Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All of Eden

By David Luhrssen
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East of Eden was among the great Hollywood films of the 1950s. Director Elia Kazan tuned its Woodrow Wilson-era story to the underlying minor key of the Eisenhower era in the dawn of a restless and uncertain generation. It worked as well as it did through the presence of James Dean as the misfit son Cal, staring through wounded eyes at a world of phonies and doubtful conventions.

Everyone knew that East of Edenís story was based on John Steinbeck, who wrote the Great American Novel more than once. But the popcorn public didnít realize that Kazanís movie was drawn from only the final third of Steinbeckís sprawling transcontinental, trans-generational epic of harsh fathers, prodigal sons and Cain and Abel rivalry. In 1981 the full book was dramatized in a six-hour ABC mini-series, out now on DVD.

It was made during the end game of the golden years for American mini-series and the Golden Globe winning production shares characteristics with most of its peers. History is softened in sepia tones and known actors looking for a gig (Lloyd Bridges, Jane Seymour) are teamed with unknowns long since forgotten in a screenplay whose pace is leisurely enough to develop characters over the passing of time. Although the mini-series is four hours longer than the classic film, it feels smaller, tailored to fit the screens in living rooms across America. For many viewers it was a revelation that Calís story was the culmination of a story spanning half a century.

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