Reading end-of-year tributes to the Hollywood stars and other cultural icons we lost in 2014—particularly those whose deaths were untimely—got me thinking about James Dean (1931-1955). I’d just read East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s epic reworking of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in California’s Salinas Valley. Elia Kazan’s film version of the last third of the novel introduced movie audiences to the troubled young actor, who would go on to make two more films before dying in a car accident at the age of twenty-four.
It’s obvious why Kazan chose Dean. He was made for the role of Cal Trask, the screwed-up son of an evil woman who deserted him and his twin brother Aron at birth and went on to run a whorehouse that specialized in S&M (this in a novel that came out in 1952!). Cal and Aron’s father, Adam, was never the same after she left and Raymond Massey plays him as a cold fish. In a key confrontation early in the film, Adam forces Cal to read the Bible at the dinner table, a crude dramatization of the book’s far more poignant rendering of their miscommunication.
In the book, the boys were lovingly tended by the family’s Chinese cook, Lee, and there is deep affection between them. Cal is fiercely protective of Aron, seeing him as a better person, a pure soul, whereas he knows himself to be innately flawed and struggles to be as good as his brother. Steinbeck made him a complicated character who demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness in conversations with Lee, whereas in the film he comes across as something of an adolescent psychopath, albeit a very attractive one.
Aron, however, grows less admirable as the novel progresses, becoming self-righteous and revealing moral weakness. By the time Cal forces him to face up to the truth about their mother, we have lost interest in him. Of course he’s going to die in World War I. It’s not just the Cain and Abel scenario playing out (and really, Kazan didn’t have to make Cal shout, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to get the point across). Nobody could live with a prig like him. No wonder his girlfriend falls for Cal.
Cal is far more compelling, and by the end of the picture, Dean succeeds in showing us the character that Steinbeck created. We see him grow up and find within himself the basic goodness that (we sense) will never come easily to him. He will always struggle to be his better self. Alas, James Dean did not live to master his own demons and show us what he could do.