I have seen plenty of movie versions of well-known novels in my lifetime, and the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn directed by Elia Kazan is definitely one of the better book-to-screen adaptations. This February marks the 75th Anniversary of the film’s release, and I will take a deep dive into why it is a very good adaptation of the novel by Betty Smith.
Published in 1943, the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has stood the test of time as it contains empathetic characters, a realistic portrayal of a turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, and willingness to show that life is not always fair and that one must persevere through the hard times. In fact, it was one of the one hundred books listed to compete for the title of “America’s Favorite Book” in The Great American Read.
When I found out that the novel got a movie two years after its publication, I was initially worried. A lot of the films from that period tended to sugar coat a lot of aspects like crime, death, and even childbirth because of the Production Code. Luckily, the movie works its way around the code, especially in the scene where Katie is in labor. As Katie lies in bed while Francie reads some of her essays, the bedframe is back towards the camera, but it mainly focuses on the closeups between mother and daughter. Moreover, the look of the film is pretty realistic despite everyone looking clean. The main characters’ clothes look pretty raggedy. Aunt Sissy’s wardrobe is a little more glamorous, yet ridiculous at the same time with a too-tight corset and a long feather in her straw hat.
Another strength of the flick is that it revamps the structure of the novel. The constant complaint that contemporary reviewers make of the book is that it is framed in a very awkward way. It starts off with Francie at age 11, and then for some reason, it transitions to when Johnny and Katie first met and progresses in a linear fashion until Francie is 16 and off to the University of Michigan. In the movie, it simply takes place over the course of a year when Francie is 11 and ends when Katie accepts Officer McShane’s marriage proposal.
With that new structure, the film had to condense and cut many aspects. For example, there are plenty of scenes, in which Francie gets taunted and bullied in the cramped school, and the teachers don’t do anything about it because of a so-called hierarchy. The movie reduces this to a scene, in which Francie expresses thoughts unrelated to the subject being taught, and the teacher straight up ignores her. While the extent of Francie’s unhappiness with the school in her district is reduced, the point still remains, so nothing was lost. In addition, Katie has two sisters – Sissy and Evie – in the book. Evie and her family (including her whiny husband Willy) are eliminated from the movie because they barely contribute anything important to the story. And let’s face it, Sissy is a more interesting character than Evie. These are why I can see how it got nominated for Best Adaptive Screenplay.
The strongest aspect of this movie are the performances. Since the novel is a character-driven one, the film version would need actors to capture the spirit of the people they play, and this delivers. Dorothy McGuire plays Katie with frustration, practicality, and hope. Frustration in that she has to work all the time because Johnnie cannot provide for the family due to spending money on liquor. Katie has to be practical to show that Francie can always find a way to survive, and she displays hope in that Neely can grow to become a better man than his dad. All of these aspects make McGuire look tired and a lot older than she should be. (Fun fact: she was only 15 years older than Peggy Ann Garner – the actress who played Francie). Additionally, James Gunn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Johnnie, and it is not hard to see why. Gunn pulls out a terrific performance of a dreamer who fears the reality of being a husband and a father. He exudes charm whenever he walks into a room. I could not take my eyes off of him whenever he was present. During the scenes, in which Johnnie becomes more self-destructive, Gunn becomes more sympathetic and knowing that death is coming. Here is another fun fact: producers warned Kazan of casting Gunn in the movie because of his alcoholic past, but Kazan noted that that would add more to the realism. What a great choice!
In spite of my praise, I do have to complain about one thing: the music during the opening credits. The score transition among the credits was jarring. It is as if they tried to slam so many songs of the time period in limited amount of time. As the movie progressed, the interpolations got better. I am not going to complain about this too much since this was Elia Kazan’s first movie. Not everything is going to be perfect on the first try.
Overall, the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn captures the spirit of the book perfectly. Even though I had my hesitations of it being made during the Production Code era, I thought that they did a good job of working around it. Kazan captures the essential aspects of the book effectively with the realistic look and great actors. It is good to know that the movie version stands the test of time as much as the novel does.
Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!