A typical novelist might be offended if a filmmaker suggested bringing only half of his book to the big screen. But in John Irving's case, that approach was the primary reason he allowed writer-director Tod Williams to adapt his 1998 best-seller, A Widow for One Year. "I don't feel there's been a film as faithful to me or my writing as this one," the author says of the resulting movie, The Door in the Floor. It stars Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges, and opens today in limited release.
Surprisingly, Irving even includes his own Oscar-winning adaptation of his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules in that assessment. Although Tobey Maguire did a fine job, he explains, "I had to lose so much of that novel by trying to adapt the whole thing. I had to compress 15 years into one. I had to lose a number of characters and a major plotline or two. By sticking strictly to the first 180 pages [of Widow], Tod was able to be much more line-by-line faithful to the book."
Irving admits that there's another, more selfish, benefit to this kind of adaptation. "What's great about it from a novelist's point of view is that the film is so faithful to the way the book begins, but it doesn't touch anything in Act 2 or 3," he says. "So for people who haven't read the book and go to see the movie, if they like it and wonder what happens next, nothing's been stolen. Act 2 and Act 3 are [left] pristine."
According to Irving, Williams wasn't the first film director to express interest in Widow. None of the other ideas really pleased him, though. "All of them began with Ruth as a grown up, which meant that the first part of the story would have been a three to five minute flashback. But to me, it's the emotional and psychological underpinning of who Ruth is. I didn't want to see that as a flashback in a movie about an adult. That little girl is too important."
Despite his dissatisfaction, Irving was never motivated to adapt the book himself. "I didn't see it as a movie," he says frankly. Williams' idea to only film the first section won him over, as did his plan to update the story from the 1950s to the present day. "That was a pretty easy decision," Irving remembers. "Since we're not telling the rest of the story, passage of time isn't a problem. I also felt that we were freer to make the story seem almost common and ordinary, whereas if you set it back in the '50s, the relationships would seem more overwhelming."The Door in the Floor is only the fourth film adaptation of an Irving novel (not counting 1998's Simon Birch, a very loose interpretation of one of his most popular books, A Prayer for Owen Meany). And the scribe says it doesn't look like there'll be another one in the near future. Still, he continues to hope that his screenplay for his 1994 novel A Son of the Circus might someday find its way to the big screen after more than a decade in development hell. "I haven't given up on that one," Irving laughs. "It took 13 years to do Cider House. I don't care how long it takes me to do this."