A Michael Fleming/Deadline story popped yesterday afternoon about Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks nabbing the rights to John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath with an interest in basically remaking John Ford‘s classic 1940 adaptation. It was clearly stated that Spielberg won’t direct, just produce.

This struck me as odd as this is the kind of material Spielberg could rock his career with if he were to shoot this 21st Century Wrath in a plain, austere, dust-bowly vein with Dorothea Lange capturings and (a really huge IF) in a way that would simultaneously suppress his sentimental instincts.

Spielberg needs another Schindler’s List on his resume, something for the ages. He needs to direct a film with material that fits him as well as he fits it. He would do well to tap into his compassion for regular Joes and at the same time (a) pay tribute to Ford, a major career influence, and (b) demonstrate that he’s grown past his need to play his usual manipulative games. Spielberg-basher that I am, I believe that a Spielberg-directed The Grapes of Wrath could be (if he doesn’t fuck it up) a possibly phenomenal achievement.

Four and a half years ago N.Y. Times critic A.O. Scott, in his Critics Picks assessment of Ford’s version, said that “if hard times are here again, maybe it’s time for Hollywood to once again stand up for the downtrodden.” That, of course, was said in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008.

A year later N.Y. Times essayist Frank Rich wrote that Jason Reitman‘s Up In The Air was a kind of Grapes of Wrath for the business class (“Hollywoods Brilliant Coda to America’s Dark Year”).

“Here is an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know,” he wrote. “Up in the Air may be a glossy production sprinkled with laughter and sex, but it captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession as vividly as a far more dour Hollywood product of 70 years ago, The Grapes of Wrath, did the vastly different landscape of the Great Depression.”

Whoever directs Spielberg’s Wrath would do well to improve on Ford’s version of the famous cafe scene. Five and a half years ago I an HE-edited version of this scene, one in which a dirt-poor oakie comes into a diner looking to buy a loaf of bread but he can’t afford to pay more than a dime. Listen to the rest and you’ll be able to follow. The way I’ve cut it, the scene ends where it should — with a truck driver saying “what’s it to ya?”

But listen now to Ford’s version of the scene — the way it actually plays in the film. Ford keeps the camera rolling until the waitress considers the extra-large tip, goes all mushy and says “truck drivers!” Due respect to Ford, but this is my problem with the guy — he’s too sentimental. If Howard Hawks had directed this scene, he would have gone with the HE version.

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