Gilbert Grape: Good Book, Great Movie

By Kendall Albrecht

While I often find myself disappointed by the movie adaptations of my favorite novels due to shortened plots and underrepresented themes, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape proved an exception. Peter Hedge’s novel, published in 1991, examines the life of 25-year-old Gilbert Grape as he wrestles caring for his mentally disabled brother and unhealthily obese mother, all while grieving the suicide of his father. His ever-lengthening pile of responsibilities leaves him feeling trapped in his depressingly small hometown, longing to escape. 

Writing in the first person, Hedge offers the reader’s insight into Gilbert’s thoughts and feelings, an instrumental factor in understanding his actions throughout the story. The novel dives deeper into Gilbert’s everyday life, honing in on his sense of entrapment, which is crucial to developing Hedge’s theme: providing for loved ones comes at the expense of personal well-being when sacrifices run to excess. Additionally, the novel offers instances of foreshadowing and further development of minor characters in scenes cut from the movie. 

Despite the book’s perks, the 1993 film immediately resonated with me—more so than the novel—mostly due to its outstanding acting. Leonardo DiCaprio perfectly encapsulated the mannerisms of a teenager with disabilities, creating a sense of endearment and empathy toward his character, Arnie (Gilbert’s brother). The movie made me feel more connected to characters other than the protagonist, resulting in a plethora of emotions at the climax and conclusion. Although some parts of Hedge’s original plot did not make the final cut, the directors still touched on the most influential scenes and executed them beyond my expectations. By far one of my favorite films, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape provides a perfect example of a 10/10 movie adaptation.