second half of 2022.

This time around I still loved it but I also felt that the book thought it was more profound that it actually was. A big theme is choice and how we can choose who we want to become and it doesn’t matter what genetics we have. I love this message, it’s just the way they had these deep conversations about words and choice didn’t seem as interesting to read about.

The book is of course a retelling of the Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel story. I thought the parallels were really well done and while the symbolism isn’t subtle at all (Steinbeck isn’t an author I think of as being subtle with any of his books), I’m actually okay with that. I like symbolism that isn’t as obvious and makes you ponder, but I also like when an author just lays it out for you. And Steinbeck doesn’t lay it out in a way that is condescending, rather just clearly letting you know what he is going for.

The characters in this were all so fascinating, and we have Cathy who is a great villain. When reading about her, especially in the first half, I was reminded of author Gillian Flynn because she wrote a character who was very similar to Cathy in certain ways.

The first chapter may be hard to get into because it is describing the Salinas area, but once you get into chapter two you meet some of the characters and things just keep rolling from there.

This is a generational story and I love books like that. I love books that are just these epic family sagas!

After finishing Grapes, I thought I still liked East of Eden best; but now that I have re-read this one, I almost want to say I like Grapes better… Maybe after I’ve read a couple more of his books, I will do a Steinbeck ranking video!

Movie review

This was the breakout performance of James Dean and the only movie of his he got to see because he died in a car crash before the release of his other two films.

Dean is definitely a presence on screen and from his acting and what I have read about him, he reminds me of Marilyn Monroe in some ways.

I read that he was difficult to work with and when Steinbeck met him, he didn’t like him; but said that he was perfect for the role of Cal (the “Cain” of the story).

This movie also stars Julie Harris who I talked about in The Haunting of Hill House book vs movie because she was in the leading role in that movie.

I also wanted to talk about Eli Kazan really quick because he is a very famous director and just the year before East of Eden he had done On the Waterfront which won best picture and is a great movie which I would recommend! This movie was nominated for a number of Oscars, including Dean’s performance. Jo Van Fleet was nominated and won for her role as Kate but honestly, I find that confusing. She isn’t in too much, and I wasn’t blown away by the screen time she had.

Kazan is the grandfather of Zoe Kazan (who was in Revolutionary Road btw) and I read that last year she announced she was going to re-make East of Eden and that she was partnering with Netflix and Florence Pugh was attached to play Kate. That was a year ago, so we will see if it happens but I hope it does!

As far as comparing the two, the movie covers only about the last quarter of the book. I will briefly go over the events leading up to the movie portion; then get into the events the movie covers.

Going forward, there will be spoilers for both the book and the movie!

The Trask family

The book begins with Adam Trask and his brother Charles. Adam was the first born but his mother committed suicide and so Charles’ mom raised both boys. Their father had been in the Civil War and was a strict disciplinarian who loved Adam more than Charles. We get Cain and Abel references when the two brothers give the dad a gift and Charles puts so much thought into his whereas Adam puts next to no effort into his gift. Yet the father prefers Adam’s gift because he loves Adam more and Charles never forgets being snubbed by his father.

Adam leaves secret gifts for his stepmom, but in a moment when she is confiding in Adam about how Charles is a good boy, she talks about how Charles leaves her secret gifts but acts aloof about it. When in reality, it was Adam leaving the gifts.

Eventually this mother dies of an illness, Adam is forced into the army and Charles stays on the land while the father goes to DC and becomes a big wig in politics. Adam wanders the country for a while and is even arrested but escapes and returns home. Charles gets a mark on his forehead from trying to remove a boulder and it turns into this big dark scar which he is self-conscious of.

The father eventually dies and leaves over $100,000 to his sons; Charles thinks their father was a liar and stole the money and it really bothers him. Adam says they don’t have proof of that, so he is just going to believe the father got it honestly. Adam didn’t love his father, so it doesn’t really make a difference to him what the truth is anyway.

Cathy Ames

Cathy is born a monster, as the book says. I don’t know if being a psychopath was a term used back then, but it definitely seems like that is what she is. She is cold, calculating, smart, observant, will play whatever part necessary to get what she wants, she manipulates people and only sees the bad and the hypocrisy in the world around her. At a very early age she learns to use her body to manipulate men and when she is a teenager, she tries to run away but her parents find her and beat her. She then plans a way to kill them and make it seem like she has been kidnapped and then applies to work at a whorehouse.

The guy who runs the houses in the area falls for Cathy and long story short-he finds out the truth about her and beats her almost until she has died. This ordeal leaves her with a mark on her forehead as well, similar to the one Charles has. Cain in the bible was also given a mark, that verse reads, “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence  of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”

But the guy had taken her to the area near where the Trasks live, and she is able to crawl to their door and they help her.

Cathy and Adam

Adam falls for Cathy’s manipulation and the two of them get married. Charles though sees right through her and because Cathy knows this, she makes Adam keep it a secret that they will be married.

The night before she and Adam leave, she goes to Charles room and they have sex even before she and Adam have.

There are so many great quotes in the book about how Adam loves his idea of Cathy, and even when she says or does something that gives him a glimpse into her true self, he denies it and holds to this false idol he has created. One such quote reads, “Perhaps Adam did not see Cathy at all, so lighted was she by his eyes. Burned in his mind was an image of  beauty and tenderness, a sweet and holy girl, precious beyond thinking, clean and loving, and that image was  Cathy to her husband, and nothing Cathy did or said could warp Adam’s Cathy.”

Years later, he is talking to a friend about Cathy and he asks the friend, “I want to ask you something. I can’t remember behind the last ugly thing. Was she  very beautiful, Samuel?” “To you she was because you built her. I don’t think you ever saw her—only your own  creation.” Adam mused aloud, “I wonder who she was—what she was. I was content not to know.”

Obviously, Cathy represents Eve, who is thought to be evil by some because she tempts Adam with the apple of knowledge which causes them to be cast out of Eden. (I disagree with this idea that Eve was a bad influence on Adam or something and rather I think Eve realized if they were to replenish the earth as God had asked of them, she knew they had to learn of good and evil and could not remain in the mental capacity of “little children”. She wisely tells Adam that they need to eat of the apple in order to fulfill the greater commandments.)

Cathy also seems to represent the serpent/snake/devil because the way she is described physically is very snake-like.

And on the topic of taking of the fruit of knowledge, Sam Hamilton is the one who gives Adam the taste of knowledge, of good and evil, when he tells Adam about what Cathy is doing in Salinas and this knowledge frees Adam in the same way biblical Adam was freed to live his own life out of the fog of innocence in Eden.

Going to California

Adam decides he wants to go to California and even though Cathy says she doesn’t want to, they go anyway. They buy this huge property which has a lot of promise and Adam says he wants to turn it into their Eden.

Cathy is pregnant by this time and unsuccessfully tries to abort the baby. When she does give birth, it ends up being nonidentical twin boys. A few weeks later, when she is recovered, she tells Adam she is leaving. He tries to stop her, and so she shoots him in the shoulder and leaves.

The Hamilton’s

Throughout the story of Cathy and the Trasks, we get chapters about the Hamilton family. Samuel Hamilton is the father and he becomes friends of a sort to Adam. Or maybe a mentor is a better word than friend. Some of his children also play import roles in the story of the Trasks, but mainly Samuel and his son Will are the most connected to the story.

Steinbeck includes the Hamilton’s because they are the family on his mother’s side. Their story includes fact mixed with the fiction.

One brother I want to mention is Tom, who is a man Samuel said was fighting with greatness. Tom ends up committing suicide in a very sad chapter of the book, after he accidently causes the death of his sister Dessie. Steinbeck later named his own son Tom, after his uncle which I thought was very touching.

While I like hearing about Steinbeck’s family, I don’t know how much I like some of the random stories mixed in with  the story of the Trask’s. I guess he did this to provide a dichotomy of sorts between his family and the Trasks. But at times it seemed like he should have written a different book with the stories from his childhood. But by telling stories about his family, it also helps set the stage about what was going on the world, and in Salinas, while the events of the book were taking place.

As far as the movie, Will Hamilton is in the movie because he plays a key role in the story with Cal-one of the sons of Adam and Cathy, but none of the other Hamilton’s are in it.

Lee

Another important character to the book that isn’t in the movie at all is Lee. He is a Chinese man who works for Adam and becomes a second father to Cal and Aron. Lee started working for Adam when Cathy was pregnant and stays with the Trasks throughout the whole novel. Like Samuel, he is smarter and sees the truth more clearly than Adam does. But he too has a great arc through the course of the novel. I love how as he gets older; he just stops putting up with peoples bullcrap and just calls them out on it being like, I don’t have the patience to put up with your stupidness anymore! But he also genuinely loves Adam, Cal, and Aron and eventually Abra as well.

I was so sad to see they removed his character entirely from the movie! Important lines he gives end up being given to the character of Abra for the most part.

Cathy in Salinas

Adam’s farm is near King City, and Cathy goes to Salinas which is a couple hours away by train. She applies to work at a brothel that is run by a woman named Faye. And again, long story short, she kills Faye and runs the place herself. Not only is she a whore who becomes the owner of the place, but she runs the most low-down, depraved house in town.

Going back to Cathy representing the devil from the garden of Eden, I have heard it speculated that when God turned the devil into a snake it was metaphorically. The meaning is that now the devil is the lowest of the low, because snake crawl directly along the ground. This means the devil has to use the vilest ways possible to tempt people to his side and even the devil is disgusted by this. Same with Cathy, not only does she run a whorehouse, but by being cursed the way the snake is, she is running the lowest more dark and depraved of houses.

After she leaves Adam, for like 11 years Adam is just kind of a ghost. It isn’t until Samuel is getting ready to move, that he tells Adam the truth about where and what Cathy is. This kind of helps jolt Adam out of his stupor and when Sam dies a few months later, after the funeral in Salinas, he goes to see Cathy. The visit frees Adam from what he had been holding on to with Cathy because he sees her for what she really is. While she on the other hand, is flustered by the visit because Adam no longer falls for her manipulation. He also says that she can only see one side of people. At one point she says, “Do you think I want to be human? Look at those pictures! I’d rather be a dog than a human. But I’m not a dog. I’m smarter than humans. Nobody can hurt me.” She goes on to tell him about all the sick things the guys who come to her place are into and how they are upright men in society but she hates them because she sees their evil and their hypocrisy and feels superior to them because she thinks she is smarter and doesn’t give in to these base temptations but rather uses those things to manipulate. Adam says to her, “ I know what you hate. You hate something in them you can’t understand. You don’t hate their evil. You hate the good in them you can’t get at.”  

The conversation continues, “Just now it came to me what you don’t understand.” “What don’t I understand, Mr. Mouse?” “You know about the ugliness in people.  You showed me the pictures. You use all the sad, weak parts of a man, and God knows he has them.”  “Everybody—” Adam went on, astonished at his own thoughts, “But you—yes, that’s right—you don’t know about the rest. You don’t believe I brought you the letter because I don’t want your money. You don’t believe I loved you. And the men who come to you here with their ugliness, the men in the pictures—you don’t believe  those men could have goodness and beauty in them. You see only one side, and you think—more than that,  you’re sure—that’s all there is.”

The lettuce

Okay, I think I have talked about as much as I need to before getting to where Cal and Aron are in their teens which is where the movie begins.

So, when the boys are lie 15, Adam gets this idea to use ice to ship lettuce to New York. He still has a lot of money (by the way, Charles died and left his money to be split between Cathy and Adam so Adam now has like another 100k). He knows he could lose money, but he is just excited about this idea and wants to try it without caring about making a profit. In the movie, Cal says he should look into beans because he read that beans will be more in demand as time goes on. In the book, Will told Adam to go into beans but Adam has zero interest in that.

In both, things don’t go as planned and the lettuce is ruined and Adam loses a lot of money. He still has some left even if it isn’t much, but enough to live on and isn’t bothered by the money lost.

At school, the kids make fun of Cal and Aron for their father’s failure and Aron is especially bothered by the teasing.

Living in Salinas

Oh, and by now they are leasing their farm and have moved to Salinas. Which honestly seems weird in the book. In the movie, they live in Salinas, but Cathy (who goes by Kate now) lives in Monterey. In the book, Adam knows Kate lives there yet he moves there anyway. I just don’t get why he would do that unless he secretly wanted his boys to find out the truth.

He raised them saying their mother had died, but there is gossip all around town about what really happened so he had to know it would be a matter of time before one or both of his sons learned the truth.  

Adam in the movie

In the movie, Adam truly doesn’t know where Cathy is and thinks she went back east. He is also a religious man and makes them read the bible and punishes Cal when he is rebellious and quotes scriptures. This wasn’t the case at all. In fact, there is a part in the book when Cal is arrested and Adam comes to pick him up. It is just the two of them, and rather than get mad at Cal, they have this heart-to-heart moment and Adam tells Cal about how he was arrested before and how he escaped the chain gang. In the movie, Cal and his dad don’t have any tender moments like this.

In both, Adam does prefer Aron, as everyone does. People can’t help by like Aron because he is angelic and is not mean spirited at all. One line that describes how they are different says that Aron was content to be part of the world, whereas Cal had to change the world.

Cal finding out the truth

In both, Cal learns the truth about his mom and follows her until one day she confronts him. At least in the book she confronts him, in the movie he gets into her office.

In the book, he feels like he is destined to be a bad person given who his mother is. Lee won’t have this though and says Cal can still chose who he wants to be. When Cal says he has bad in him, Lee says, “You’ve got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn’t even be wondering if you didn’t have it. Don’t you dare take the lazy way. It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it!  Now—look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother.”

Lee knows he knows, but Cal promises not to tell Aron because he knows it would destroy Aron to find out.

At this point in the book (not the movie) Aron decides he wants to go into the ministry. Cal resents Aron’s self-righteousness and one line reads, “Cal watched his brother triumph over sins he had never committed.”

In the movie I guess Aron comes off as self-righteous early on. But in both, we see that like Adam, Aron doesn’t work to impress his father, he just is good hearted and wins his father love without trying. Whereas Cal, like Charles, tries to win his father’s affections but has a harder time getting it. Cal loves Aron but resents him because everyone likes him right away.

Abra

In both, Abra and Aron are dating and plan to be married. Granted, in the book they make plans to be married when they are only 11 and are too young to be making commitments like that. But as they get older, they stay together. In the book, when Aron wants to go into the ministry, he says he needs to live a life of celibacy and can’t be married but Abra assumes it is just a phase.

In the book, Abra and Adam are in their own bubble and it isn’t until he goes to college at Stanford that she starts to spend more time with Aron’s family. This is when she grows close to Lee and the two of them form a father/daughter relationship. She also respects Adam and even gets to know Cal a bit.

In the movie, we never see Aron go to college, so it is while he is still around that Abra starts spending time with Cal and the two of them even kiss one night but Abra feels very guilty about it afterwards.

In the movie she talks about how Aron loves a version of her he has created and doesn’t know the real her. This is in the book as well when Adam writes letters home, he is writing to an Abra he has imagined rather than seeing her as the flawed human she is. This sounding familiar? It is the same thing Adam did with Kate. Although with Kate, she truly was evil but Abra is simply a human who has normal flaws but Aron doesn’t see it. (It seems men and mothers are usually the ones guilty of seeing the person they want to see rather than seeing how a person truly is.)

The lettuce money

In both, Cal wants to make back the money his dad lost on the whole lettuce venture. In the movie, the dad seems worried about their dwindling funds so it makes more sense Cal would be worried.

In the book he goes to Will to talk about investing and Will has a very candid conversation, asking if Cal is trying to buy his father’s love. We see into Will here and how he used money to try and secure the love and respect of his own family.

In the book, Lee says he has $5k Cal can borrow if needed, and he offers the 5k to invest with Will to buy beans which will later be sold for a higher price once the war starts.

In the movie, Will says Cal needs to invest money and he goes to Kate to borrow the money which she gives him.

Kate in the movie was quite different-sure she thought she was better than other people, but she wasn’t as cold or evil as she had been in the book.

Cal makes back the money his father lost and pays back Lee the 5k. In the book it is Thanksgiving and Aron is home from school. He confides in Cal that he hates school and doesn’t want to go back and would rather marry Abra and move onto his father’s previous farm.

That night though they have a great Thanksgiving meal and everyone is happy. Cal then gives his father the gift and when Adam unwraps it, he is angry. He works on the draft board sending young men to war and says how he can’t bear the thought of profiting off of the war and that the lettuce money didn’t even matter to him. He says why can’t you give me the kind of gift your brother is by going to college and becoming something. If you want to give me something, just live a good life and that will be gift enough.

In the movie it is a little different because it is on Adam’s birthday. Cal also tells Abra about the money he is giving to his father, whereas in the book he had only told Lee.

Before the dad opens Cal’s gift, Aron says that he and Abra are engaged which makes Adam very happy. When he opens the money, he says basically the same thing as in the book.

In the movie, Cal sobs and hugs his father but the dad doesn’t know how to respond and Cal runs out. This was improvised by Dean and the actor who plays the father was thrown off by him doing this.

In the book, Cal just gets up and leaves.

Cal “killing” Aron

In the movie after Cal walks out Aron goes out and is very harsh and says cruel things to Cal. After which Cal says he has something to show him. In the book, he is out wandering when he sees Aron walking back from taking Abra home and says he has something to show him.

He then takes Aron to Kate’s place and Aron sees his mother.

In the book by the way there is a great part where Aron is thinking about his mom potentially still being alive but decides to believe that she was a good woman who has died. Whereas Cal had to find out the truth and wouldn’t be satisfied until he knew for sure. Another parallel with Charles and Adam-Charles wanting to find out for sure if their dad was a crook and a liar whereas Adam was fine choosing to believe he was honest.

When Cal sees the truth, he is shattered and takes a train to a nearby town and there enlists in the Army.

In the movie, he gets drunk and goes to the station in town and enlists. Adam tries to get there in time to stop him but he doesn’t get there in time. This was a great part in the movie when Aron is drunk and crazy and breaks his head through the glass on the train before it goes away.

Also, in the movie Cal goes home that night and Adam asks where Aron is to which Cal says “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the movie, it is a couple days later they are looking for Aron and ask Cal where he is to which Cal says something along the same lines as Cain. Then later, they get a telegram saying he is in the army.

A few months later, they hear that Aron has died in the war and Cal feels that he has killed his brother because of what he did to him that night. This isn’t in the movie though.

Cathy in the end

In the end of the book Cathy is upset by Cal bringing in Aron. She also had this whole thing going with this woman who was trying to blackmail her for killing Faye and the bouncer at her house was also trying to manipulate her into more money. That guy ends up being shot by the cops, and Kate ends up committing suicide.

Before she dies, she writes a will leaving everything to Aron. This is why they were looking for Adam shortly after Thanksgiving, because the sheriff had her will and she had tons of money that now belong to Aron.

In the movie we don’t see what happens with her after seeing Aron.

End of book and movie

In the book, after they learn Aron is at war, Abra and Cal start spending more time together and she comes by the house to see Lee. Adam suffers a minor stroke but doesn’t know it, but he starts to heal.

It is when he hears that Aron has died that he then suffers another stroke and this one is more severe.

Cal feels beyond terrible about what has happened and thinks that when his dad (who is basically on his deathbed and can’t talk and they don’t know if he is aware of his surroundings) looks at him he blames him for Aron’s death. This is too great a burden to bear for Cal.

Lee tells him he needs to get Abra. She convinces him to come back to the house. Lee goes in to see Adam with Abra and Cal and tells Adam he needs to forgive Cal.

“He did a thing in anger, Adam, because he thought you had rejected him. The result of his anger is that his brother and your son is dead.” Cal said, “Lee—you can’t.” “I have to,” said Lee. “If it kills him I have to. I have the choice,” and he smiled sadly and quoted, “ ‘If there’s blame, it’s my blame.’ ” Lee’s shoulders straightened.  He said sharply, “Your son is marked with guilt out of himself—out of himself—almost more than he can bear.  Don’t crush him with rejection. Don’t crush him, Adam.”

Adam then responds with the Hebrew word for “thou mayest”. Earlier in the book, Adam, Lee, and Sam Hamilton had a discussion about the power of “thou mayest” because it means God is giving you a choice to conquer over evil if you want to. So when Adam says this, he is saying Cal isn’t evil and can choose the man he wants to be. After this Adam dies and the book ends.

In the movie, there is no Lee so it is Abra who tells Adam that Cal is just wanting to be loved and needed and that Adam needs to ask something of Cal so that he can feel that love he so desperately desires.

When Cal comes back in, Adam weakly asks him to fire the nurse and that he wants Cal to care for him and then the movie ends with Cal happily sitting beside his father’s bed.

(Side note: there is a great scene when the nurse is wanting to interrupt them and Cal yells “get out!” in kind of a hilarious way. Like it reminded me of that extreme Adam Sandler kind of yell lol.)

Book vs Movie

I tried to think what I would have thought of this movie had I not read the book, and I think I would have really liked it! Dean’s performance is at times so earnest, simple, and hopeful (him dancing around the bean sprouts), while also being so raw, and filled with longing. I wasn’t a fan of the guy who played Adam, but I did think they others were great. There are also some cool Dutch angles as well as a shot where Cal is standing on the swing as it goes back and forth when he says the line “Am I my brethren’s keeper.”

At the end of the day, I would still say I prefer the book. I am so disappointed they removed the character of Lee, and I didn’t love the changes they made with Cathy. I much prefer her psychopathic tendencies in the book which cause her to later spiral out of control with her paranoia and she kills herself. We also hear about her fascination with Alice in Wonderland and the “ability” to make herself so small she can disappear. I also prefer the Adam in the book who we saw so much more of. The relationship he has with Charles was also so interesting and there is so much that could be said just of the two of them.