The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was published in 1931 and awarded the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel. A best-seller in the United States, The Good Earth became an influential factor in Buck’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth has been a continual favorite throughout the years and even returned to the bestsellers list when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in 2004.
The Good Earth, depicting family life in a Chinese village before World War I, was one of the main factors influencing America’s decision to take on China as an ally in the war with Japan in 1941.
The Good Earth follows Wang Lung and his purchased bride, O-Lan, during a time when a modernizing Chinese Society was still deeply rooted to ancient customs. Wang Lung and O-Lan experience great wealth, then, when the country is gripped by famine, they endure severe poverty, groveling for every crumb and coin. During this time of utter devastation, O-Lan gives birth to two daughters and, out of sheer desperation, has to make a horrific sacrifice in order for her family to survive. The Good Earth spans an entire generation of Chinese farmers and supplies a unique insight into what life was like in rural China in the early 20th century.
In 1931, The Good Earth brought to the attention of average Americans, many cultural Chinese traditions they weren’t previously aware of, such as female foot binding and human trafficking that, although taboo in today’s society, were normal practices in China, starting with the early Chinese Dynasties (10th and 11th century) and continuing well into 20th century China. For many American readers, The Good Earth was their first introduction to these “barbaric” customs and, for instance, while laws were made banning foot binding as early as 1915, the custom wasn’t fully banned in China until well after WWII ended and other ancient customs continue to thrive in some of the more remote areas of China to this day.
In 1932, a Broadway stage adaptation of The Good Earth was written by the father and son team of Owen and Donald Davis and produced by the Theatre Guild, but it was poorly received by critics and only ran for 56 performances. However, the film, The Good Earth, based on the stage version, was released to rave reviews.
In the 1937 movie version of The Good Earth, MGM decided to cast American actors to play the roles of the Chinese farmers, citing Americans weren’t ready for an all Chinese film. The screenplay also downplayed the simplicity of Chinese farm life as it was depicted in the book, choosing to go with a more favorable view of modern China.
The Good Earth was nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Actress and Best Director at the 1938 Academy Awards, with wins for Best Actress (Louise Rainier) and Best Cinematography (Karl Freund).
Please join us for a discussion of the book, The Good Earth, on May 7th @ 6 pm then come back May 21st @ 6 pm for a screening of the movie based on the book.