"EAST of Eden" certainly adds up to a powerful heap o' something.
ABC has treated John Steinbeck's 1952 novel with respect -- with "the respect it deserves"? Not exactly. This time the property got more respect than it deserves.
And it gets more time on the air than almost anything merits: eight hours, some of them inexcusably pokey, starting tonight with a three-hour opening chapter (at 8 on Channel 7), continuing with two more hours Monday at 9 and a final three-hour windup Wednesday at 8. Unusually handsome, visually meticulous, often dramatically valid, the film's fidelity to Steinbeck extends to sharing the major faults of the book. It is big, unwieldy and overbearing; if there's a greatness about it, it's strictly greatness with a thud.
The book is not a "literary classic," as ABC says in its parental guidance disclaimer, an announcement which warns that "certain scenes contain sexually frank portrayals and explicit language which may not be suitable for young viewers."
These lardo "novels for television," or miniseries, or longforms or whatever one wants to call them, tend to fall into one of two camps: the national events that are so exceptional they're worth arranging a week around ("Roots," "Roots II," "Shogun"); and the plot-heavy gollywhompers that make fairly satisfying dumb entertainment, especially when compared with the regular programming that would be airing in the same time periods.
"East of Eden" falls into the second category. One almost has to admire a television production that turns out ponderous and gloomy on purpose, and there are enough sensational scenes, and a few crucially luminous performances, so that most viewers won't feel scalped by the time it's all over. But it is not the kind of show one will be telling one's grandchildren about. They'll have enough problems as it is.
ABC has trumpeted grandly that its "East of Eden," unlike Hollywood's 1955 CinemaScope "East of Eden," transposes all of the novel, and not just some of it, to the screen. True enough. The James Dean version of the film actually covered only about a third of the novel -- the last third, roughly what's covered in the final installment of the ABC film.
But a funny thing: Those Hollywood guys often knew, with a prescience born of commercial necessity, what they were doing. For the '55 "Eden," they telescoped two generations into one very efficiently, and the film had a fever pitch that was highly appropriate to the material. In television, commercial necessity says: Stretch it out as much as you can to provide a stage for that many more commercials. This has rigorously been done.
Networks, of course, love multigenerational sagas. The go on just short of forever, and they tend to be brawny and brawly and filled with lusty women. Perhaps network executives leaped at the possibility of refilming "Eden" when one particular Steinbeck passage was pointed out to them: "People with that much money were rich.They would never have to worry. It was enough to start a dynasty." Dynasty! You just said the magic word! Here's two million smackers; go out and shoot me another "Rich Man, Poor Man."
This time, though, it's nice brother, naughty brother, in Steinbeck's somber retelling of the Cain and Abel story. The film opens in Connecticut in 1893, where grizzled Army man Cyrus Trask (Warren Oates, looking more like John Huston every day) has one nice son named Adam (the ever-whimpering Timothy Bottoms) and one nasty son named Charles (Bruce Boxleitner, a force to be reckoned with).
Adam, after a brutal thrashing from his brother, is forced to go off into the Army and fight Indians, a task for which he has no stomach. When he returns, his father is dead and a bedraggled bad girl takes up residence with the two brothers. This catalytic female is Catherine, later Kate the Monterey Madame.She has by this time already done pre-adolescent dallying with two little boys, so bewitched a schoolteacher that he blows his brains out in church, burned her mother and father and their house to the ground, and been beaten bloody by a high-class pimp (Howard Duff) whom she exploits and ridicules.
The role is played by young Jane Seymour, who proves a very magnetic monster throughout most of the program's eight hours and is the one presense truly capable of holding it together as a piece of sprawling dramaturgy. Richard Shapiro, who wrote the whole script, streamlined out of the character most of the complexities Steinbeck put in. Now, Catherine is basically just an incurably perverse and evil vixen. But Seymour gives the part provocative nuance; she is immensely and persistenly interesting throughout.
One scene devised by Shapiro (it does not appear in the book) is perhaps Seymour's most devastating. Befriended in Monterey by a beneficent madame (Anne Baxter, making every second of a brief appearance count for a great deal), Catherine repays the woman's motherly devotion by betraying and cheating her and, one frightening night, threatening to slit her throat with a broken champagne glass if she doesn't take an overdose, eventually fatal, of medicine.
Steinbeck made his native Salinas, Calif., practically a character in the book -- a brooding neighbor of paradise described in the opening chapter but never mentioned in the film until the last three-hour installment. The filmmakers, including the director Harvey Hart, have been faithful, one might say, to the letter but not the spirit of the novel; almost all of the pivotal events are there, but most of Steinbeck's philosophizin' goes out the window.
Much of that philosophizin' was pretty sticky goo, but without any of it (save the laboriously explicit Cain-Abel allegory), what's the point of all this? The point is to spend as much time as possible telling a story that never amounts to much more, in the ABC version, than A Story. It covers a lot of time, but it lacks sweep. It dabbles in almost all the human emotions, but it lacks thematic coherence.
It's ye olde TV complaint, really: a lack of context. Shapiro's script even omits such telltale little details as The Turn of the Century, which did, in the book, figure for something.
Adam Trask marries Catherine and moves West. She attempts a self-administered abortion and, when it fails, gives birth to two sons. Then, in a fit of totally consistent tempestuous umbrage, she walks out on the family for the whore's life in Monterey. Adam pays her a visit one night and she refuses to return but tries to seduce him. A whore, it has been said, is a whore is a whore.
The two sons turn out to be, yes, nasty and nice, with Sam Bottoms in the James Dean nasty role (Caleb) and Hart Bochner as the proper and naive nice one (Aron). It's at about this point -- with World War I looming -- that the movie pretty much goes kersplat. Timothy Bottoms has been a blundering, inadequate, simplistic embarrassment all along, but when he is called upon to age into the slightly imperious elder Trask, and his brother Sam is cast as one of his sons, the production's stab at credibility becomes a colossal misfire.
Timothy Bottoms could be called moderately effective in the early scenes when he plays Adam as a teenager. Though ludicrous in a Prince Valiant haircut, those sloping, wimpy eyebrows do convey a victimized righteousness, the kind of sibling that a lusty-minded, outdoorsy brother would want to stomp into mush. But the older he is supposed to get, the more laughable and inadequate Bottoms becomes. He is unable to utter a line like "Oh Cathy, this is foolishness" with anything even approaching conviction. His whole syntax is out of whack.
There are star turns, in addition to Baxter's. Lloyd Bridges is the most attention-getting of these; he kidnaps attention and holds it hostage, romping about as pioneering California Samuel Hamilton in whiskers that make him look like a caricature of George Bernard Shaw. You are grateful for every scene in which Bridges is on the screen, and who ever would have thought that day would come?
Director Hart has his moments. He tries to reawaken the lost art of montage; there are battle montages and, in part three, a here-we-are-in-California montage. But many of the straight dialogue scenes fall flat, partly because of Timothy Bottoms. Brother Sam doesn't even hint at the neurotic, haunted undercurrents that James Dean brought to the role of cruel, disturbed Cal. Bochner is a zombie as Aron.
Boxleitner proves himself, again, a source of shiny, emphatic vitality, but writer Shapiro forgot to account for his disappearance from the story and it isn't mentioned, as in the book, that he dies back East, having fathered the sons Adam thinks are his.
What lessons are to be learned from the failures and successes of this "East of Eden"? In television, there are no lessons to be learned until the ratings come in. There will be more of these puffed-up projects, and most of them will probably be inferior to "Eden," inferior as it itself is.
Steinbeck thought, or at least wrote, that "there is one story in the world, and only one," which was that "humans are caught -- in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too -- in a net of good and evil . . . A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?"
Faulty and probably extraneous though it is, network executives can look back on "East of Eden" and, as is rare in their business, answer those questions in the affirmative. If Steinbeck rose from the dead and watched the show, however, he would probably be just as glad to go back to the dead again.