George Roy Hill
Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 15 April 2008
Source Warner Home Video DVD
John Irving holds a curious place in contemporary fiction. He’s an author of what could only be called literary novels – realistic, sweeping, serious in theme – but he’s also a best seller of the type looked down upon by more academic (or more snobby) literary circles. Few go so far as to call John Irving’s books bad. But his works, while dealing with ideas as heavy as death, infidelity, and the creation of art, never step outside the frame of the novel to reference a body of literature, or to comment on the structure of narrative, or to cleverly puncture the artifice of writing the way more experimental, and often more respected, contemporary authors do. As follows, film adaptations of John Irving tend to be purely realistic and narrative; they don’t take you out of the story to reference a body of film, to comment on the structure of narrative, or to cleverly puncture the artifice of cinema the way more sophisticated movies may. His books often make the kinds of big, sweeping Hollywood epics that can only be described as “Oscar-y.” John Irving is the Ron Howard of fiction.
One of the earliest film adaptations of Irving’s work was one of his most famous novels, The World According to Garp. It’s one of the most loyal film adaptations of any book I’ve read, staying remarkably true to the novel. In the abstract, this sounds like a good idea. John Irving is a master of pacing, movement, plot, and interesting characters, and Garp is one of his best books. But in order to successfully translate a story or an idea from one art form to another, one must remain loyal not just to the story or the idea, but also to the art form in which one works. A film is a thing in itself; its grammar, structures, and presentation are different from a novel, a play, or a life. The director, George Roy Hill, was only partly able to transform the strengths of fiction, with which Irving works so well (a novel’s sheer length, roomy pacing, the ability to directly portray a character’s thoughts) into the very different strengths of film (the directness of photographic images, tight focus, the emotional effects of setting, lighting, cinematography, and sound). By slavishly following the events of the novel, Hill inadvertently reveals both Irving’s gifts as a traditional, narrative novelist and the limitations of traditional, narrative film. The World According to Garp ends up feeling enjoyable but slight, competent but flawed.
Like many Irving works, Garp is the story of a writer’s life, told from childhood into about middle age. Garp begins life when his mother, a sexless nurse named Jenny Fields, impregnates herself via a tumescent, brain-injured WWII gunner dying in her hospital ward. Garp grows up at a New England prep school where his mother works, falls in love with his wrestling coach’s daughter, and becomes a fiction writer constantly irked by the success of his mother’s own feminist polemic. Along the way, he has children, attacks reckless drivers, befriends a transsexual, suffers the violent death of several people in his family, and antagonizes a victim’s-rights group that publicizes their cause by cutting out their own tongues.
It’s a long book, and it makes for a dense film. While of course there are omissions, the film attempts to squeeze in almost every remarkable instance from the novel. But as any reader and filmgoer knows, you simply cannot translate an entire novel into film, especially novels as chronologically sprawling and plot-heavy as Irving’s. (It’s worth noting that several other adaptations of Irving’s books – The Door in the Floor, Simon Birch – take on but a fraction of the entire narrative.) And while you have to admire the loyalty of such inclusiveness, few of the scenes in Garp receive the type of care required to make them resonant. In the novel, Garp’s childhood and adolescence are given enough weight to anchor the rest of his life. But in the film, Garp’s childhood scenes are so brief and establish so little that they feel almost unnecessary. In the novel, Garp’s marriage goes through stages of pain, warmth, and maturity that feel authentic and natural. In the film, the marriage goes through ups and downs that feel abrupt and baseless, moving from happiness to infidelity and back from one scene to the next. In the book, Jenny Fields’ fame as an activist develops with Irving’s careful pacing so that it is both believable and surprising. But in the movie, her life seems almost wacky, despite the actors’ best efforts, with breezy shots of societal detritus washing up on her porch like so much driftwood. In general, each scene is played well, but the film moves from one scene to the next without the necessary focus or tension to sustain a compelling arc. Scenes also seem to change tone from one to the next, as though excerpted from a longer, more cohesive work—which they were.
Perhaps the worst example of this is in the scenes involving Garp’s son Walt—those who’ve not seen the film or read the book should skip past this paragraph. Irving’s careful and realistic characterization of children is, in fact, successfully translated to the film; the acting, dialogue, and children’s relationships with their parents are refreshingly unsentimental and rough with the friction of real human interaction. But the novel has room to let us sit with Walt and get a feel for him as a character, rather than just a child. And the news of his death is delivered with astonishing expertise after the nearly farcical description of an accident involving two cars, fellatio, and an errant gearshift. Walt’s death comes upon both the characters and the reader suddenly and without mercy, though not without graceful foreshadowing. In the film, Walt can afford so little screen time that almost all of it is devoted to foreshadowing his death, and in result it feels forced and obvious. The film’s rushed pacing leads the director to over-dramatize the child’s death, because we have not had time to get to know his life. This could be said about almost every thread that makes it from page to screen.
Not that the film is totally incompetent. The acting is universally sound. Robin Williams is uncharacteristically restrained, if a little out of his depth, as the title character (and there’s no other way to have done it—the poor guy must have shaved his entire torso to play the teenage Garp). Glenn Close is as solid as ever as Jenny Fields; her commanding presence make you both believe and admire a character that is eccentric and abrasive, cheerfully odd without slipping into “kooky.” And John Lithgow’s performance as a transsexual ex-NFL player is a miracle of dignity in a role that in almost any hands could have come off as a lazy joke. The sequence in which Garp composes his first successful short story is one of the best depictions of the dream-like, reality-meets-imagination process that is creating fiction. The locations are all chosen and filmed with care; rarely has suburban family life been treated with such tenderness, and Jenny Fields’ house on the New England coast made me pine for wrap-around porches and wicker furniture. The film was enjoyable to watch, but it ultimately felt a bit too ambling and disjointed to leave much of an impression.
The novel makes you believe, as the best narratives do, that you’re watching real lives unfold in real time, even though you’re only taking a few hours out of your own life to absorb a little media. How Hill could have created a more powerful film – by tackling less of the plot, by focusing on a single aspect of Garp’s life and character, by using a non-traditional technique to indicate the passage of time – I’m not sure. But while Hill does a fine job of reproducing the events and characters of the novel, he fails to take the next step and produce a film with something of its own to say. Like Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp is enjoyable and well-crafted. But unlike the novel, the film is ultimately unsatisfying.