Crime and Sexuality in the 1955 and 1981 Adaptations of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

by Daryl Malarry Davidson



This article analyzes the two adaptations of John Steinbeck’s crime- and sexuality-laden novel East of Eden, which had to undergo transformation of both narrative and style to accommodate translation to Elia Kazan’s 1955 feature film and then to Harvey Hart’s 1981 television miniseries. The paper uses a critical approach within the contexts of Dudley Andrew’s three modes of adaptation—borrowing, intersecting, and transforming—as well as within contexts that are conventional, historical, cultural, and limitary in relation to the different eras of Kazan’s and Hart’s productions. The analysis indicates that through omissions of characters and scenes, the creation of composite characters, truncation, allusion, dramatic license, and other elements, Kazan, Hart, and, respectively, screenwriters Paul Osborn and Richard Shapiro, render tried-and-true visual forms as well as indications of their own creativity. This paper concludes that censorship affected the evolution of Steinbeck’s sprawling tale—from the Production Code Administration’s reconsideration of the word madam and its struggle with the onscreen depiction of a brothel in the mid-1950s, to television sponsor Procter & Gamble’s objection to the portrayal of adultery in 1981.



adaptation, borrowing, censorship, intersecting, miniseries, transforming



Screenwriter Paul Osborn, who wrote Elia Kazan’s 1955 feature adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 55-chapter novel East of Eden, “had tried six times without success to compress … [it] into a two-hour film” (Massey 375). He eventually decided to eliminate roughly the first two-thirds of the novel. The film was more critically acclaimed than its source material (Railsback and Michael 94), despite extreme alterations. Lee, the Trask family’s trustworthy, Chinese servant in the novel, may have been effaced because racism towards people from East Asia still existed, as Kazan’s film was released within a decade after the end of WWII. This omission makes East of Eden go south somewhat since Lee is the character who makes some of the others realize that mankind has the freedom to choose good over evil. It is Lee who introduces the Hebrew word which means “thou mayest,” timshel; the word is completely absent in Kazan’s film. Even though Osborn removed all traces of Lee, Kazan’s 117-minute film still stands on its own despite missing other characters and plot points that feature prominently in the novel. With its disturbing issues of crime and sexuality, John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden had to undergo transformation of both narrative and style in order to accommodate translation to director Elia Kazan’s vision as a feature film and then to director Harvey Hart’s conception as a soapy miniseries; both adaptations move between Dudley Andrew’s three modes of adaptation—borrowing, intersecting, and transforming—and these adaptations also exemplify conventions, historical and cultural contexts, and limitations of their respective eras.

The literary limitations of soliloquies, memories, and stream of consciousness must be externalized for the two-dimensional media of film and television. For instance, Steinbeck chose to have Cathy/Kate think about her son Cal Trask’s introduction of his twin, Aron, to her after the fact. Steinbeck places Aron’s induction into the army between Cal’s taking him to see “something interesting” and Kate’s recollection of their surprise visit. Both Kazan and Harvey Hart in his 1981 miniseries dramatize the boys’ visit, for it is the climax of the narrative.

Adaptation “involves complex transitions, both cultural and ideological, in response to changing modes of storytelling and adaptive intent” (Neipris 256). The process involves cutting entire scenes and characters without ruining the narrative. Andrew posits three modes of film adaptation. Through the most frequent mode, borrowing, “the artist employs, more or less extensively, the material, idea, or form of an earlier, generally successful text” (98). For example, Steinbeck borrows the story of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament. Secondly, intersecting preserves “the uniqueness of the original text . . . to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation. The cinema, as a separate mechanism, records its confrontation with an ultimately intransigent text” (99). Thirdly, “[t]ransforming is adaptation that seeks to deploy the full power of cinematic techniques and material both to remain faithful to the original and at the same time to make a full transformation of it in the new medium” (Abbott 113).

Sometimes characters are not eliminated but instead merged, resulting in a composite character. Steinbeck has Deputy Horace Quinn question Adam Trask about how he was shot; Adam lies by claiming he accidentally shot himself. Then, the disbelieving deputy says to Julius Euskadi, a curious citizen, “I’m going to run to papa. I need the sheriff.” Deputy Quinn deputizes Julius to ensure that Adam does not flee or try to hurt himself. The deputy reports to the Monterey County sheriff. The sheriff finds out that Adam’s wife, Cathy, who shot him within two weeks after delivering their twins and then disappeared, now works for the madam Faye as a prostitute. After interrogating “Kate,” the sheriff does not arrest her but warns her to keep pretending that she is somebody else and not hurt her husband or their two sons. He also orders Kate to dye her hair so that she will not be recognized. Richard Shapiro, the writer of the miniseries, not only eliminates Julius but he makes Deputy Quinn and the sheriff one and the same: Sheriff Horace Quinn. On the other hand, Osborn assigns the composite character Sam, the Sheriff, some characteristics of both the philosophizing Lee and another character he eliminated—the Trask family’s wise friend, Samuel Hamilton.

An instance of Andrew’s concept of borrowing occurs when Sheriff Quinn does something that does not happen in the novel; in fact, Steinbeck never places the sheriff and the madam Faye in the same scene. The miniseries presents the viewer with a nostalgic visual: the sheriff tenderly touches Faye’s face before departing after they briefly discuss the newly arrived Kate—the same way the departing Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, tenderly touches the face of Ona Munson, who plays Belle Watling, the madam with a heart of gold, in Gone with the Wind.

The critical acceptance of any film or television production relies on a director’s decision on visuals, be they nostalgic or innovative. Film and television both rely on editing, i.e. simultaneous action, which is difficult to replicate in media and in other art forms. Characters can be portrayed in a variety of situations, for example, those that involve crime and sex. Audiences come to know characters through what they say and what they do, while at the same time get to know them even better by what other characters say about them and what other characters do for or against them. Representing crime onscreen these days is not difficult, but making audiences aware of the motivations for the crime can sometimes be likened to an uphill battle. Steinbeck’s character Cathy, later known as “Kate,” is too bad to be true because “she is unmotivated: she does not know what she wants, the novelist does not know, and the reader can hardly find her relentless villainy plausible” (Schwartz 22). In Kazan’s film, she is not actually evil but instead morally ambiguous because, due to the limitations of censorship, the viewer does not observe the sexual manipulation, the drug use, and the other awful things she does in the novel. However, there is nothing ambiguous about Harvey Hart’s Cathy Ames. Hart introduces Cathy when she is a child; her mother discovers her engaging in sex-play with two boys in the barn. Mrs. Ames is on the verge of notifying the constable about “those two little criminals” having “forced” her daughter. “And I will see those two little criminals in the Massachusetts State Prison,” she warns their fathers. The aim of Mrs. Ames is that the boys “must be made to pay. . . . To pay. . . . Bare!”

The viewer of the miniseries at first probably considers Cathy to just be sexually curious. However, in the three paragraphs immediately before Steinbeck introduces Cathy, he talks about humans who are physically monstrous as well as those who are mentally or psychically so. He elaborates on the “inner monster” who has no conscience. Steinbeck also speaks to Cathy’s strange appeal in that “[e]ven as a child she had some quality that made people look at her, then look away, then look back at her, troubled at something foreign. Something looked out of her eyes, and was never there when one looked again” (72; ch. 8).

As Hart’s Cathy smiles while her mother makes her watch the two boys being whipped by their fathers, the viewers for the first time hear Cathy’s music box-chimed leitmotif, the children’s ditty “Put Your Little Foot (Right There).” Whether intended to exemplify Andrew’s concept of borrowing or not, what comes to mind for some viewers is the Academy Award-nominated performance of Patty McCormack, who, at age 10 in 1956, chilled audiences in the eponymous role of The Bad Seed; the leitmotif for McCormack’s character is the traditional French children’s song “Au Clair de la Lune.”

Steinbeck seems to consider a tendency to commit sin as something inherent in a character. Ditsky asserts that sexuality in fiction is a warning to the reader and that Steinbeck thinks a person who can choose to be good or evil because he or she may (11). According to Shapiro, “Steinbeck didn’t really address the sexuality . . . that kind of sexual tension that goes on between men and women” (Archive of American Television). As far as the miniseries character of Cathy is concerned, the earliest correlation between sexuality and crime per se is pedophilia: fifteen-year-old Cathy’s Latin teacher, Mr. Grew, has had sex with her. Hart cast a middle-aged actor, Nicholas Pryor, for the part of Mr. Grew, whom Steinbeck describes as “a pale intense young man” (78; ch. 8). Hart’s casting decision here makes the crime of pedophilia even more disgusting. In the novel, when Cathy is 14, her sexually obsessed teacher kills himself. At 16, she runs away to Boston, her father brings her back, and he whips her. On the other hand, Hart’s 15-year-old Cathy, referencing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, tells Mr. Ames she can become so small that he will not be able to see her. She does not run away until after the death of her parents, neither of whom has ever whipped her. Cathy has removed them from her life by setting their house ablaze, faking her own death in the process. In the novel, Cathy commits a fourth crime by robbing her father of all his savings. As Steinbeck so succinctly puts it, “Cathy left a scent of sweetness behind her” (88; ch. 8).

To significantly contribute to the audience’s perception of and emotional response to the introduction of Cathy and to her triad of crimes—arson, a double murder, and pseudocide—Hart demonstrates quite an artistic arsenal. He effectively utilizes lens choices; camera angles and movement; the match dissolve of Cathy that shows the transition of plot points from her childhood to her adolescence; non-diegetic music, including the aforementioned leitmotif of Cathy; and the mise-en-scène elements of set design, décor, lighting setup, and prop selection (such as the ironic cross around Cathy’s neck at different times throughout the miniseries). Hart makes a special effort to render superimposition. The nearly still shots of each of Cathy’s parents are blended with their house fire to illustrate the immediate fate of this evil character’s first murder victims. Hart repeats this effective editing technique: a shot of Cathy’s cross in the palm of a neighbor is overlapped with a shot of her smiling as she escapes on a train. These kinds of superimpositions are stylistically superior and contribute an uncomfortable degree of coolness to the narrative. Furthermore, Cathy’s girlish pink- and white-colored costumes, modest makeup, and looped braids help actress Jane Seymour portray the 15-year-old villainess so effectively when she is actually twice Cathy’s age (Calio 109).

Writers appreciate that there are more expansive challenges and possibilities for variations of extended character depth, ongoing plotting, and other modes of creativity in long-form series than in feature films (Mittell “Narrative Complexity” 30). An occurrence of Andrew’s mode of transforming is exemplified in the miniseries when the neighbors of the Ames’, outraged at their murders that evening, form a vigilante mob and assault and disturb the peace of hobos at their riverside camp. In a twist that is not part of the novel, Adam happens to be one of the few hobos to escape and, demonstrative of his strong moral character, he helps an old man flee the wrath of the townspeople. The following morning, a conversation between Adam and the old hobo inspires Adam to return home. This dramatic license of Hart creates a better storyline because in the novel Adam returns home to Charles before the Ames family is even introduced.

Hart makes another transforming improvement on Steinbeck’s work by establishing another effective connection between characters. The respected Bostonian businessman who is secretly a whoremaster, Mr. Edwards, takes his wife and their two young sons to the same revival that Charles and Adam have come to after the former is unable to cure his brother’s “knocker fever” due to so many ladies of the evening in the area suddenly “getting religion.” There, Edwards comes across two from his “stock,” Jane and Molly; they also happen to be the particular prostitutes that the Trask brothers have come to town to hire. Edwards frog-marches the women away to a room at a nearby inn, where he commits assault and battery upon them (most of which appears offscreen) after they refuse to return to work. Edwards later commits assault and battery upon Cathy, who surprises him—as well as the viewer—by fighting back. Fascinated by both these despicable characters, the viewer does not know whom to root for but watches intently, caught up in the suspense.

Having emerged in the 1970s and being “[s]imilar to soap operas, miniseries were serial in form, and focused on intrapersonal and familial relationships, often presented as melodrama. However, while the soap opera continues to be denigrated as low culture, the miniseries, because of its historic content, was seen as upscale television” (Rymsza-Pawlowska 86). Rymsza-Pawlowska finds the miniseries to share historical gravitas with the novel, tracing major events in the lives of the main characters (85).


Cultural and Historical Contexts

Kazan’s feature film adaptation of East of Eden as well as Harvey Hart’s television miniseries adaptation are shaped by the historical and cultural contexts of, respectively, the first half of the 1950s and the early 1980s in America. Both eras share certain characteristics, including melodrama, one kind of which Frye describes as “comedy without humor” (167).

In the relationship between Cal and his father, Adam, there is much conflict. Cal hates that Adam favors his twin brother, Aron. In order to please his father after Adam’s disastrous business venture of trying to transport ice-packed lettuce by train, Cal commits what seems to be a crime in Adam’s eyes but really is not: war profiteering during WWI, as Cal has decided to buy beans from poor farmers in the Salinas Valley at a very low price and then resell the beans to the British. Adam’s rejection of Cal’s gift of thousands of dollars and his suggestion that Cal pay it back to the farmers he “robbed” leads Cal to commit another crime that really is not: he emotionally “kills” Aron by taking him to meet their notorious mother, Kate, whom Aron believes to be dead.

In the early 1980s, melodrama swept television in the form of “nighttime soaps.” Regarding Hart’s East of Eden miniseries, Time magazine reported, “While this eight-hour TV movie has clear cultural pretensions, it is really 99-and-44/100% pure soap” (Corliss 68). Hart’s version bears “a form . . . dominating the television ratings in series such as Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon’s [sic, Falcon] Crest. … [T]he longer format was more capable of realizing Steinbeck’s epic sweep by including the first two-thirds of the plot excised in the earlier film” (Railsback and Michael, 94). Railsback and Michael also noted that the miniseries abandoned Steinbeck’s development of archetypes for prurient pursuits. By the time East of Eden aired, Dynasty had just been created by Richard Shapiro and his wife, Esther Shapiro. The storylines of episodes that were to air during that season were similar to those of East of Eden. The character Walter Lankershim, a feisty, hard worker, persuades the sensitive Steven Carrington to visit a bordello with him. The promiscuous Fallon Carrington marries the enamored Jeff Colby, but not out of love. Another bride, Krystle Carrington, does not get along with the servant Joseph Anders, and later she takes steps not to have children. Claudia Blaisdel, a mother and unfaithful wife, packs her things and runs away. Future seasons of Dynasty featured additional dark plot elements that no doubt brought East of Eden to viewers’ minds: arson, battery, blackmail, murder, and suicide.

Most importantly, there is a single element of melodrama which is ubiquitous through all temporal and formal modes of melodramatic entertainment: the attachment genre, which runs the cinema’s gamut from the various versions of the tearjerker chestnut Madame X to the heartwarming dramedy Forrest Gump, to the pornography-plotted Boogie Nights, and to the science-fiction classic Star Wars. Kate’s reunion with her sons is typical of the attachment genre, according to Hogan’s definition:

The main story typically involves a lengthy separation caused by one of the parents or by some outside force. This is commonly followed by one party seeking the other and finding him or her after some errors or misrecognitions. The reunion, however, is often not fully successful and the parents and children may end up separated again. One main difference in subtypes concerns whether or not the parent abandoned the child and, if so, whether it was for selfish or selfless reasons. (234)

Almost everyone becomes separated from his or her parents, and so the viewer can relate to the parent–child plot (Hogan 203). Hogan points out that the resolution often is tragic, and he also notes that the separation can last a long time (200). Thus, when Kate asks Cal, “Who are you? What do you want?” the viewer accepts that she has not seen him for nearly two decades.

East of Eden has other significant cultural and historical contexts. “Where Steinbeck’s novel champions individual responsibility, Kazan’s film attacks the hypocrisy of narrowly individualistic morality. While both the film and the book celebrate the individual’s freedom to choose good over evil—leaving little to subtle suggestion—Kazan’s film more thoroughly expresses the moral temper of midcentury America” (Dill 167). Kazan’s Cal rejects the authority of his father; according to Springer, teenagers of the 1950s started to reject parental authority (17).

During the midpoint of the Eisenhower Era, there existed an antipathy for communism, almost as if it were a public health problem. The Cold War had begun seven years before Kazan’s East of Eden was filmed. Kazan “drew criticism for being among the first Hollywood insiders to cooperate with the investigation held by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare in 1952 . . . . [His] testimony cost him dearly among Hollywood’s elite” (Railsback and Michael 196). He and Osborn built up Steinbeck’s minor, four-page storyline about the German tailor, Mr. Fenchel, who finds himself in financial arrears from purchasing too many war bonds and whom the citizens of Salinas harass after the United States and Germany become opposing forces during World War I. Steinbeck’s depiction of anti-German hysteria seems engendered by World War II (Millichap 150). Kazan and Osborn turn Fenchel into “Mr. Albrecht,” the Trasks’ elderly shoe-repairman friend and neighbor, who experiences the crimes of vandalism and arson when “strong men—about thirty of them . . . tore down Mr. Fenchel’s white picket fence and burned the front of his house. No Kaiser-loving son of a bitch was going to get away with it with us” (Steinbeck 515–6; ch. 46). This German character is eliminated altogether in Harvey Hart’s miniseries.

The 1950s were not only affected by the Red Scare; the decade also marked the beginning of the end of the Production Code Administration (PCA), “Hollywood’s self-censorship agency, which was phased out in the 1960s and replaced by the current ratings system administered by the Motion Picture Association of America” (Schatz 47). The United States had endured the brutality and horror of WWII, coming through less innocent but more mature. Suddenly, the hand holding of the PCA and the church at the movie theater seemed less important.



Between the performances of James Dean in the feature film and Sam Bottoms in the miniseries, the viewer observes the character of Cal Trask committing various crimes, including automobile theft, breaking curfew, destruction of property, illegal boarding of a train, illegally setting off a fire alarm, theft, trespassing, money burning, and voyeurism. He steals a coal chute and even something as simple as salt water taffy. Underage, Steinbeck’s Cal never drinks alcohol until after he introduces Aron to their mother. On the other hand, Hart’s Cal drinks a little before that plot point, and Kazan’s Cal hits the bottle throughout the film.

Cal also commits the crimes of destruction of property, disturbs the peace, and assault and battery. At one point, James Dean’s character even admits to Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, after he beats Aron up, “I was trying to help him. . . . Who am I kidding? I—I tried to kill him.” Another of Cal Trask’s crimes is stalking, and the object of his obsessive pursuit is his mysterious mother. Kazan’s film opens as teenaged Cal, accompanied by foreboding, non-diegetic music, is following Kate while she goes to make her weekly bank deposit. Steinbeck explains that Cal has arranged his school schedule to be able to trail Kate on Monday afternoons.

Prostitution is the main correlation between crime and sexuality in the novel, the feature film, and the miniseries. However, prostitution is most implicit in Kazan’s adaptation, during whose first 10 minutes it is established that Kate practices the world’s oldest profession through camera shots and dialogue. The teller compliments a plumpish, African-American woman on making a “nice, fat deposit. You sure are in the right business, Sally.” Then, he tells Kate, “Another nice deposit. You and Sally are sure in the right business.” Behind a window, a couple of respectable-looking women whisper about Kate as she passes outside. When he is asked by her bouncer, Joe, why he has been following Kate around, Cal replies, “Any law against following around the t-town . . . ‘m-m-madam’—whatever you call her?” During preproduction, there were objections to James Dean’s line because, according to Simmons, “‘madam’ was on the Code office list of forbidden words. However, Kazan was successful in justifying that, at that stage, it was not feasible for Shurlock to impose new limitations in order to strike that word.

Nineteen-fifties Hollywood had deemed the novel too difficult to adapt because Kate had to operate a brothel instead of just, for example, a saloon for it to emotionally kill her wholesome other son, Aron, and cause him to enlist in the army, which leads to another tragedy of his father’s suffering a stroke and becoming incapacitated. However, according to Simmons, Kazan rose to the challenge and eventually worked around three options given to him by executives at the Breen Office, at the Production Code Administration, and at Warner Brothers. Kazan also refused to portray the suggestion of Kate being arrested along with Cal when he disturbs the peace at her establishment.

Ultimately, a relatively simple compromise was arranged whereby the original whorehouse scenes were set in “Kate’s Place,” a rough saloon and gambling house that served as a front for Kate’s more lucrative operations in another building down the street. Kazan would be allowed to show the exterior of her brothel, but all interior scenes were to be located in either the saloon or Kate’s attached office and living quarters. In this way, the letter of the Code was observed but Kazan could clearly identify Kate’s evil profession (Simmons).

Thanks to some changes that Kazan made in the shooting script and that the PCA approved, viewers mistook the saloon that was among some other deteriorated places for a brothel anyhow. Perhaps, the Production Code’s allowance of this slip contributed to its revision in 1956 to permit references to prostitution and drugs (Maltby 568), the latter of which are used in the novel by Kate, by other prostitutes, and by the bordello pianist, Cotton Eye.

Censorship probably did not come into play as much with Hart’s television production, because the constraints of television had evolved over time. For example, during the 1970s, there was partial nudity in the landmark miniseries Roots, and the situation comedy Maude tackled abortion during a two-part episode that aired even before the Roe v. Wade decision (Sarafino par. 37). However, in one scene of Hart’s miniseries, Jane Seymour, during her Golden Globe-winning performance as Cathy/Kate, “gives birth to unwanted twins with such savagery that her screams had to be toned down for the network censors” (Calio 109). Sometimes advertisers object to television material. Concerned about gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity, Procter & Gamble, then television’s biggest sponsor, withdrew advertisements from more than fifty programs during the 1980–81 season, including East of Eden because they objected to the inclusion of the scene in which Cathy sleeps with her brother-in-law, Charles (Gitlin 258–259).

In 2014, it was announced that actress Jennifer Lawrence was going to star in not just one, but two movies adapted from Steinbeck’s novel, with writer-director Gary Ross at the helm (Appelo par. 1). Lawrence had been nominated twice for an Academy Award, winning once, and was nominated for two other Oscars since then. Her 2018 film Red Sparrow marks the actress’s first onscreen nudity (Fisher par. 2). Should these two productions of East of Eden come to fruition with Lawrence appearing as licentious Cathy/Kate, it will be interesting to see how the sexuality of the character is taken to another level.



Both Elia Kazan’s and Harvey Hart’s adaptations of John Steinbeck’s crime- and sexuality-ridden East of Eden move between Dudley Andrew’s three modes of adaptation—borrowing, intersecting, and transforming. Through omissions of characters and scenes; through the creation of composite characters; and through truncation, allusions, dramatic license, editing techniques, and mise-en-scène elements, Kazan and Hart render both conventions and creativity in their respective productions. Distinctions between these adaptations are apparent due to the cultural and historical influences of the periods during which they were produced: aspects of melodrama, societal issues, and the politics of the mid-1950s and the early 1980s. And finally, censorship affected the tale’s evolution—from the Production Code Administration’s reconsideration of both the word “madam” and its struggle with the onscreen depiction of a brothel in the mid-1950s, to the objection of sponsor Procter & Gamble to the portrayal of wedding-night adultery during the 1980–81 television season.



The author expresses special thanks to Dr. Brian McAllister, Dr. Michael Porte, Cobi Wilfred Simpson Powell, Chris Hite, and Garrett J. Cummins for their invaluable feedback and constructive comments. Material from this study was presented at the Ohio Communication Association conference, Orrville, Ohio, in 2018.


Works cited

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Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. Penguin Books, 2002.


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