Scripting The Good Earth: Versions of the Novel for the Screen
James L. Hoban Jr.
The book I wrote has taken on a new life of its own . . . a life beyond my conception . . . in an art foreign to me but which I appreciate. 1
Advertising MGM's latest blockbuster of 1937 for its reserved-seat engagement, the trailer promised, "THE GLORIOUS SCREEN REPRODUCTION OF THE MOST VITAL NOVEL OF OUR TIME." To indicate the faithfulness of the adaptation "LINE BY LINE...PAGE BY PAGE...CHAPTER BY CHAPTER...," the first page from the novel appears on the screen with a dissolve to Paul Muni, the actor playing Wang Lung, who cries, "This is the day." Superimposed over pages from the novel is the proclamation, "JUST AS YOU READ IT...SO WILL YOU SEE IT." Then follows a summary of the film/novel's major events. As bold words announce, "TERRIFYING LEGIONS OF LOCUSTS HIDE THE SUN," images of grasshoppers fill the screen, with a dissolve to Muni and Luise Rainer. Over them are the words, "BUT THE LOVE OF WANG AND O-LAN ENDURES." There is another dissolve to the actress Tilly Losch, dancing, with titles over her reading, "UNTIL HUNGER FOR THE LIPS OF LOTUS MAKES WANG FORGET THE HEART OF O-LAN." Scenes of looting the great house in the southern city and other shots appear, while the titles state, "THESE...AND OTHER MEMORABLE EVENTS FROM THE GREAT BOOK WILL STIR YOUR VERY SOUL!" The trailer ends with the assertion, "THIS PICTURE IS THE BOOK!" 2
Hollywood hyperbole aside, viewers who paid $2.50 for reserved seats probably expected to see a close approximation of the novel's story. Most reviewers of the day seemed to agree that the film was remarkably faithful, although some of them acknowledged that the locust plague, spectacular as it was, received more attention in the movie than in the novel. 3 A best-seller with scores of devoted readers from the time of its publication in 1931, one from a body of work for which Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize, and a book