Few novels have ever been as successful as Edna Ferber’s 1924 epic novel So Big. The story of Selina Peake De Jong, a woman who triumphed over widowhood, sexism, and the unforgiving midwestern soil captured the hearts of critics and audiences.
It was the first novel to both win the Pulitzer Prize and be the best-selling novel of the year.1 This is a feat so rare and impressive that only three additional novels have achieved it—Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936.)
For those of you keeping score at home, Ferber’s novels Cimarron and So Big were both the top selling novel of the year. From 1918-2017, only 14 authors have the distinction of writing more than one best selling book of the year.
Who’s on that list with Ferber? Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and John Grisham.
Who isn’t? Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike.
(To be clear, my point is not to disparage these writers. I love them all. It is merely to point out that Ferber’s fall from the public consciousness is truly inexplicable.)
So Big tells the life story of Selina Peake, a young woman whose life is upended when her adored gambling father is shot dead and penniless. Well-educated but broke, Selina takes a job in a rural farm town outside Chicago. She’s a fish out of water, a delicate beauty who appreciates art, poetry, and beauty in a town filled with Dutch immigrants in a fight to the death with their farms, trying to wring just enough of out the land to survive.
No one understands her but little Roelf Pool, a young boy who longs to escape farm life and become an artist. He’s the only one who doesn’t laugh when Selina says the cabbage fields are beautiful, and she takes him under her wing.
Selina falls in love with a local farmer, marries, and becomes widowed shortly thereafter, left with a young son and a farm full of land that can’t seem to grow anything. Against all odds and the town’s predictions, Selina makes a success of the farm, making enough money to send her son Dirk to college.
Years later, when Selina is old and withered from a hard life of farming, Roelf Pool returns after many years away, having made it as a successful artist. Selina notes the contrast between him and her own son, who is embarrassed of his mother’s farm, carrying on with a married woman, and working a job he hates for the money and trappings instead of pursuing his dream of becoming an architect.
She’s proud of Roelf but disappointed in her own son.
In 1932, William A. Wellman directed a remake of the original silent film version of So Big. Barbara Stanwyck, queen of the tough girls who grit it out, starred as Selina. George Brent starred as a grown Roelf Pool, and one Bette Davis starred as Dallas O’Mara, a young painter whom both Roelf and Dirk fall in love.
It is the only time in sixty years that Stanwyck and Davis shared the screen.
I was determined to watch this film, despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy—nothing at the library, nothing on Amazon Prime, YouTube had a single grainy clip. I ended up buying a homemade disc on eBay from someone who had recorded if off Turner Classic Movies.
With Ferber’s most prestigious novel as source material, a director who would go onto win an Academy Award for writing the original A Star is Born, and two of the best actresses to ever live, this film had to be a winner.
Yet watching So Big is like drinking flat champagne—all the elements are there but there’s just no fizz.
Ferber, who assessed her films with clear eyes, wrote, “Two motion pictures—a silent one and a talkie—were made of the novel. Both seemed to me very bad indeed.”2
A third version was filmed in 1953 with Jane Wyman, but Ferber likely felt—as most do—that it was strike three.
There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a copy.
There’s no doubt that So Big is a difficult novel to film, and it may have been beyond the capabilities of Hollywood in 1932. Selina ages from a young girl to an old woman, and while the story has some cinematic moments, much of it is a meditation on what makes a good life.
Stanwyck was only twenty-five and had not grown into the actress she would become. I’d love to see what Stanwyck would’ve done with the role in her prime. But perhaps she would’ve been miscast for the role by the time she’d found her stride, for her specialty was a gritty woman shot through with cynicism and defiance. One who knew the way life worked and was determined to take what she could get.
Selina Peake De Jong, by contrast, was as gritty as they come, but never lost her idealism throughout her long, hard life. After toiling in the soil for decades, she still thought cabbages were beautiful. She wanted her son to quit his high paying job and pursue his dreams.
Stanwyck would’ve told him not to be a sap.
And Bette Davis’ role is so underdeveloped that she leaves no mark on the film.
I’ve discussed 113 films for this blog. So Big is the one I’d most like to see remade in 2022. Hollywood’s taken three swings at it and never hit the ball out of the infield.
I think there’s a great film in the pages of Ferber’s masterpiece.
But no one’s made it yet.
- Annotated Podcast. Episode 18: Edna Ferber. Dec 6, 2018.
- Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. 1939.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.
Tony Lane used to do a thing where he picked a year from the 20’s and 30’s and read the ten bestsellers; mainly books now out of print or forgotten; a very labour intensive form of criticism. He found a lot of rubbish, but equally, a few gems that still resonated today. This sounds like there’s some meat on the bones in terms of self-actualisation; isn’t that what Scarlett O’Hara meant at the time? Fashions change, but while I’m not suggesting this deserves a re-issue, it served an audience that I suspect still exist, but settle for less well-matched films today…
That’s an ambitious reading project….I’ve started similar ones myself, only to quickly abandon them. Finding those diamonds in the rough is tough work. The Scarlett O’Hara reference is apt; I would almost describe So Big as a life story told from the point of view of someone more like Melanie Wilkes than Scarlett….equally tough, but in a different, softer way.
I’m looking forward to someone paying me for the 100 man (or woman) hours required to read the top ten bestsellers of 1933. Unfortunately, such sponsors are hard to find…
I’d have to dig in it to see if any author actually enjoyed the screen adaptation of their works. I doubt I will. I’ve never encountered a novelist’s praise for a film in my travels, to date.
Harry Harrison intensely disliked his Make Room, Make Room (1966) becoming Soylent Green (1973). I’ve read the book, twice, over the years: it is, in fact, not “cinematic” and the film is better than the book, in my opinion. Not that the book is bad; it’s just not filmable. Changes had to be made. The same applies for William Harrison’s short story, The Rollerball Murders. There’s “something” there, as the tale is innovative and bonkers, but again: it’s not filmable. To that end: Norman Jewison got W. Harrison on board and make the changes to create another movie-better-than-the-book flick.
Speaking of three bites of the cabbage: Richard Matheson disliked all three adaptations of — and he co-wrote the first screenplay! (The Last Man on Earth; 1964) — of his classic, I Am Legend (1964). He’s gone on record saying that they’ll never get it right.
Dennis Feltham Jones wasn’t crazy about his book, Colossus (1966), transformed into the 1970 film, either. Which is probably why we never seen sequels done with the other two books in that series — or his other, five novels and three shorts. Speaking of hard to find: Jones’s books are impossible to find; he, like Ferber, fell of the face of the Earth. You’d think — with an entire county of library branches — there’d be at least one copy. Alas, there’s not.
One book I enjoy immensely is Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. And Clint Eastwood did a find job with the film adaptation. But it’s one of those adaptations where you go, “Wait, but what about?” as there are characters or moments, missing. So, film good: yeah. Book better: oh, yes.
I’ve never seen The Bridges of Madison County. I really should – I’ve heard many people say it’s one of the few films that are better than the book. The books are almost always better, of course! And some novel are unfilm-able, as you say. Edna Ferber was very public in her praise of the film adaptations of both Cimarron and Giant, so she didn’t automatically hate everything. On most, in her memoirs at least, she left a damning silence. But she did go out of her way to disparage So Big in a way that was a bit uncharacteristic, and I think she’s right on the money.
Few authors hated their adaptations as much as Jodi Picoult did “My Sister’s Keeper.” She swears she’ll never sell the rights of another of her novels to Hollywood. They butchered “Keeper” for sure, so I don’t blame her, but it’s kind of shame as she has some novels that would make very good films….
Another book-to-screen boondoggle I have to mention is Catherine’s Schine’s The Love Letter (1995). At the time I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly and used their music, film, and book reviews as a reference. They gave a justified, great review to The Love Letter. The protagonist had such a wonderful voice; she jumped off the pages and you could see an actress really dig into the role.
Fast forward to the film version released in 1999 starring Kate Capshaw: Ack!
I can only guess Schine’s work went through so many drafts that book’s original charms, were lost. You can’t blame director Peter Chan, though. It was his big “Hollywood” movie-move after much success in Hong Kong cinema (He’s a Woman, She’s a Man; 1994): he shot the screenplay he was given.
I never dug any deeper into Schine’s bibliography beyond her earlier book, Rameau’s Niece (1993) — because, it too, was made into a movie. No, I’ve never seen that French-British film. But the book was a pleasant read. The movie, however, failed. That’s the last book of her’s to make it to the big screen.