Steinbeck began writing the story as a movie script in 1944 and first published it as a short story called "The Pearl of the World" in the Woman's Home Companion (December 1945). The original publication is also sometimes listed as "The Pearl of La Paz". Steinbeck expanded the story to novella length and published it under the name The Pearl (1947), published by Viking Press. As he was writing the novella version, he was frequently travelling to Mexico where the film version, co-written with Jack Wagner, was being filmed. The film was also released by RKO in 1947 as a co-promotion with the book.
In 2001, The Pearl was loosely adapted as a film directed by Alfredo Zacharias, starring Lukas Haas and Richard Harris, which was released directly to video in 2005.
The book takes place in La pez, Baja California, Mexico. It does not take place in California.