Of Mice and Men: In print, on stage, and on film over eight decades
By Diana Fenves

John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in the 1992 film adaptation.

Of Mice and Men is a story that has been told and retold across many different mediums since the original novella was published in 1937. The story has resonated on stage, film, opera, television, and animation. Lennie and George’s hope for a better future is a universal theme that can be applied to any generation. The novella touches on our truest fear as Americans: What if the dream of a better life is unattainable?

Over the last eight decades, Of Mice and Men has remained a key chapter in the story of how America defines itself. A timeless classic, each generation has redefined the story in its own voice, and each retelling builds on the adaptations of the past. 

Steps to the Stage:

When John Steinbeck finished the novella in 1936, he called it “a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theatre.” It would take more than just finishing the “tricky little thing” to turn Of Mice and Men into a play, though. Steinbeck needed the help of literary agent Annie Laurie Williams and director George Kaufman who was himself a prominent playwright.

Kaufman was known for his sharp comedic wit and morose nature. His dramatic work included You Can’t Take it With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and A Night at the Opera, which was written for the Marx Brothers. Kaufman discovered Of Mice and Men through his wife Beatrice. Beatrice came across the book as a representative of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures and brought it to her husband only ten days after its publication in 1937.

One of Kaufman’s first moves was to reshape the structure of the novel. He wrote to Steinbeck about adding “fresh invention” to the second act and changing the prominence of Curley’s Wife in the play. In the end, the structure of Of Mice and Men would become very similar to that of Kaufman’s plays but without his farcical humor.

Steinbeck left New York shortly after the play was cast, telling Kaufman that he believed the play was in good hands and that he was no longer needed. Steinbeck never returned to see the play and began work on The Grapes of Wrath. He wrote to his agent Annie Laurie Williams saying that he was worried Kaufman was angry with him for "what he must think is a lack of interest." Steinbeck’s absence coincided with a false rumor that Steinbeck had insulted Kaufman, calling him a “wiseacre New York Jew." These two events damaged Steinbeck’s relationship with Kaufman. They did not speak for more than a decade.

The production continued without Steinbeck and opened to great success. The show ran for more than 200 performances on Broadway, but Steinbeck never attended. He accepted critics’ praise for the show but with reservations, writing, “I am highly honored by your good opinion but my egotistical gratification is ruined by a sneaking suspicion that George Kaufman and the cast deserve them more than I.” The hit show moved from New York City onto a national tour to Los Angeles.

Twelve years later Kaufman and Steinbeck would become friends again in New York. When asked about Kaufman, Steinbeck said, "I didn't realize that little things in writing made such a difference, and George taught it to me for the first time in my life. I couldn't have done Of Mice and Men without him."

The Move to Film:

When the successful stage production Of Mice and Men finished its run on the Los Angeles stages in 1939, it was quickly transformed into a film. The film was a popular and artistic success. Directed by Lewis Milestone, the cast included Lon Chaney and Leigh Whipper from the stage productions. Milestone and screenwriter Eugene Solow worked with Steinbeck in California on the script.

The screenplay expanded the role of Curley’s Wife. Her character was given a name and several more scenes while some of the bunkhouse dialogue and profanity was cut. It was nominated for four Oscars and has been the most successful of all Of Mice and Men film adaptations. Steinbeck did not work with Milestone again, but he and Solow would continue to correspond for years.

The play continued to be adapted into film over the decades, including the 1981 TV movie adaptation starring Randy Quaid and Robert Blake. After a successful 1981 production of the play at Steppenwolf Theatre starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, Sinise directed the 1992 movie with himself and Malkovich as George and Lennie, respectively. The screenplay was written by the Texan Pulitzer-winning playwright Horton Foote.

Dramatic Adaptations

Of Mice and Men was the inspiration behind the 1970 opera of the same name composed by Carlisle Floyd. After premiering at Seattle Opera, the opera has been performed in cities all over the United States. In an effort to add music narration, a new character named The Ballad Singer was created. The role of Curley’s Wife also changed. She witnesses Curley’s injury and is beaten by her husband on stage.

In Popular Culture:

In the 1940s and ’50s Warner Brothers released a number of cartoons parodying the Of Mice and Men film adaptation. The first and most famous of which was cartoonist Tex Avery’s "Of Fox and Hounds" whose main characters were named George and Lennie. The 1940 cartoon featured comedian Mel Blank who imitated Lon Chaney Jr.’s voice. The line, "Which way did he go, George; which way did he go?" became very popular and was later reused in Bugs Bunny cartoons. The most political of the Of Mice and Men interpretations was in the 1943 cartoon “Falling Hare” where Bugs Bunny visits the American Air Force.

The next Warner Brothers’ adaptation was "Pinky and the Brain" produced by Steven Spielberg in 1993. The show centered around two laboratory mice, one who was a calculating genius and the other who was comically stupid. Other modern cartoon references to Of Mice and Men have popped up in "King of the Hill", "Futurama", "Ed, Edd n Eddie", "South Park", and "American Dad."

Lennie and George have become American pop culture icons that are frequently referenced on television in a variety of shows including “Friends,” “The Monkees,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The L Word,” “The Shield” and “My Name is Earl.” Of Mice and Men references are often used as an excuse to show the stupidity or obsessive nature of a character.