Of Mice and Men

There have been many movie versions of the classic John Steinbeck short novel Of Mice and Men, including a 1939 version starring, of all people, Burgess Meredith (Rocky’s Mickey) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (the Wolf Man).

But a Google search reveals that the overwhelming majority of online references are to specifically the 1992 version starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. That’s probably the only version most people are familiar with (if they’re familiar with any), and it’s the only one I’ve seen.

I watched it first probably 25 years ago, and have watched it maybe three times since, including recently.

This is a terrific movie, very well done. I mean, the fact that it’s an excellent book provides a considerable head start, but the casting—the acting—is just right here. I can’t read the book now without forever seeing and hearing the Malkovich version of Lennie in my head.

George and Lennie are Depression-era migrant farm workers in California, long-time buddies who move from place to place as work becomes available, but also because Lennie keeps inadvertently getting them in trouble.

Lennie is a mentally handicapped lumbering man of great physical strength, a gentle giant with no trace of malice in him. George functions as his guardian, as it’s clear that Lennie would be utterly unable to survive on his own.

He’s not just mildly handicapped; he’s on about the level of a 3 year old in terms of logical reasoning, memory, impulse control, etc. (though one exception is he’s far more obedient than a 3 year old).

You know the way a 3 year old is with a pet? The way he’ll pull its tail, pet it too hard, just kind of manhandle it in general because he doesn’t know any better? There’s no desire to hurt the animal, indeed little if any concept of it as a living being like oneself that is capable of feeling pain, but just a fascination with the way its fur feels to the touch, the way it moves, the way it responds to being pushed and prodded this way and that, like a toy, an inanimate object with moving parts and sounds that exists only to be played with.

That’s Lennie. He loves animals to the point of obsession, but he loves them in a superficial way as objects that are pleasurable to touch, pleasurable to hold, with no awareness that his manner with them can hurt and even kill them. I mean, out of obedience to George he’ll try to limit how rough he is with them—until he forgets, which is almost immediately—but he has no understanding of why such limits are imposed on him.

Certainly animals aren’t safe around him, but people are at risk as well. He may be totally innocent, but he’s almost as dangerous as he is innocent. George keeps tabs on him as best he can, but he can’t supervise him 24 hours a day. You hate to say it, but honestly the dude probably does need to be institutionalized somewhere where he cannot accidently hurt or kill someone.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you can probably guess from early on where this story is headed. George and Lennie have beautiful dreams that in some respects seem not all that far-fetched (a humble farm of their own, that they could realistically purchase by setting aside a reasonable percentage of their pay for really not an overwhelming amount of time), but at the same time seem a million miles away, like they might as well be talking about marrying princesses and living on some exotic island that they own.

All the emotions, all the experiences, of these men are wonderfully and movingly portrayed here. The frustrations, the dreams, the love, the regrets, the appreciation, the camaraderie—you really feel like you get inside these characters. Certainly that’s true of the lead characters, but the bulk of the more tangential stories and characters—e.g., Candy, Crooks—are handled quite effectively as well.

There’s a sense in which I’ve never fully made my peace with sad, tragic endings. It’s almost like there’s a part of me that can’t help but root for things to turn out differently the next time I read such a book, or see such a movie. Like, even though I know the ending, there’s always that slight feeling that surely this is the time that McMurphy won’t be lobotomized, Winston Smith won’t tearfully pledge his undying devotion to Big Brother, Billy Budd won’t be hanged (and John Lennon won’t be shot dead at 40 by a lunatic, for that matter).

And George and Lennie, and the friends they’ve made along the way, will live happily ever after on their farm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s