What ‘Of Mice and Men’ Can Teach Us about Christmas
We don’t often think of John Steinbeck’s classic story Of Mice and Men as a Christmas movie, but this holiday season I’m inviting everybody to watch and enjoy the 1992 movie version staring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.
Siskel and Ebert gave it “Two thumbs up! Way up!”
What makes it so great?
The story might be familiar to you already. Many people read the controversial book in high school. George and Lennie are migrant workers, going from farm to farm, searching for work in Depression-era California.
Lennie (played in the movie by Malkovich) is the bigger fellow. He has special needs, the strength of an ox, yet the mind and heart of a child.
George (played by Sinise) is Lennie’s best friend. Uneducated yet smart, never married, poor, George’s purpose in the world is to look out for Lennie. He’s a father-figure, big brother, and protector, all rolled into one.
George and Lennie get hired at the Tyler Ranch where they enjoy a brief period of stability during barley harvest. It’s enough stability for them to dream again.
The two friends’ dream is simply to have a little house for themselves someday. A place for Lennie to tend rabbits. A place to call home.
And they get close to achieving their dream—until their supervisor’s lonely wife becomes too close to Lennie, who, in his innocence, can’t handle the closeness of her friendship and freaks out.
That’s where all their dreams begin to break apart.
So, what does any of this have to do with Christmas?
If you’ve never seen the movie, or read the book, I won’t give away the powerful ending. That’s where the Christmas themes emerge.
The ending of Of Mice and Men isn’t happy in the traditional Christmas sort of way. Nothing like George Bailey being showered with friendship in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The ending of Of Mice and Men is tragic.
The ending makes you think, and moves you deeply. You walk away from the movie knowing the world can be a broken place. Yet you also feel empowered to do a little more to help people feel less lonely, to help people realize their dreams of a better life.
Toward the middle of the film, there’s one scene that helps explain the tragic end of the movie, including what makes it Christmassy.
The aging ranch hand, Candy, keeps an old dog around the ranch. They’ve been together forever. In the middle scene, the dog is dying. Sick. In misery.
So Candy agrees for his dog to be put down. One bullet behind the dog’s head becomes a severe mercy—and that becomes foreshadowing for how the movie ends.
It also serves as a marker for the Christmas message of the movie—that sometimes kindness mixes with difficult actions.
On behalf of someone we love, a severe mercy is offered—and taken.
Can you see how this story is starting to become about Christmas?
Scholars note that John Steinbeck often laced his novels with biblical themes.
The title of The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel about the American Dust Bowl, came most recently from a line from The Battle Hymn of the Republic. But the song borrowed the line originally from Revelation 14:19-20, an appeal to divine justice and deliverance from oppression.
In the case of Of Mice and Men, the spiritual imagery is there too. It’s found in that running theme: sometimes kindness involves difficult actions.
Kindness is what Candy provided for his ailing dog.
A severe kindness is what George will provide for Lennie at the end of the movie.
For us at Christmas time, the movie reminds us of God’s offering of severe kindness to all mankind.
See, the fuller Christmas message is that the Life and Light of the Person of Christ mixed together with the Death and Blood of a Roman cross.
In a sense, God agreed that some sort of benefit would emerge when Jesus died, just like Candy agreed there was benefit for his old dog to die. And just like Candy, God the Father felt the enormous pain that accompanied this action.
The “severe mercy,” in this case, was not that God put Jesus out of his misery. It’s that the death of Jesus acts as the “severe mercy” that takes away the brokenness of the world.
Thanks to a kindness that involved difficult actions, mankind can truly live. The brokenness begins to be restored.
“Are you tired?” Jesus asked. “Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Keep company with me, and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
And that, my friends, has Christmas written all over it.
This holiday season, my invitation to you is simply to watch and enjoy the movie Of Mice and Men.
Your further invitation is to read the Christmas story for yourself. Particularly if you’re in no way religious. Read it simply as an exploration of life’s bigger questions.
The Christmas Story comes in two halves.
The first half is found in Luke 2:1-20. It’s Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. It’s the babe in swaddling clothes in the straw ox manger. It’s angels announcing to shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
The second half is found in John 3:16.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Merry Christmas, from Of Mice and Men to you.