The story is adapted from John Steinbeck's 1952 novel, which is set in Salinas Valley, California, just before World War I. The book follows two families over the course of two generations, focusing on a father, his two sons, and their mother, who was thought to be dead. The story is essentially a loose re-telling of the Cain and Abel Biblical story, with Jennifer Lawrence set to play the mother, Cathy Ames. The book was previously adapted by filmmaker Elia Kazan into the 1955 movie East of Eden, which served as the feature film debut of James Dean.
The project has been in development at Universal since 2004, after the book surged in popularity when Oprah Winfrey made it the first title of her book club. Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) had been set to direct in 2009, although the feature never got off the ground until producer Brian Grazer revived the project by bringing on Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence. The adaptation was initially being considered as a two-part movie, but it isn't known if this is still Universal's plan.