Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: John Irving Adaptations

Once again this week, I will be shitting on the geniuses in Hollywood who take works of literature and turn them into bad movies. Sometimes these producers and directors collude with the author, making the author partially responsible for the risible adaptations that result. The reason for that is simple.  These people are not geniuses. They are demons.

In a previous and 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.


  1. I read The Water Method Man - not one of his greatest but better than those movies. I suppose you didn't mention Simon Birch as it doesn't really count (as an adaptation of A Prayer for Owen Meany)? It shouldn't - I'd be interested to see someone take a stab at an actual adaptation of that great book, though it's hard to imagine it would live up to it.

    As for your question at the end, I don't think any writer has been more ill served by the movies than Stephen King. Though not great works of literature by any means, Steve (as I call him) writes some great stories and almost all of the movies of those stories suck balls (critically speaking). There were a few good ones - Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption and The Mist (sorta) come to mind - but most are mediocre and do nothing to capture the spirit of his novels.

  2. This is not to necessarily say all the films they generated are bad, just that I doubt they were what the author had in mind (some are horrible though):

    Robert Ludlum - again, not because the Bourne movies are bad, but because they (aside from the setup of the first one) have NOTHING to do with the source material. And aside from those three, the few adaptations of his work tend to be dumpy mini-series that amusingly star Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne or star that guy that played Captain Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    Michael Crichton - much like Stephen King, his movies are occasionally quite good like The Andromeda Strain (the Arthur Hill one, not the awful mini-series), The Great Train Robbery (a very fun and underrated film IMO) and Jurassic Park, but most totally suck, like Sphere (weird because I liked the book and the movie is very faithful) and Congo (which was just dumb to begin with). The Terminal Man started out well, but wussed out and pulled its punches at the end, and Timeline, which READS LIKE A F-ING SCREENPLAY was horrible.

    Philip K. Dick - for similar reasons, because for every Blade Runner or Minority Report, you get at least one Paycheck. I did like The Adjustment Bureau, though I think George Nolfi totally wrote himself into a corner and copped out at the end.

    Ian Fleming - because when he wrote the books, I don't think he envisioned Roger Moore sailing off in a fake iceberg while screwing someone young enough to be his granddaughter. At least they're trying to emulate the character these days. Oh, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was good too.

    Philip Pullman - because they never bothered to finish the damn series.

    and just to keep JB's English teaching side happy:

    Nathanial Hawthorne, because I don't think that Roland Jaffe's version of The Scarlet Letter is what he would have wanted to see (though I have to say Gary Oldman was good casting...the rest is awful.)

  3. A Scanner Darkly! Thanks for the Philip K. Dick props, Carl. Just wanted to shout out for an underrated one. That is all.

  4. Ira Levin. Aside from classics like "Rosemary's Baby" and the original version of "The Stepford Wives", there are three turkeys on there. 1991's version of "A Kiss Before Dying", 1993's "Sliver" and 2004's "The Stepford Wives" are completely bastardized.