John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” chronicles a brief, intense labor strike by migrant apple pickers in Depression-era California, at a time when agricultural workers across the state were getting hit hard by wage cuts. Published in 1936 under a title inspired by “Paradise Lost,” it was the first book in the author’s celebrated Dust Bowl trilogy and the first to garner him a reputation as a champion of the proletariat.
That reputation would deepen further with “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” but even in the context of this early work, it feels both fully earned and a tad reductive. What’s remarkable about “In Dubious Battle” is how adroitly it balances sympathy and ambivalence for its characters’ cause; it acknowledges both the desperation that drove some men to revolt and the transparent manipulations of the political leaders who spurred them into action.
Although faithful in broad outline, James Franco’s new film adaptation — the latest in the actor-director’s consistently inconsistent literary tour of 20th century America — can’t help but dispense with much of the book’s moral and dramatic complexity, and along with it any real capacity for fresh insight or surprise. The mere possibility of subtext is obliterated by the workmanlike approach of Matthew Rager’s screenplay, which plucks key scenes from the book and rearranges them into flurries of exposition and montage, leaning heavily on Franco’s not-inconsiderable visual craft to bring this musty agrarian snapshot to life.
There is some theoretical merit in this approach. “In Dubious Battle” is a taut and compulsively readable piece of fiction, and considerably more accessible to a filmmaker’s camera than the “unfilmable” Faulkner doorstops that inspired Franco’s “As I Lay Dying” (2013) and “The Sound and the Fury” (2014). There is something innately cinematic even in the way Steinbeck filters his story through the perspective of a naive, impassioned young outsider who finds himself caught up in and severely disillusioned by events well beyond his control.
That outsider is Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff, “Paper Towns”), the newest recruit of what is referred to simply as “the Party.” He is taken under wing by Mac McLeod (Franco), a quick-witted Party organizer who decides to infiltrate the ranks of fruit pickers in California’s (fictitious) Torgas Valley, where daily wages have been slashed from $3 to $1.
Mac and Jim set themselves to earning the workers’ trust, something they accomplish with persistence, luck and considerable daring. At one point, Mac feigns medical experience and winds up delivering the baby of a young woman (Selena Gomez), endearing himself to locals in the process. Gradually they fan the flames of discontent, setting in motion a clash between the increasingly desperate workers and a tightfisted landowner, Bolton (Robert Duvall), which will begin as a smartly organized effort before spiraling into violence, retaliation and chaos.
Duvall isn’t the only well-known actor in a cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio as London, whom Mac and Jim shrewdly position as the leader of the strike, and Sam Shepard as Anderson, who reluctantly agrees to let the workers camp on his property (and pick his apples for free). Ed Harris lurches unsteadily through his few scenes as Mac’s older colleague Joy, who has sustained major bodily and mental injury over his many years working on the Party’s behalf.
Franco’s ability to wrangle actors of this caliber is impressive but distracting, as is his decision to cast himself as the story’s most intriguingly complicated figure. The surfeit of familiar faces is a poor substitute for Steinbeck’s psychological astuteness, his rich understanding of the way human beings respond, individually and collectively, when they are backed into a corner. It’s that perceptiveness that gives such emotional force to the novel’s blow-by-blow account of how determined, idealistic men, while trying to effect sweeping social change, can be thwarted from both without and within.
The lovely physical realization of California apple country shows the continued (ahem) ripening of Franco’s visual gifts; for all its modesty of means, this may be the smoothest picture he’s directed yet. I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment. As a filmmaker, Franco thrives on challenge: Faulkner forced him to experiment, boldly if not always successfully, and “Child of God,” his 2013 Cormac McCarthy adaptation, captured something of that novel’s compelling abrasiveness.
“In Dubious Battle,” by contrast, plods dutifully along, embracing the noble, well-meaning pieties about workers’ rights that Steinbeck had the wisdom to look beyond. These are hardly antiquarian concerns; a more vital, engaged film adaptation might well have bridged the gap between the union struggles of the Depression and those of our present, ever-divided moment. Almost certainly it would have foregone the sort of dryly educational closing text that tends to confine even the most exciting stories to the margins of history. The movie ends with a bang, but mostly a whimper.
‘In Dubious Battle’
MPAA rating: R, for some violence and brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood