Ferber's 'Giant,' Cut Down to Size

Monday, May 8, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Does anybody out there remember Edna Ferber? Her most celebrated works -- "So Big" (1924), "Show Boat" (1926), "Cimarron" (1929), "Saratoga Trunk" (1941) and "Giant" (1952) -- are either still in print or easily available, and the plays and movies adapted from some of them still have enthusiastic followings, but Ferber herself seems to have vanished from the literary landscape. Her name rarely is mentioned in surveys of 20th-century American literature, and her critical reputation -- never very high to begin with -- steadily declines.

It was with the sense that this is an injustice that I picked "Giant" for a second reading. I had affectionate if vague memories of reading it as a teenager, and George Stevens's 1956 film adaptation of it is, for all its considerable imperfections, one of those movies that I go back to over and over again. I'd never had any illusions about the literary merits of Ferber's vast body of work, but she traveled in a fast literary crowd -- she wrote plays with George S. Kaufman and was an occasional participant in the Algonquin Round Table, and I assumed she could hold her own there.

Maybe then, but not now. Reading "Giant" for a second time was a painful, if not outright excruciating, experience. What was received half a century ago as a withering satire of Texas nouveau riche now has all the subtlety of a bludgeon. Aspiring to irony, Ferber rarely rises above sarcasm. Her prose is almost entirely lacking in grace or rhythm. The ingredients of a strong plot are present, but Ferber tosses aside some of the story's most crucial moments -- Luz Benedict's accidental death, Jett Rink's discovery of oil on his tiny patch of land, Angel Obregon's return from World War II in a casket -- almost as if she had no idea of their dramatic value. Some of the characters are interesting, but they are only partly developed.

It would be difficult to find more telling proof of the old saw that good books make bad movies and bad books make good ones. Novels with rich literary qualities and powerful themes -- "The Great Gatsby," "The Sound and the Fury," "The Remains of the Day" -- lose all that in translation to the screen, while novels with scant literary qualities but rich in story and characters often are better as movies than as books: "The Magnificent Ambersons," "The Godfather" and, most famously, "Gone With the Wind." Rarely, though, has a novel taken on such completely new life on screen as does "Giant." The movie is so much better than the book as to seem an almost entirely different piece of work.

Principal credit for the screenplay goes to Fred Guiol, with an assist from Ivan Moffat (and, Hollywood being Hollywood, God knows how many others), and Ferber is mentioned only as author of the novel from which the film was adapted. She certainly knew her way around a stage, as witness her collaboration with Kaufman, and she enjoyed a spectacular success on Broadway with "Show Boat," but the book for the magnificent musical based on her novel was written by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Ferber was smart, savvy and fiercely ambitious. Born in 1885 in Michigan, she took up newspaper work soon after high school and moved along to fiction, first in stories for popular magazines and then in novels. Like many other successful American Jews of her time, she seems to have been assimilated into the larger culture. She had a deep sympathy for minorities that often found its way into her books, most notably the black and mixed-race characters in "Show Boat" and the Mexicans in "Giant." She won a Pulitzer Prize for "So Big" in 1925 and thereafter enjoyed immense prominence, not to mention uninterrupted productivity, right up to her death in 1968.

She wasn't much of a stylist, but like James Michener in the next generation, she was endlessly curious about the world generally and the United States particularly. She (again, like Michener) seems to have been a prodigious researcher and apparently did her own legwork; "Giant" is filled with the kind of detail about Texas that a non-Texan would have to work hard to accumulate, and all the evidence suggests that it is accurate. Whatever its shortcomings, the novel does convey a strong sense of Texas: the physical place, the people, the culture.

Even many who never read the book know the story of "Giant." Sometime in the 1920s a Texas rancher named Jordan Benedict, known universally as Bick, goes to Virginia to buy a prize horse from a doctor who lives a comfortably old-shoe country life with his wife and three daughters. He gets the horse but he also gets one of the daughters, Leslie, "a beauty in disguise," intelligent, well-read and perceptive: "That girl isn't only smart, he thought. She understands everything, that's why her eyes are so warm and lovely that's what her father meant when he said she's got something that transcends beauty."

So he marries her and takes her back to Reata, his ranch of 2 1/2 million acres, the place he loves more than any other on Earth. There Leslie encounters Bick's older sister, Luz, "a bitch and a holy terror and kind of crazy, too"; his crude young handyman, Jett Rink; the Mexicans who do the hard labor of the ranch, and the innumerable Texans who have been transformed by oil and cattle into the new American aristocracy, or so at least they imagine.

It's a tough go for Leslie, not just Texas but marriage to a man who, much though she loves him, is her exact opposite in almost every respect, but she makes it. As it turns out, she's arrived in Texas at the exact moment when the cattle economy and culture are giving way to oil. The strike that makes Jett Rink rich is a metaphor for everything that's happening in the state, and the lavish party he throws in his own honor is meant to show nouveau riche Texas at its most ludicrously gauche.

In the movie the party comes at the end; in the book, Ferber tosses it aside at the beginning. Why she does so is a mystery, because as the movie makes clear it is the dramatic climax toward which everything else is pointed, the confrontation between old Texas and new Texas, and the scene when white Texas must confront its deep, pervasive bigotry. Most readers will remember that Rink is played in the movie by James Dean, whose fatal auto accident occurred before the film's completion, and that -- admirers of "Rebels Without a Cause" notwithstanding -- it is the finest performance of his brief, incandescent career.

The same can be said of just about everyone else in the movie: Rock Hudson as Bick, Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie, Mercedes McCambridge as Luz, Sal Mineo as Angel Obregon II, Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley. This essay is supposed to be about the book, not the movie, but the truth is that it's the movie that matters, that has achieved a certain small place in American mythology.

Contemplating this inescapable truth, one is left to wonder about the connections and disconnections between the intensely private, individual act of writing and the collaborative act of moviemaking. Rereading "Giant" for the first time in about half a century, I was repeatedly struck by how much smarter the moviemakers were about Ferber's novel than she herself was. In the novel, for example, when Jett's gusher comes in, he rushes into the Benedict house, covered with oil and filth, and flaunts his good fortune to an angry Bick. It's a perfectly decent scene, but it is nothing compared to the movie, in which Jett works furiously on his makeshift rig, then is astonished and overjoyed when a great spray of oil suddenly bursts from the earth, splashing all over him. He practically bathes in it, knowing that he has just been delivered into the realm of liquid gold. The book only conveys his anger and resentment; the movie gets across his joy as well, making him more sympathetic and interesting.

It helps, of course, that Jett is now not a character imperfectly rendered by the connection between Ferber's clumsy prose and the reader's puzzled imagination, but James Dean incarnate, bringing those wounded eyes and delicate face to a role made far richer by what he does with it. When the movie was released some reviewers complained that he doesn't age convincingly during the movie's three-decade time span, and in fact he is less convincing as the older Jett than the younger one, but his performance in the first two-thirds of the movie is something of a miracle, and certainly a reminder that sometimes acting and filming are more convincing -- more real -- than writing.

I could go on and on about the ways in which the movie improves upon the book -- it's tighter, more smoothly paced, funnier, more dramatic -- but few people who know both are likely to disagree. What matters for this series of rereadings is that "Giant" is one of the few books -- out of more than 50 thus far considered -- that are disappointing the second time around. That is too bad, but we still have the movie, and the movie is still very, very good.

"Giant" is available in a Harper Perennial Modern Classics paperback ($14).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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