My husband and I both love classic movies, and a few weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed the 1930s film adaptation of Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. I enjoyed the simple tale and decided to read the original.
In a move that would have made my high school English teacher’s heart proud, the movie was very different from the book. Both media stand on their own, but I think I liked the book better.
If you’re unfamiliar with Babbitt, the plot is fairly simple. The tale follows one Babbitt, a middle-aged realtor living in Zenith, Ohio. Babbitt is married to Myra, and has three children: Verona, Ted, and Tinka. He’s bored. He’s rather a blowhard. He’s always spouting platitudes and seems to belong to every social, political and fraternal group in town.
The story takes place in the 1920s, the Roaring 20s, and Prohibition is in full swing. Babbitt’s tale winds its way through real estate deals, social gatherings, and his best friend, a fellow named Paul, trying to kill his nagging wife, Zelda.
Over the course of the book, Babbitt, bored to death with his conventional existence, takes up with a “fast” widow and her young friends. He has an affair. Is it sexual? In 1920s middle-class America, just hanging out alone at her apartment was enough to break his marriage vows, I think. Whether he slept with her or not, we never know.
Babbitt eventually recovers from his midlife crisis, returns to his wife, and resumes his plain-vanilla existence, but not without finding the strength to help his son Ted kick the traces over and elope with his girlfriend, a fun ending and a twist I wasn’t expecting.
Babbitt is social commentary on a unique period in American history. It was a time of rapid growth, as exemplified by Babbitt’s thrilled longing at the skyscrapers of Zenith, at his love of business talk, meetings, and business groups. It is a time when social mores are changing, as exemplified by the flappers he hangs out with who are considered fast, loose and dangerous. Finally, it’s a time when Prohibition reigned supreme, and alcohol seems to stand for a lot of the rebellion throughout the book.
More importantly, it’s a commentary on middle class America. Babbitt is every man; his wife, every woman; their gray and vanilla existence in Zenith the culmination of the American dream. Is it a dream, or a nightmare? Only you can decide.
I really liked the book, and recommend it. It’s a classic well worth the read if you would like to catch up on your classic books. If you click on the book above, you can order it through Amazon. I make a small commission from the sale which does not affect your price in any way.
As for the differences between the book and the movie…there are plenty of them. If you’re assigned to read this book for class, DO NOT watch the movie and think you can take a test on the material. The movie makers really changed a lot, including how many children Babbitt has, and many, many other important details. The movie can be watched on its own, but it differs significantly from the book.
Babbitt…loved it, and am looking forward to reading more by Sinclair Lewis.