much-lauded column, I discussed Kurt Vonnegut and how ill-served he has been by the Hollywood Dream Factory (and by “Dream” I mean “Turd.” And by “Factory” I mean “Maker of Turds.”) This week I turn my attention to John Irving, whose very popular novels have been turned into films with (ahem… ahem… clears throat) mixed results. There is a connection here. John Irving was once Kurt Vonnegut’s student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For this reason, the two authors are often compared by critics, but they are really nothing alike.
When I was much younger, I read all of Irving’s early work. Then I suddenly stopped, for when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Because the Bible.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never read Setting Free The Bears and The Water Method Man, Irving’s first two novels. No one has ever read his first two novels.
I did, however, read both of the books that later became these two terrible movies. I wish I had not read them, but I wish more that I had not seen the movies. Reading the books at least made me look smart. Seeing the movies made me feel stupid.
The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)
This “comedy” features a mother and son dying in a plane crash, a graphic rape, a blind man dying in a terrorist explosion, a little girl’s suicide, brother/sister incest, and an attempted rape by a bear. You know, like life!
Notice how the trailer tries to sell the movie using sexy sex.
Irving’s previous book, The World According to Garp, was a huge success, both as a novel and a film. I suspect Irving thought he had to somehow outdo the “outrageous quotient” for the follow up, but it led to a film so cram-jammed with weird, awful ideas, one simply does not know where to gawk first. Hotel New Hampshire, in either incarnation, was not a success because The Hotel New Hampshire is batshit crazy.
Besides having enough sheer narrative for three or four more conventional novels, the failure of latter Irving adaptations boils down to one thing: Irving’s literary tropes do not work onscreen: metaphor and allegory are very difficult to translate into film. The movies tend to make everything concrete and literal. A novel takes place in the reader’s brain, an inherently metaphoric place. A movie takes place on screen, in the more literal world that the filmmakers create. Books are home to ideas. Movies are home to actions.
The Hotel New Hampshire movie is fill of literary flotsam and jetsam that is just risible when placed onscreen. For instance, the family dog is named “Sorrow.” (Because that’s a thing – naming a pet after an abstract emotion! Have you met my guinea pig, “Ennui,” and my new kitten, “Disappointment”? “Optimism” died of feline leukemia.) When Sorrow dies, someone has him stuffed. His taxidermied carcass starts showing up in unexpected places. After the plane crash, the stuffed dog bobs up out of the ocean. Sorrow floats. Get it? Do you get it? I see you nodding your head, but I don’t think you get it. You see, the dog is…
“Keep passing the open windows,” a phrase intended to motivate people to not kill themselves is repeated so many goddamn times in this film that it is almost a relief when a character finally does NOT pass an open window, but instead jumps from it to her death. At least then we know that the rest of the characters will not be slinging that annoying aphorism anymore.
The film stars Rob Lowe, Jody Foster, Beau Bridges, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Modine in a dual role, and Nastassja Kinski as a woman who believes that she is ugly. Typecasting.
Cider House Rules (1999)
The allegory trope is in full swing here as well. What might, at first glance, seem to be an amiable film about Tobey McGuire and Charlize Theron picking apples is in reality a film about…abortion. Irving, who actually won an Oscar for his screenplay, should have known that he could never top the most successful literary abortion allegory ever written: Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who. (“A person’s a person no matter how small.”)
BETTER YET: George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Irving’s most famous novel, The World According to Garp, is a very entertaining soap opera. I have read that, on the first day of shooting, Hill famously put the kibosh on star Robin Williams’ incessant improvising. The first time Williams went off script, Hill hollered “cut” and wrapped shooting for the day. Williams got the message.
I always kind of felt sorry for Robin Williams in this film because Williams, well-known to be one of the hairiest men in Hollywood, reportedly had to shave all of his chest, arm and leg hair for a sequence in the film. In the scene, he was to wade into the ocean as a smooth teenager and later emerge from the surf (through the magic of editing and shooting scenes out of sequence) as a hirsute twenty-something. That sequence was dropped from the final cut of the film. Ouch.
F-HEADS! Which authors do YOU think have been ill served by the movies? Comment below, send us e-mail, post your responses to the Facebook, or just write them on an old scrap of paper, shove it into a bottle, throw it into the ocean, and wait patiently. I will eventually get it.