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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Grapes of Wrath is the classic John Ford-directed adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck novel. There are some brief moments of violence throughout the film: A woman is accidentally shot and killed by a police officer, police and "Okies" do battle with fists and billy clubs, and a man threatens to kill another man with a rifle as he's on the verge of bulldozing his home. Also, as it's a movie from 1940 set during the Great Depression, there is some smoking and tobacco chewing. Overall, for 21st-century families, this film is still an all-important chronicle of a difficult time in American history and raises still-relevant questions about poverty, farm work, and the enormous gaps between the rich and the poor, in this country and throughout the world.
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What's the story?
The classic John Steinbeck novel THE GRAPES OF WRATH about dust-bowl farmers emigrating from Oklahoma to California became a classic film with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell (in an Oscar-winning performance) as his mother. Tom returns home after serving time in prison for manslaughter to find that his sharecropper family has lost the right to farm the land and is leaving to find jobs in California. All twelve of them pile into the truck, including Casey, a former minister. In California, thousands of migrants have arrived. Exploited by the bosses, the workers are too scared to organize and insist on better treatment. The bosses have hired thugs who prevent anyone from objecting to their treatment. Tom kills one, Casey is killed, and Tom kills the assailant. Wanted by the authorities, Tom cannot stay with his family, which has now found a government-sponsored work camp with better conditions. After he leaves, Ma says, "Rich fellers come up. They die. Their kids ain't no good and they die out. But we keep a-comin'. We're the people that live. Can't wipe us out. Can't lick us. We'll go on forever, 'cause we're the people!"
Is it any good?
The acting, from Henry Fonda down to the smallest parts, is a truly fantastic achievement that goes far toward making this film as unforgettable today as it was when it came out in 1940. Through John Steinbeck's unforgettable characters and story, director John Ford presents a vision of the American West during the Great Depression, a wide-lensed vision of big skies, vast fields, and a brutal and unforgiving economic climate.
What is especially striking about watching this movie today is how so many of The Grapes of Wrath's themes -- economic disparity, tensions between labor and capital, and the worth and dignity of the "common man" -- still resonate to this day, despite being set during the Great Depression. All in all, the result is a film that cuts to the core of both the obstacles, problems, and, ultimately, redemption for those in pursuit of "the American Dream."
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about novels adapted into movies. What would be the challenges of adapting a movie of the size and scope of The Grapes of Wrath?
How does the movie present the difficulties of Oklahoma farm workers trying to create new lives for themselves in California?
If this movie was to be remade now, how do you think it would be different?
- In theaters: March 15, 1940
- On DVD or streaming: April 6, 2004
- Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine
- Director: John Ford
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, History
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Courage, Humility, Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 128 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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