Nominated for the 1992 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winning writer Horton Foote adapted John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic novella Of Mice and Men for the second and far superior cinematic interpretation from director/producer/star Gary Sinise. As he notes on the DVD, Sinise, who had first seen the play as a 16 year old at the renowned Minneapolis Guthrie Theatre, acquired the rights from Elaine Steinbeck while performing in the Broadway version of The Grapes of Wrath. After a breakneck year of planning, including solidifying the script which was approved on the spot by MGM studios, production was underway.
Having taken part in the play twelve years earlier at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Sinise once again tackled the role of the protective George Milton. In one of his smartest moves as a filmmaker, Sinise reunited with his Mice costar John Malkovich for his pitch-perfect characterization of the mentally challenged Lennie Small in the heartbreaking tale of two close friends who travel together during the Great Depression while working on California ranches as they try to save enough money to buy their own farm and secure a piece of the American dream.
Nearly as vital and timely as it was in its first printing given the state of our questionable economy with frequent discussion of recession, Sinise’s film has also stood the test of time with its painstaking attention to detail in bringing Steinbeck’s vision to life. And perhaps it's even more accessible thanks to Foote’s augmentation of his lean and muscular writing by adding more emotion to the tale in order to enrich Steinbeck’s theme of loneliness.
In addition to being controversial for conclusions made regarding disabled individuals such as Lennie, Steinbeck’s novel also caused a feminist outcry as female sexuality leads to the men’s undoing, in the form of the flirtatious wife of their boss Curley (Casey Siemaszko). However, in the 1992 version both of these oft debated characterizations are deepened without losing any of Steinbeck’s intent. In the DVD interview, Sinise argued that one of the most important things he wanted to address in the movie was the treatment of Curley’s wife by humanizing the woman (played by the lovely Sherilyn Fenn) and emphasizing her loneliness being the only woman on the ranch without a sole to talk to. In doing so, he considerably plays up audience sympathy as opposed to the book’s depiction of her as a dangerous, aggressive symbolic villain. In addition, as Sinise shared, this change of developing Curley’s wife into a fully realized character makes the film’s memorably shocking ending all the more tragic and in my view, makes her yet another one of the many lonely outcasts that populate Steinbeck’s world, inviting the audience to draw greater parallels between her character as well as the others, especially Lennie who is painted as the ultimate outsider, given his childlike innocence that’s contrasted with his dangerous strength and overwhelming size.
While it’s Malkovich that ultimately steals the film, I was especially touched by Sinise’s characterization in depicting George in a tenderer fatherly manner, and after viewing the film a second time around, began to realize that in truth, he had the more difficult role. Not only does George serve as the negotiator of both Lennie’s optimistic fairy tale like hope for a better future and the harsh realities of the ranch but he also served as the glue in the relationships with every character in a way that had me recalling William Hurt’s underrated, similarly all-encompassing role in Children of a Lesser God. While George is nowhere near as flashy or memorable as Lennie who holds our hearts for the entire running time, it’s ultimately George who serves as the contemplative stand-in for the audience as he’s the one we’re constantly judging throughout the movie.
Seeing the two great actors working together at the peak of their careers makes Of Mice and Men all the more precious and it’s this immediate bond the two share that wins us over from the start. This relationship is definitely heightened by Foote’s script which, under the guidance of Sinise who wanted to make his own Scarecrow like “buddy movie” (for lack of a better phrase), allows the two not only to shine but invites Steinbeck fans to look even deeper into the novella. And perhaps it's this more than anything that should be the true test of the success of adapting literature in whether or not it inspires us to go back to Steinbeck’s novella to compare and contrast while appreciating the similarities and differences of each instead of just choosing one over the other. In that regard and so many others, Sinise's Of Mice and Men is an overwhelming success.