It's been a long time coming, but the dream of putting Steinbeck's masterwork on film in its entirety has, at long last, been realized
From the beginning I was pushing very hard to get an eight-hour commitment (four two-hour nights) from the ABC network for the production of EAST OF EDEN. My feeling was that we had an enormous amount of material in Steinbeck's novel and that, in fact, we could easily have made a twelve-hour show out of it.
The network was reluctant to go for the eight-hour show (they favored a seven-hour version) for several reasons, the main one being that the mini-series format is becoming an endangered species-which is really too bad, because it is the thing that television does best. It is the only thing that television can do that no other medium can duplicate. But it is endangered because it's like a zeppelin-that very slow-moving and easily identifiable helium-filled target for counter-programming. For example, if an opposing network sees a series like this coming up from ABC, they may put KRAMER VS KRAMER or a Burt Reynolds movie against PART ONE. If, as a result, PART ONE gets an 18 or 20 share, there will be no one around to see PARTS TWO, THREE AND FOUR. Counterwise, if the other networks don't oppose it with something very strong and PART ONE gets a 40 share, that audience will come back to see the rest of the episodes and the other networks will lose a whole week of programming.
Another disadvantage of the miniseries format, from the network point of view, is that it does mean pre-empting regular programs, which causes them various problems with sponsors, suppliers and audiences. So there were several reasons why they wanted to hold it to a minimum number of nights-in this case, three instead of four. My pleadings for the eighth hour fell on deaf ears every time I brought it up, at every level of the network, but when they saw our first cut, which ran eight and a half hours, they decided to go for the eight-hour version to be shown on three successive nights-a reasonable compromise.
EAST OF EDEN is my first mini-series and I've learned that the format is different from that of a theatrical feature. It is more leisurely, more lyrical-which is especially favorable when you are doing a John Steinbeck vehicle. We have time for those wonderful vista shots and panoramas of the Salinas Valley. We are able to take the time to establish the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast. Some of the dialogue is poetic and it plays more slowly. In my opinion, EAST OF EDEN is the quintessential television piece. It's kind of purple and passionate and melodramatic and loaded with incident and, at the same time, it's very literate and very lyrical and photographically most spectacular.
I've been asked many times why I chose this particular vehicle. All I can say is that when I was a teenager back in the Fifties, the first important piece of American literature I ever read was John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN. The book (and also the subsequent feature made by Elia Kazan) had a great deal of identification for teenagers. The lack of communication between siblings and with parents is something that speaks to people of that age group in any generation. And, like everyone in my peer group, I rushed to see the Kazan film when it came out a year later. All my friends were crazy about James Dean and this wonderful picture that had been made on the highly controversial theme of not relating to your parents and hatred for a sibling.
Aside from the film's obvious virtues, I was incensed that they had filmed only 20 percent of the novel. I didn't know you could take something and call it EAST OF EDEN when, in fact, it wasn't EAST OF EDEN. It was a nice picture, but it was something else. Major characters were left out and the intent of the novel was severely tilted just by omission. For example, in the Kazan film the character of Kate (played by Jo Van Fleet) is picked up in middle age when she is the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey. …