Drought serves as the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and its John Ford film adaptation of 1940. But the film and novel also draw on environmental history and environmental law and highlight America’s conflicting views of water rights, views almost always grounded in the 19th-century American drive for progress. Water rights in America respond to at least three political, historical and economic perspectives, all of which have addressed water distribution during times of both drought and abundance of water. The first of these, the riparian doctrine, connects water with the land adjacent to it, so that “Riparian land owners can access water for a ‘reasonable use,’ so long as downstream users are not adversely affected” (Zachary Donohew, “Property Rights and Western United States Water Markets,” 90). A second approach, the appropriative doctrine, grounds legislation that opened up the West to pioneers with the Desert Land Act (1877), the General Mining Act (1872) and the Homestead Act (1862), which rested on the doctrine of prior appropriation: “Water rights with older priority dates are more likely to receive their full allocation and hence are more valuable” (Donohew 89). A third perspective focuses on groundwater rights, which are more difficult to define and measure, so specifications differ from state to state. The Grapes of Wrath illustrates the ongoing power of this environmental legal context.
Robin L. Murray teaches in the English Department at Eastern, where she also coordinates the film studies minor and directs the Eastern Illinois Writing Project. She is the co-author, with Joseph K. Heumann, of Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge (SUNY Press, 2009); Gunfight at the Eco-Corral: Western Cinema and the Environment (U of Oklahoma Press, 2012); That’s All Folks?: Ecocritical Readings of American Animated Features (U of Nebraska Press, 2011); Film and Everyday Eco-Disasters (U of Nebraska Press, 2014); and Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen (U of Nebraska Press, 2016).