Sunday 29 January 2017

Tortilla Flats

Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck 
      January’s McBride Library’s Book Club theme was “Based on the Book”, meaning we were to read a novel and watch the film that was made from the novel.  I noticed that the Turner Classic Movie Channel was featuring films based on the novels of John Steinbeck, so I looked over the choices and chose Tortilla Flats to watch and read. I recorded the film and downloaded the book from the library's Overdrive site.  
        This novel written in 1935 was Steinbeck's first commercial success. It is about a group of poor, mixed race homeless alcoholic men, who inhabit the underbelly of Monterey, California's social structure, stealing for food and alcohol, and sleeping in the woods.   They are dead beats, living only for themselves and using self deception to rationalize their stealing by making up stories to themselves about how they are actually "helping" their victims by stealing from them. 
       The novel is built around the life of Danny, who becomes the most dominant member of the group after inheriting two run down houses in the area called "Tortilla Flats", but the main driver of the story is a man named Pilon, who is constantly scheming for his own interests.  Having the two houses gives Danny new status, but also a bit of responsibility that is a burden, but Pilon manipulates the situations for his own advantage.   To lighten Danny's "burden," Pilon offers to "rent" the second house, although no money ever changes hands. 
       The second house is soon full of a group of other "renters", as Pilon schemes to get out of paying the rent himself.  Carelessness causes this second house to burn down and all it's occupants end up living rent free in Danny's house. They are soon joined by others.  This ragtag group gains some cohesion over time and sort of becomes a dysfunctional family of sorts, sometimes actually working in the interests of others. 
       One of the episodes in the novel is about "Pirate", a bushy bearded man who lived in an abandoned chicken house with his five dogs.  He seems a bit slow, but everyday he cuts firewood which he sells for a quarter.  When one of the guys in Danny's house realizes Pirate never spends any of this money, he is eager to find and steal it, and Pirate and the dogs are invited to come and live in Danny's house, with the aim of stealing his money. 
      Over time it becomes known that Pirate's money is being saved to buy a giant religious candle to burn for St. Francis, a promise Pirate made to the Saint after his dog was saved by praying to the Saint.  Pirate's explanation touches the group and they become protective of Pirate's hoard until he finally saved enough for the Mass and candle.   All of Danny's group are then very proud of Pirate, and themselves for not stealing his money. 
       I found the constant drinking and stealing disgusting.  Morality was at such a low level with the group that when someone did do something decent, it felt like an amazing achievement, but it was usually a "one off" that was soon followed by  the return of the selfish behaviors that were typical of the group. 

Tortilla Flats the 1942 B & W film, stars Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamar, and John Garfield.   The film basically encompasses most of the stories from the book, although Pilon, played by Spenser Tracy becomes the central character and Danny does a supporting role. 
      The big difference between the film and book is the ending. The film is given a  "feel good," typical "Hollywood" ending. The book ends with Danny, blind drunk, and in a drunken rampage, dead, after he falls off a cliff.
       In the film, Danny ends up in the hospital after an accident. Pilon feels guilty about having tricked Danny and finds religion, and vows to St. Francis, he will get a job to earn money and buy Danny a fishing boat, so Danny, who of course survives, can marry the woman he loves and live happily ever after. 
       I didn't get much enjoyment from either the Tortilla Flats novel, or the movie. Most of the Tortilla Flats community were poor, but honest and hard working people, I was repulsed by main characters constantly stealing from the community just so they could get drunk.  I didn't find much to respect in the characters except for the Pirate and the love he had for his five dogs. 

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