I really like John Irving the author. Maybe not as much not the man (wasn’t his pro-choice tirade at the 2000 Oscars out of place?), but you can’t deny that he writes damn good novels. Three of them have been turned into movies, and I think the first adaptation remains the best. In 99, we got the not particularly striking but still very fine “The Cider House Rules”, which did its best to be faithful to the book, which wasn’t easy since so many things happen in it, but Irving wrote a strong script out it (he got an Oscar for it). He should have adapted “A Prayer for Owen Meany” himself too, but he thought it couldn’t translate to the silver screen. It appears he was right, if you take a look at the missed opportunity that is 1998’s “Simon Birch”. The book was an inspirational yet very cynical story about a squeaky voiced dwarf who’s certain that he’s an instrument of God put on this planet to save kids in Viet Nam, or so he thinks. Irving writes endearingly about childhood, and Meany’s quirkiness is very enjoyable, but he’s also very critical of American politics. The film never even tries to show that side of its source material. Instead, we get only a dumbed down, sugar coated, badly acted little movie featuring some of the novel’s key moments.
“The World According to Garp” is a different story. After reading this twisted but jubilant novel, I went out and rented the 1982 movie, expecting a much lesser experience. The book is too complex, and too bleak, I thought, they won’t have gotten it right. Well, I was wrong. George Roy Hill’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to Irving’s words. His direction is inspired, and he had the good idea of crafting the film into a series of mostly short scenes which really give you an overall view of T.S. Garp’s unlikely life, somehow like in “Forrest Gump”. That kaleidoscopic style could have led to a big mess, but the film remains pretty on track and never loses steam.
Robin Williams stars as Garp, the son of a nurse turned inspirational feminist (Glenn Close) and a brain damaged WW2 pilot whom she screwed on a hospital bed. He grows up to be a cheerful wrestler and a writer of sad stories, whose whole life seems to be divided likewise between simple happiness as a family man and everything from assassinations to car accidents. Some might complain that it’s not clear what this is all about, but I think this is a fable about life in general, about how you never know when disaster is gonna strike and you should enjoy every stupid little moment. Then again, maybe this is just a clever, alternately funny and poignant look at one’s man life and at the colorful people that filled it.
Robin Williams is very good in the lead, already showing his versatility as a comedian and a serious actor in one of his first parts. I also liked Glenn Close as his mom and Mary Beth Hurt as his wife, but it’s John Lithgow who steals the film as a pro football player who went through a sex change to become a woman. You also probably won’t forget the members of the Ellen James foundation, women who mutilate themselves in support of a little girl who was raped and whose tongue was cut off so that she couldn’t talk. Of course, something is lost in the translation from paper to celluloid. We don’t quite gather in the film that Garp is a true writer with real potential, maybe because we don’t see him taking the trip to Vienna that inspired the wonderful short story “The Pension Grillpazer”. The character also seems less angry, and more naive, but maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. We still get to see the most delightful moments in the novel come to life, and if only for that, “The World According to Garp” is mighty enjoyable.