Pain covered with skin

News that Richard Armitage is working on an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath.

Interesting on a couple of counts.

First, the Steinbeck “heirs” (none of the principal disputants or their successors are biologically related to him) have been embroiled in a decades-long dispute concerning copyrights and rights to adaptations of his early works. Inter alia, the dispute kept Steven Spielberg from producing a new, planned Grapes of Wrath adaptation, announced back in 2013. Some of the parties even attempted to interfere with Penguin (the successor of Viking Press, the original publisher) in publishing these books after the 1990s. I’m not saying more about this because it’s extremely confusing due to the present of different levels of court and different legal issues, but the final dispute was resolved in 2020 in the US Supreme Court. This question interests me only because although this is a prestige project (see below), it is not one in the public domain, which mostly differs from Armitage’s previous pattern (exception: The Bloody Chamber). Theoretically this is the kind of project that could garner him another Audie nod.

The Grapes of Wrath is a key example of why US copyright needs to be fixed: it’s inconceivable to me that a major work of the US literary canon could be either unreproducible or unadaptable because of a copyright dispute. Which gets to my second point of interest: at the risk of restating the obvious,The Grapes of Wrath is a major work and a central cultural property (it’s also one of the most frequently banned / burned books in the U.S.). Its film adaptation is considered one of the most important US films in history and was one of the first to be preserved at the Library of Congress after they began the National Film Registry in 1988. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad is at his very best. In my generation, anyway, almost everyone had this assigned in school at some point. I read it in eighth grade and it’s stuck with me ever since, although I do not love Steinbeck and have never read anything of his that wasn’t assigned in school.

So, Tom Joad. Remember when Armitage was saying that Gary Morris was an Oklahoman? (Many of us speculated at the time that the choice of this accent had something to do with Lee Pace.) Tom Joad is a very poor, ex-convict, descendant of near-indigent farmers kind of Oklahoman (and so are most of the characters in the novel). As we used to say, an “Okie.” And dialect is considered particularly important in this novel — along with colloquialism, it’s considered one of Steinbeck’s greatest talents as a writer — and it has been extensively studied in this work, to the point that it may be a major reason that the work continues to be preserved as an absolute classic.

Armitage has had his struggles with the American accent and we’ve discussed that to death over the years. It probably got as good as it’s been in Berlin Station and even then it was questionable. He hasn’t done much of it since then. I personally felt like I’m simultaneously interested in, and afraid of, what Armitage will do with the voices. I honestly don’t know what I’d prefer, either — part of me says he should just read the novel in his straight English accent. Another part of me says that then it won’t be The Grapes of Wrath.

~ by Servetus on January 28, 2022.

28 Responses to “Pain covered with skin”

  1. Coincidentally, I’m watching BS s2 now. I never found fault with RA’s accent, but always passed it off as a function of his character’s job. As a member of US Intelligence, Daniel Miller would have an advantage with a non-descript accent that can morph to fit any alias.

    Looking forward to hearing Richard’s approach to TGoW. I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to future projects. Innocent until proven guilty.

    BTW, did I just see Daniel select as an alias the name Trevor (as in Belmont, RA’s role in Castlevania) Price (surname of Adam, RA’s character in The Stranger)? A sly nod to two future projects. Wonder whose idea that was.🤭


    • He’d have to have a consistent accent, though, even as an agent. (Read the blog post I linked to commenting on the “all over the place” quality of that accent.) It’s a similar problem to Sarah in Spooks 8. You hear a sentence and think, ah, she’s from Boston and then a sentence later you wonder where in the US South she got that “r” sound. And the character’s vocab was piecemeal (although presumably that wasn’t the actor’s fault; they do pay freelancers and specialist companies to check for these things — someone wasn’t doing their job very well on that one). I imagine it’s like the Geordies who were annoyed with Ricky Deeming, back in the day. It’s jarring to listen to.

      I’m not not giving him the benefit of the doubt here. I’m looking at his history of producing an American accent and hypothesizing about the options here. When I get the book, I will try it out and tell you what I think then. But I also don’t give him an automatic pass. This is not a “Richard right or wrong” blog, in case there is any doubt about that.

      As far as Trevor goes, we knew at the end of May, 2017 that he was going to be in that role, and the episode didn’t air until October of that year, so if it was a “sly nod,” it was a pretty stale one by the time we found out about it.


  2. Fascinating. I didn’t know about the copyright wrangling. Good grief.
    This is quite a project for anyone let alone a British-born narrator.
    Since I just read this in 2020 (for the first time), I’ve been meaning to watch the classic movie. And now I will be very interested in the audiobook. It will be really long! Such a powerful story. The ending just stunned me.


    • yeah, I think it’s like 600 pp.? And sooo much dialect. When people in the US complain about not liking to read books with dialect in them, Grapes of Wrath always ends up high on the list.

      I am definitely going to watch the movie again (warning: movie diverges from plot of book). And yeah — the book just socks you in the stomach. That I remember it after not having read it again in forty years really says something, I think. It really upset teenage me.

      copyright: I started surfing just because I wanted to know if the reason he was doing it now was that the book is now in the public domain. (The last previous audiobook version was 2011). It’s not. But the litigation over the IP is an insane story; might make a good film.

      Steinbeck died in 1968. His children were from his second wife; his widow (who had a daughter from a previous marriage — we’ll call her stepdaughter) inherited his intellectual property rights, including the right to approve adaptations, and also something called the “termination right” (the right to end a contract), and the two sons each got a $50,000 payout. This settlement, however, was not consistent with US copyright law, which gave the sons further royalty rights. So the widow and the sons made an agreement in 1983 where the sons got bigger annual royalties (which was a much better deal for them than their father’s original will — royalties annually on these works are said to be something like $120-$200k) and she got the right to control the intellectual property. First son died in 1991, leaving behind a child (we’ll call her grandchild). Second son and grandchild tried to use the termination right within a decade of surrendering it, way back in the mid-1990s. That was the first question — could they terminate a contract with Penguin / Viking? There was some legal loophole that made them think they could.

      Steinbeck’s widow died in 2003. She had put her rights in an estate and foundation that were then managed by stepdaughter. The second son and his wife (we’ll call her daughter in law), along with the grandchild, regularly ignored that they had signed away their rights. In particular, anytime a Steinbeck early work project was in the offing, daughter in law would call the producers up, suggest that the stepdaughter didn’t have the power to sell the IP and she, the daughter in law, would sue to stop projects. This led to at least one attempt by people who wanted to do a project to try to buy off the son / daughter in law. (This is where Spielberg was involved — DreamWorks bought the rights to make an adaptation that they were never able to use, but they also made a big side payment to son/daughter in law, presumably to shut them up.) Meanwhile the second son died, too, and stepdaughter sued daughter in law to stop her from killing all these projects with threats of litigation. Eventually the US Court of Appeals found that the sons and their heirs no longer possessed a termination right, which they had sold to the widow in 1983, and found against daughter in law in a civil suit with punitive damages of like $5 M. Just weeks before the Supreme Court sorted everything out with regard to legal issues involved, stepdaughter died and so the IP rights (which were in this foundation) are now being managed by her eldest son.

      So Steinbeck and his sons from marriage #2 and his widow are all dead. The main litigants were daughter in law and stepdaughter, until stepdaughter died. The only biological relative — Steinbeck’s granddaughter — is excluded from controlling the IP, which is now managed by stepgrandson.

      I hope that makes sense.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Holy cow, what a mess.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sure there’s a long backstory to all these personal relationships that motivated the participants to behave this way. Not that I am dying to see a Spielberg remake of anything, but it’s a shame that the works have been held hostage in this way.

          On the upside, I learned how the theater at the university I taught at in Texas got its name. It’s named after a native son of the town — Steinbeck’s widow’s first husband (father of stepdaughter). I had no idea.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I am looking forward to this one. It would be brave of him to attempt an American accent for such a big important novel, I hope he gets it right. (It always makes me laugh in Spooks when Sarah refers to Harry as “Hairy” !)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That vowel is difficult for us 🙂

      Seriously, though, I come from a part of the US where “Mary,” “marry” and “merry” are all pronounced exactly the same. Iirc Genevieve O’Reilly was Australian, don’t know how they do it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Please, I wasn’t mocking American accents – we have enough vowel strangulations of our own! It is just that ‘Hairy’ stuck out and amused me. Actually, to my British ears, I didn’t have a problem with GR’s accent otherwise. (I thought she was Irish but apparently she is Irish-Australian.)


        • We tease each other about our accents all the time, so no worries.

          There’s a “non accent” that actors in US film did for years (it was called “mid-Atlantic” — I’m calling it a non-accent because everyone who spoke that way learned it; it wasn’t a regional accent. Or what I did when I went to university, i.e., try to speak like Johnny Carson. I often find myself wishing that actors stuck to those. They are noticeably American but they are inobtrusive and don’t call attention to themselves.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That sounds similar to ‘received English/pronunciation’ in the UK. It was supposed to produce a neutral accent (but only really did to posh people in the south – and probably not to many of them either).

            Liked by 1 person

  4. From the point of view of a non-native speaker, I don’t think I would choose this audiobook. Especially since you say dialect is important, I would want someone who can reproduce that dialogue reliably to narrate it. For me, one major advantage of audiobooks is listening to the accent that is spoken in the place it is set. One good example is Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, I really enjoyed that.


  5. dialect, not dialogue 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Erks, I never even thought of the dialect issue when I reacted to the news that he is performing The Grapes of Wrath. 😬 That could indeed be a dealbreaker for some. I still do not feel that I have the authority (or rather knowledge) to make a judgment call on RA’s American accent. (I didn’t particularly like his past attempts at them, but since I am not particularly familiar with American accents, I am probably not equipped to pronounce his attempts good or bad.) But personally it always jars with me when he doesn’t use his “natural” voice. I’d probably prefer him to read this piece of literature in plain, standard English, rather than run the risk of mangling it in a badly done AE accent…
    Interesting re. the copyright issue with The Grapes of Wrath in the US. I had no idea, and think it is scandalous that a pivotal piece of world literature thus is effectively kidnapped. I read the book in my grade 12 English Leistungskurs and it left a lasting impression on me, thus was actually excited to see him narrate it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • After more reflection, I think I’m with you. If Armitage mangles the Okie bits, he’ll sound ridiculous. (I don’t even want to think about what he could do to Ma Joad.) Steinbeck wasn’t an Okie, either, but he researched the novel heavily and was just writing it down and every reader hears what they hear in their head. The voice actor doesn’t have that cover. And really, if you consider the millions of people who have read this novel over the years, they aren’t necessarily hearing “Okie” in their head — they could just as well be hearing an entirely different accent. I didn’t even think about this when he did “The Turn of the Screw” — but the Boston elites had what was considered an elevated accent at the time that fits acceptably well with Armitage’s usual English accent.

      US copyright is nuts. The current law was literally written to protect Disney’s IP. I sort of knew that there was some issue with the Steinbecks because it was in the news off and on, but I didn’t know all the twists and turns until yesterday. I get that people want to provide for their family’s well being, and they should be able to do that, but this is a case where adaptations have been hung up for decades (Jennifer Lawrence wanted to produce East of Eden as well) and the ultimate beneficiaries here are not actually Steinbeck’s close relatives. At this point, assuming the material is held by a foundation, it should be made more, rather than less accessible.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “The Grapes of Wrath” book studied here and great movie of all time.
    Love that, HURRAH! Great news for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That was my first worry as well: can he do the accent? He is not known for being very good in accents.
    I had no idea about that copyright nonsense, wow.


  9. […] Guardian thinks the accent is […]


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