Movie Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

You’ve heard me rave about this book more than once now, having written about it rather extensively on this blog. Well, just this past weekend I watched the 1945 film version that is an adaptation of the book. In comparing the two, I wholeheartedly pick the book over the film, for its depth and variety of detail, Francie’s vast thoughts, and for the background story of Francie’s family.

As is the case with most movies that are based off of books, the movie has been compacted into a 120 minute or so summary of the literary masterpiece, whereas Betty Smith has hundreds of pages for millions of words to perfectly convey Brooklyn through Francie’s eye. Inevitably, lots of events will have to be omitted; sometimes, depending on the book and the plot, a movie company can get away with this glossing-over of details. In this case, however, I found that there was very little depth to the movie, since so many key events were left out. Where is the background of the two families immigrating from Europe? Where is the love story in and of itself between Katie Rommely and Johnny Nolan? I find that element to be crucial in understanding the familial interaction after Francie and Neeley’s births. Additionally, the omitted rape attempt seemed to be an integral part in Francie’s development. If I had simply watched the movie instead of read the book, I don’t think I would have enjoyed half as much as I did the book.

The most important theme of the story was Francie’s potential of receiving a full education to lift the family out of the cycle of poverty, and this was completely ignored in the movie. Francie was never seen actively pursuing an education, and since the movie ended with McShane proposing to Katie, there was not even a focus on this, one of the most essential and gripping themes found dispersed through the story.

One of my favorite aspects of the book itself is the train of thought that Francie follows through her maturation. Betty Smith’s eloquent acknowledgement of the human tendencies to have conflicting and contradictory thoughts as one develops is demonstrated through Francie’s internal struggle to make important decisions. The movie does little through Peggy Ann Garner’s expressive emotions, but does not do justice to Betty Smith’s detailed descriptions.

The film also succeeds in finally putting a face to the intriguing personality of Johnny Nolan, although I was disappointed by his face not living up to the handsomeness that I had imagined. Moreover, I had considered his blond hair and smooth dance moves important characteristics, neither of which were depicted in the movie.

All in all, the movie was a pleasant depiction of the events that took place in Betty Smith’s novel. Because of its lack of coverage of all major events and focus on just one time period in Francie’s life, I do believe that the book itself is better. However, as a standalone movie produced in the 1940s, bravo!

Whatever plot there was proved to be cleverly enhanced with theatrical hints that were not found in the original novel, specifically the metaphor that Francie describes when she speaks about her dream of being a writer as something that shouldn’t be based in impossible imagination, but rather a realistic situation. The realization that is evident on Johnny Nolan’s face demonstrates his understanding of his fruitless claims about an optimistic future for the Nolan family. This realization, combined with Katie’s harsh words, push him to go look for a job at the Union, where he catches pneumonia and eventually dies.

I loved the book, and I enjoyed the movie, which was well-constructed, given the time period, and realistic restraints. I recommend both!

Posts about the book itself:
here and here.

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