Can We Compare Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Breaking Bad?

Trailer of Steinbeck’s East Of Eden

“I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer — and what trees and seasons smelled like — how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

Steinbeck is well known for his work Grapes of Wrath, but East of Eden is an incredibly powerful work, which many of you may know more from the film with James Dean that the novel itself. The clip of the movie above, is great because it is of such an era where both the music and the fonts across the screen portray the the film in a very time specific dramatic way. The trailer itself is relying on our senses to make us believe something is a particular way.

Trailing the Senses

Some of you may be familiar with the TV show Breaking Bad that finished it’s final season earlier in 2014. It was anything but a light show. It focused on Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a science teacher who starts cooking crack cocaine initially to pay for his medical bills. But his family’s life deteriorates as Walt becomes more and more involved in the violent life of hardcore drug manufacture. Hardly light fare, or full of fields of green, childhood memories.

So back to our title:  Can we compare John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Breaking Bad? They are both about families, and failures within those families; fathers failing their sons. But that’s not what drew me to look at the two together. What brought me to the comparison of the two films were the two trailers I’ve put in this post, and how we as the audience are manipulated by what we see and hear. Through our senses we draw conclusions.

Here’s another video where the accompanying music completely changes the conclusions we draw about what we see. This trailer is a spoof of Breaking Bad as the serious, violent show it actually is.

Try Breaking Bad as a sitcom

I was stunned by how my perceptions could be manipulated by what I heard – the accompanying laugh track, and happy comedy music intro soundtrack.

The Senses Made Me Do it


As the audience you are drawn in by what writers, and film makers, want you to hear and see. Just as Steinbeck drew on the senses he remembered from his childhood, in this spoof trailer of Breaking Bad, we are seduced by our associations and memories induced by our senses to look at something in a completely new way.

My conclusion is that the works may both have their similarities in terms of family dynamics being integral to the plot, but aside from the trailers, I think that’s where there comparison ends. I touch more on using the senses in writing in my post Savouring Taste Treats: Using the Senses in Writing

What is the strongest sense for you? What memories are the most easily sparked and by which sense?

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  1. Breaking Bad is such a superbly done television show in every way. Bryan Cranston played Walter White so skillfully. Until the very end, the viewer still pulls for Walter White even afer all the horrible stuff that goes down. Plus, he doesn’t just cook any meth, Mr. White cooks the best meth anyone has ever seen. He just doesn’t start making money, he becomes totally powerful and changes from a meek man to a strong man. In the end, when he only manages to hand on to barely any of the money, he is able to come away saying it was worth it because he loved what he did. How messed up is that? But how human. Such a compelling character. Okay, that’s my ode to the awesomeness that is Break Bad. Can’t wait for the Better Call Saul spinoff that’s coming next year 🙂
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    • I’m totally with you on Breaking Bad Jeri. One of the best series ever. I think that, for completely different reasons , people were routing for Walter White in the same way as they were for Tony Soprano, who became equally unpleasant as time went by. It was Jesse who had my unwaivering sympathy though, and it was such a relief when it ultimately didn’t end badly for him. It all just goes to show how readers, and viewers, can be manipulated if the work is skillful enough. Thanks so much for your insightful comment. And yes roll on Saul!!
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  2. Hi AK – What an interesting comparison and interesting spoof on breaking bad. It is interesting how our senses affect our perception. The senses that have the strongest affect on me are sound and smell. With sound, specifically with music, a certain song will instantaneously just choke me up and make me think of someone or something. It can be a new song with lyrics that just happen to remind me of something long ago. With the sense of smell it is usually a certain scent will remind me of something I smelled long ago – a food, or perfume, etc. It is usually a very wonderful memory when that happens. 🙂
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    • It was such an unlikely comparison Susan, I couldn’t help myself. But both really did go to show how people are susceptible to suggestion by a myriad of senses. Sound is definitely the biggest one for me. I think music really cuts to the heart of the moment if it’s an important song/ piece for you, and it will always be waiting for us in our subconscious. Thanks so much for the comment. Always good to see you here:-)

  3. This is a comparison I hadn’t thought of before. I’ve never watched Breaking Bad (yes I’m one of the two people out there who haven’t done so, hehe) but I do enjoy Steinbeck so much. I think that when writers and filmmakers draw on the senses, it creates such a heightened, more realistic experience for the reader and viewer. My sight sense may be weakest one, as I wear glasses, yet ironically it is the one I use most often as I am a writer for my career!
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  4. I never watched Breaking Bad, I’m afraid, although I am familiar with the plot (one would have to be from Planet Krypton not to!). I can see the comparison. Characters who do wrong for a reason understandable to the rest of us. The Great Gatsby is another variation of the same theme. My strongest memories come from smells.
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    • You’re def. not alone in missing Breaking Bad. It was pretty intense in parts and not for everyone. But you make an excellent point of bringing in the Great Gatsby into the mix of people who do wrong for an understandable reason. I suppose it appeals to our fallible side. And that maybe we too, heaven forbid, might be in a no win situation making bad choices. Thanks so much for your comment Jan:-)
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  5. Wow. I’m shocked. I never saw or heard that “sitcom” version of Breaking Bad. It’s horribly misleading, understatement! But maybe they are warming up for Who Called Saul? The upcoming spinoff which I am so looking forward to.

    My husband and I loved the BB series. It was so weird to love something so bad. Always wanting to find the good in it.

    Senses, well, if my husband is watching a thriller (which I usually hate) if I close my hears, or get his ok to mute a particular scene, oddly, I’m ok.
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    • Thanks for your comment Pat. Don’t worry, there is no sitcom version – that was just a trailer someone made up to show how those ridiculous laugh tracks are. But doesn’t it show how sound can manipulate what we see? & Def. BB was an excellent series, and I think it’s fine to enjoy watching something that’s about bad people. If there weren’t villains in novels there would be little conflict. I too close my ears when things get really gruesome – you’re not alone:-)
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  6. Sound and smell are the big triggers for me. A song can take me back in time before I even know what is happening. The same thing with smells. Those who produce trailers really get it right if they engage as many scenes as possible in their potential audiences. I love how you can take the same scene and have it produce a different response depending on how the sconces are engaged.
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  7. I must be the odd one out again. I watched the first episode of Breaking Bad and lost all interest in the series. It wasn’t compelling to me at all. I guess on the same note I haven’t seen East of Eden either. I did like Of Mice and Men (which I read for the first time this year).

    Sounds and sight are huge senses for me, but not at the same time. Written work does nothing for me if someone reads it. I have to see words in order to grasp the meaning and such.
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    • Breaking Bad is not for everyone. It took me a couple of episodes to warm to it. In the end I think it was one of the best series in recent years. East of Eden is one that tends to take a back seat in James Dean movies, to Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
      As to listening to someone read, I think as adults we get out of the way of listening. I find if I listen to an audio book that I have to reacquire the skill, but once I do it’s very satisfying. But I would always prefer to see the written word and preferably on a piece of paper rather than a screen.
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  8. A.K. — great post because we are so influenced not only by words and pictures but by sounds. I didn’t watch Breaking Bad but you’d never know from the music and laughter that it was a show with violence. Music is essential to movies in setting the mood. I still remember “Platoon,” the Vietnam movie by director Oliver Stone, that began with the haunting music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as it shows the bodies of Americans about to be shipped home. So if you ask me what sense touches me the most I’d have to say it is music.
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  9. I think that creative people of all genres are influenced by what came before them. Whether it’s literature, films, art of other types, music, or dance, our minds retain what they especially like or find impactful, and then allow it to morph into our own interpretation.
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