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Film / East of Eden

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"It's gonna work because it's got to work. And it's got to work because I say so."
Cal Trask

East of Eden is a 1955 drama film directed by Elia Kazan, very loosely adapted from John Steinbeck's novel of the same name.

The film stars James Dean as Cal Trask, in what was his Star-Making Role. Due to his sudden death the same year it was released, it's probably Dean's second most famous film after Rebel Without a Cause, and was also the only one of his three films to be released in his lifetime. Also in the cast are Julie Harris as Abra, Raymond Massey as Adam, Richard Davalos as Aron, Jo Van Fleet as Kate, Burl Ives as Sam and Lois Smith as Anne.

The screenplay, written by Paul Osborn, opts to completely skate over the first two-thirds of the novel and focus entirely on the later portions with Cal and Aron as teenagers. These segments are pretty faithful to the text, save for the elimination of one or two characters and a few motivations changed without the context of the earlier parts.

Steinbeck himself approved of the change to focus only on the Aron and Cal portions of his novel. He also approved of James Dean's casting. Reportedly, when he was brought to the set to meet Dean, Steinbeck exclaimed, "He is Cal!"

Nominated for four Academy Awards, with Jo Van Fleet winning for Best Supporting Actress.

Tropes appearing in this film:

  • Abusive Parents: While Adam never physically abuses Cal, he acts very emotionally distant toward him, frequently compares him unfavorably to Aaron, and generally makes him feel inadequate and unloved.
  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • Cal bursts out laughing at Abra's story at throwing a $3000 ring into the river. Specifically when she says she forgave her father.
    • Kate asks if Aron is like her. Cal replies no, because he's good. Kate bursts out laughing at this.
  • Adapted Out: The housekeeper Lee does not appear at all in the film.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Director Elia Kazan decided to completely cut out the first two-thirds of the book and just make the movie about the final third, which focuses on Adam's two sons as teenagers.
  • Adaptational Heroism: With the first two-thirds of the novel cut out, Kate is far more sympathetic. In the novel, she's a murderess and arsonist as well as a Manipulative Bitch who became the madam of the brothel by poisoning the original one. The film makes her seem more subtly tragic, even dropping hints that she regrets leaving her sons.
  • Always Identical Twins: Subverted. While Aron and Cal do look similar, they're not identical. Aron is taller and has lighter hair.
  • As the Good Book Says...:
    • Adam is prone to quoting the Bible and disciplines Cal by having him read Bible verses out loud.
    • Toward the end of the film, after Aron has gone insane due to Cal's actions, the sheriff quotes from the biblical story of Cain and Abel, providing the film's Title Drop.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: After they have their little chat in the field, Cal warms to Abra. In their next scene together, he teases her playfully with licorice.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Strongly implied with Aron, who is well-mannered and friendly to Cal at the beginning of the film, but becomes increasingly envious and aggressive once Cal begins to compete with him for the affection of their father and Aron's girlfriend Abra. A deleted scene outright confirms that Aron's good son image is due to careful study of what his father likes.
  • Bittersweet Ending: With a heavy emphasis on the bitter part. By the end of the film, Aron has lost his mind and runs off to enlist in the war, where he will likely die, Adam suffers a stroke that leaves him almost entirely paralyzed, and Cal decides to leave the town to start a new life somewhere else. However, thanks to Abra's encouragement, Adam finally shows some some genuine affection for Cal, convincing the latter to stay by his father's side and leaving open the possibility of a reconciliation between the two in the future.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: There's Kate (blonde), Anne (brunette), and Abra (redhead). Although since Anne doesn't feature much in the story, Cal and Aron could fill the brunet qualifications.
  • Break the Haughty: After Aron abandons any illusions of morality and shows that he thinks he's better than Cal, the latter takes him to Kate's saloon to deliberately break Aron's image of his mother.
  • Broken Pedestal: Implied with Abra towards Aron, while he's giving Cal a devastating "The Reason You Suck" Speech. The entire focus is on her reaction as she hears the horrible things he says to Cal.
  • Cain and Abel: The relationship between Cal and Aron is heavily reminiscent of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, to the point where it's even acknowledged in-universe. It's ultimately deconstructed, since Cal, despite his rebellious behavior, is Not Evil, Just Misunderstood, while Aron, the "good" brother, is revealed to have a cruel and self-serving side.
  • Call-Back: The scene where Cal goes up to Abra's room calls back to the earlier scene where he approaches Kate while she's asleep. The scene would originally have had him examine her things while she slept too.
  • Calling the Old Man Out:
    • After Adam rejects the money Cal made to compensate for the failed business venture, Cal calls him out on his emotional abuse and tells him that he's done trying to win his father's approval.
    • Abra also does this for Cal while Adam is recovering from his stroke, telling him that his uncaring behavior has deeply hurt Cal and encouraging him to make amends before it is too late.
  • Clothing Damage: Cal's sweater gets torn while Joe is pulling him out of Kate's room.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The last sequence of events in the film happen quicker than they do in the book. Aron enlists in the war and news of his death is what causes Adam's stroke. In the film, the enlistment itself causes the stroke.
  • Cooldown Hug: Attempted by Abra when Cal and Aron get into a fist fight.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Fed up of Aron's subtle one-upmanship, Cal gets his own back by telling Aron the truth about their mother.
  • Dutch Angle: Used in the scene where Adam disciplines Cal, to show the tension between father and son.
  • Evil Twin: Deconstructed. Cal views himself as the bad twin and is convinced he'll never be anything else. In spite of this, he still tries to change this perception of himself, and it's revealed that he's only this way because he's desperate for anyone to love him. It also shows the negative effect parental favoritism has by propping one twin up as good and the other as bad.
  • Evil Wears Black: Kate is dressed in all black when she is introduced - all to make her more dangerously mysterious.
  • Eye Take: As Cal is being thrown out of her saloon, Kate realizes who he is and her eyes widen.
  • Generation Xerox: It's outlined that Cal seems to take after Kate, while Aron takes after Adam.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Aron's mind is completely shattered after Cal reveals the truth about their mother to him. He gets drunk, decides to run away from home and enlist in the war, and is last seen smashing his head through the window of the train, laughing maniacally at Adam as it pulls away.
  • Good Twin: Deconstructed as well, though not the extent of Evil Twin. Aron is only considered good because he's "just like his father" and, while he shows kindness at various points, it's hinted that his image is all an act to win his father's approval (and outright confirmed in a deleted scene from the film).
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Aron is seen looking very grumpy and sulky once he sees how Cal has done the house up for Adam's birthday.
  • Holier Than Thou: Adam is a deeply devout man who harshly judges others when they fail to meet his high moral standards. Kate cites this as one of the main reasons why she left him.
  • Hope Spot: Kate and Cal seem like they're going to reconcile after she gives him the money - but she rebuffs his advances and he leaves.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: In what was a famous ad-lib by James Dean, after Adam rejects Cal's present, he collapses sobbing in his father's arms.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: During the parade after World War I is announced, two men make derogatory comments about Germans and trash talk the Kaiser while Mr Albrecht, a German immigrant, is right beside them.
  • Irony: Kate lampshades the irony that Cal will be using her money to go into business and reimburse Adam for what he lost on the lettuce project.
    "If you don't think that's funny, you'd better not go to college."
  • Keet: Cal has moments where his youthful innocence comes out. Notably his little dance in the field after the beans start to grow.
  • Lady in Red: It's no coincidence that Kate — the Miss Kitty and former Femme Fatale — wears red in her big scene with Cal.
  • Laughing Mad: Aron after discovering the truth about his mother.
  • Misplaced Retribution: After one of the town's residents is killed fighting the Germans in World War I, a number of people take out their anger on the completely innocent Mr. Albrecht and his family just because they happen to be German. Luckily, the sheriff intervenes before anyone is seriously hurt.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: A delayed example, but Cal feels horrible about getting into a fist fight with Aron.
  • Pink Means Feminine: Abra wears a beautiful pink dress when she's supposed to meet Aron at the carnival - and ends up kissing Cal instead.
  • Pure Is Not Good: Kate has a line where she rants about Adam's 'purity' — which amounts to his trying to live sinless and constantly quoting the Bible.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Aron delivers one to Cal after Adam has rejected his present. When he sees Abra comforting him, he pulls her away and warns Cal never to touch him again. The focus is entirely on Abra's reaction, and it's clear she finds this a big Kick the Dog moment.
    • Cal later delivers one to Adam.
    "I even tried to buy your love tonight. But I don't want it anymore. I can't use it."
  • Remake Cameo: Timothy Carey, who played Joe the bouncer at Kate's brothel, had a role as a preacher in the 1981 TV adaptation.
  • Same Language Dub: Timothy Carey's voice was overdubbed by someone else for unknown reasons.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Male example. Cal puts on a suit and cleans up for Adam's birthday party.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Aron is definitely killed in World War I in the book, and that is what causes Adam's stroke. The film shows the stroke happening as he enlists, and his fate is left ambiguous. Kate likewise commits suicide in the book but her fate is never revealed in the film. To a lesser extent, Adam is definitely dying by the end of the novel, but appears to be recovering from his stroke by the end of the film.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Kate's portrayal leans towards this. While bitter and gloomy, she shows occasional hints of affection towards Cal.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: A brief example. After Aron breaks Cal with a brutal "The Reason You Suck" Speech, Cal decides to do something evil and reveal the truth about their mother - knowing it'll devastate his brother. Which it does.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Cal may be an oddball loner but he just wants to be loved. His portrayal by James Dean — who also played the similarly troubled Jim Stark — was so iconic he's the Trope Codifier.
  • Tsundere: Cal is tsuntsun - moody and anti-social most of the time, but has a deredere side that comes out when others show him kindness.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Anne is set up as if she might figure into the plot, getting two lengthy scenes with Kate and Cal respectively. But after Cal is thrown out of the saloon, she's not seen again. Perhaps she was dismissed for letting Cal in.