By John Steinbeck
In the Penguin compilation volume, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (2009 ), the six novels chosen – the word novelette is used to describe one of them– half could be viewed as long short stories, and it is through the lens of the short story form that I tend to view them. Whereas Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat have that multiplicity of characters, plots and sub plots, and the sense of a wider setting that the novel – or novella and novelette – demands, stories like The Pearl, The Moon is Down, and Of Mice and Men, have the focus, unity and singularity of the short story. They might have the length, but they do not have the breadth of even a short novel. At just over 82 pages, Of Mice and Men bears comparison with D.H.Lawrence’s St Mawr, which is longer, and The Captain’s Doll, which is only a few pages shorter, and both of which are in his The Tales of D.H.Lawrence (1914), described as ‘his shorter fiction’ in the preliminary ‘Note’. The reference highlights the difficulty we have with labelling stories in the gap between an obvious 5,000 word short story, and an obvious 60.000 word novel.
Of Mice and Men has no scene, either in its prose fiction form or in the play-script, where at least one of the two leads is not present, and in most scenes both are. In a novel one expects to find scenes without the ‘lead’ character, where minor characters enact or discuss issues not directly connected with the lead character’s story arc. In fact, a hallmark of the novel is the unfolding of other stories against which the story of the lead character, or characters, can be compared and contrasted. This is where the loose ends, which novels often have to tie up after the climax of the story, come from, loose ends that are rarely, if ever, encountered in a short story. There are no loose ends in Of Mice and Men.
I started to read side by side, the short story, and play-script versions, and to highlight the changes. Reading the play I was struck by how ‘word for word’ it seemed to be. Narrative elements of the text had been converted into stage directions, and some direct speech lifted intact
The process of switching from play script to prose fiction or vice versa is one I’ve attempted myself. Sometimes a short story could seem so heavy in dialogue, and so light in narrative that I slipped into writing a play instead. Once or twice, where the dialogue was sparse, an attempted script became a short story. The two forms lie close together. Arthur Miller, a master of both, mentions the exchange in his preface to the short story collection: Presence.
He calls the short story ‘this form of art in which a writer can still be as concise as his subject requires him to be.’ Of the play, by contrast , he refers to ‘the theatrical tone of voice, which is always immodest…’ Of dialogue specifically, he makes the comment:
Which last, is of course, precisely what Steinbeck appears to have done, and very successfully. I’d love to find out what Miller thought of Steinbeck’s adaptation, but as yet have been unable to!
The opening two pages of script in my Joseph Weinberger edition of the play bring me to the end of page three in the Penguin edition of the written story. A page and a half of prose description has been reduced to a third of a page of stage direction. A page, in smaller print, of general notes about the setting and structure, has gone before, but Steinbeck’s short story narrative has formed the basis of the stage directions, borrowing a few phrases, compressing some, leaving some out – notably the descriptions of his characters.
Over the following page and a half of play-script whole speeches are kept intact or changed by only a word or two, with some additions and a few deletions. They are not merely recognisably the same exchanges, but seem, without close comparison, exactly the same.