By: Alexis Cutchin
John Steinbeck’s first-person narrative, “Breakfast”, tells the story of a stranger wandering down a deserted California road where he encounters a struggling migrant family amidst the Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930’s. Although the family has little to offer, they are grateful for what they do have and happily share with the stranger—demonstrating the profound effect of humanity and kindness.
Throughout its short narration, Breakfast powerfully illustrates the themes of contentment, struggle, gratitude, and humanity. For years, copyright restrictions have kept Steinbeck’s work from being reproduced or adapted in any way—until now.
With the help of SJSU’s Center for Steinbeck Studies, SJSU’s Spartan Films obtained exclusive rights to adapt the original short story into a film, allowing the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work to finally come to life. Under the direction of film professors Barnaby Dallas and Nick Martinez, the Department of Film and Theatre has produced the first ever film adaptation of Steinbeck’s three-page story.
Breakfast was eventually developed into The Grapes of Wrath, providing Steinbeck the material for humanizing the people coming to California in hopes of escaping hard times. In order to re-create this iconic scene, the cast and crew traveled to Coyote Valley—not far from Steinbeck’s birthplace of Salinas, CA. “We chose the area because we felt it was the closest visual resemblance to the scene described in the book,” says Dallas. “We camped there for four days to shoot the film.” The team had a grueling schedule, with cast and crew waking up at 3:00 am, and shooting from 4:00 am onward.
Production Designer and full-time SJSU faculty member Andrea Bechert and a student team were responsible for the visuals, sets, and props for the film. The attention to period detail was meticulous. “They actually had students there cooking real bacon for the scene,” explains Dallas. “We imported a specific bacon from New York that mirrored the aesthetic of what bacon in the 1930’s would look like. Then, we set up a grill and actually cooked the bacon on it, all for one brief shot,” he says.
The cast and crew enacted this tireless attention to detail in order to preserve the authenticity of the short story throughout the adaptation. The professors were determined to create an accurate period piece that respects Steinbeck and his message. “Breakfast is the quintessential Steinbeck story—it’s such a moment in time looking through the fishbowl at four lives that cross paths for a moment,” says Martinez. “It’s about humanity, how some people have almost nothing, but still offer a stranger something to show kindness.”
“Steinbeck liked to say that his job was ‘to remind people of their humanity,’” says Nick Taylor, Director of SJSU’s center for Steinbeck Studies. “It strikes me that none of his work reflects this intent better than Breakfast. It’s a story about a simple act of kindness, a family sharing a meal with a stranger traveling alone. They’re all migrant farmworkers, they’re all struggling, but they have not forgotten the responsibility we share to care for one another.”
Some believe the film has certain applicability to today’s political turmoil and assume it is a commentary on immigration; however, Dallas and Martinez clarify that neither the film, nor the story, were meant to take a partisan stance. Martinez says, “Steinbeck never intended to make a political statement. It was
more a commentary on human decency and his depiction of morals and ethics.” Martinez describes how Steinbeck’s work was meant to be subjective to the audience. He says, “To categorize Steinbeck’s work as a strictly a political commentary would be a misrepresentation and disservice to him. Although this story has relevance to the immigration climate today, it’s so much more than that. Breakfast is, in fact, the opposite of a militant depiction of immigration. He explains that Steinbeck has many themes and morals in his work, but they are all open to interpretation by the audience. Martinez says Breakfast is a multifaceted narrative, focused more on human decency and compassion. “If a narrative on immigration is what you get out of it, then great!” says Martinez. “However, it’s not now, nor will it every be explicitly about that.”
Foremost Steinbeck scholar and SJSU Professor Susan Shillinglaw sees similar themes. “The story’s intention is to show how one shimmering moment can evoke pure enjoyment. It’s about relishing in the present: complete participation in one heartfelt, shared experience. This is how we experience wholeness and a sense of belonging, moments like these that illustrate we are a whole.”
Ultimately, Breakfast portrays how simple humanity is a cure for turmoil—political, social, or anything in between. “The film really shows the spirit of generosity and kindness,” says Barnaby Dallas. “Steinbeck was not a religious man. He believed that faith lies in community, humanity, and kindness towards one another. Essentially, faith exists in the spirituality of mankind. You know, helping your fellow man, giving them what you have, regardless.”
Breakfast’s filming and narrative aims to focus on small actions, rather than a single statement. Martinez says, “Breakfast effectively portrays how the most profound moments are created and immortalized by the smallest details. It’s not what you say or think or believe that defines character, but rather, what you do: the small day-to-day kindnesses, like breaking bread with a stranger.”
Still in the post-production phase, Martinez and Dallas have high hopes for Breakfast. The duo plans to enter the movie in a few film contests, but also see the teaching potential of the project. “I hope to adapt many more of Steinbeck’s short stories into movies. My goal for them would be to string them all together and implement them in school curriculums that teach Steinbeck. That way, kids can learn to see Steinbeck through many different lenses and hopefully understand his work that much better,” says Martinez.Set to be released in 2020, the film honors Steinbeck’s original story: delivering an accurate representation of his literary work in a brief four minutes and thirty seconds. The crew’s tireless work, the story’s powerful message, and the studio’s dedication to authenticity make Breakfast a must-see movie, sure to evoke something different in each viewer.
For more information on Breakfast, Spartan Studios, or the cast and crew, visit: http://www.sjsu.edu/filmandtheatre/work/spartan_film_studios/index.html
For more information on The Center for Steinbeck Studies and more of Steinbeck’s literary work visit: http://www.sjsu.edu/steinbeck/