The Pearl grew out of an anecdote Steinbeck had heard during his visit to La Paz, which he recorded in the log section of Sea of Cortez (1941, 1951). An Indian boy discovered an exceedingly large pearl and saw in it a future of drink, many girlfriends, and, ultimately, personal salvation. He refused to sell the pearl for the ridiculously low price he was offered, and after he had been beaten and searched for two nights running, he angrily threw the pearl back into the gulf. Afterward, “he laughed a great deal about it.” Steinbeck mused: “This seems to be a true story, but it is so much like a parable that it almost can’t be. The Indian boy is too heroic, too wise.” In developing The Pearl, Steinbeck tried to avoid the incongruities he had sensed in the original tale. He moved the story into a sort of timeless past and changed the happy-go-lucky boy into a responsible father and husband. In the process, the tone became tragic instead of comic.
From the beginning, Steinbeck had seen The Pearl as a basis for a film by the Mexican director Emilio Fernandez. Throughout the story run musical leitmotifs (which were actually used in the film), particularly three: the Song of the Family, which Kino hears each time he looks at his wife and especially his son; the Song of Evil, “the music of the enemy,” which sounds every time they are threatened; and the music of the pearl itself. The story’s visual sense is strong. The town, the gulf, and the sierra are described in sharp colors and high relief. Such scenes as Kino’s dive into the sea, the flight into the mountains, and the daily life of the people demand cinematographic treatment.
Steinbeck’s writing is deceptively simple, avoiding complexities of emotion and characterization. Only Steinbeck’s occasional philosophical meditations and ironic asides could not be easily filmed. Shot on location by cameraman Gabriel Figuero with an all-Mexican cast, La Perla was premiered in 1946. To coincide with the film’s release, the story was reprinted in book form under its present title and with illustrations by the great Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco, one of only three books he so honored.