Ted Cole - a successful writer of children's books - is married to Marion. While their life appears idyllic, their marriage is on the rocks. Marion fell into a deep depression after their son's tragic death in a car accident, and never emerged from it. They have a daughter who they both struggle to be good parents to. Ted is frequently unfaithful, and always a bit drunk. After they decide to separate, Ted hires Eddie, a 16 year old student who resembles his dead son, to assist him.
Eddie arrives and begins to explore the human relations around him. He falls in love (and into bed) with Marian Cole. This brings him joy, but his explorations also end up opening up the door to hidden pain, childishness and disguised dysfunction. The things all the characters discover free them from the lies, but also destroy their lives as they know them.
John Irving's novels have become to filmmakers what heroin is to a junkie - so promising, so wickedly desirable, but ultimately disastrously disappointing.
Irving's novels (The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules) are irresistibly humorous, cruel epics with more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera. His vivid characters beg to be filmed. Irving's writerly cruelty keeps you hooked; appalled and fascinated. His highly visual scenes flow like a bad but enthralling dream towards the tragic finale...
But often the movies have come out all wrong. Yes, the wicked plots were there. Yes, the characters were pretty close. But often the realisation disappointed. "The World According to Garp" (starring a young Robin Williams) was an amusing enough series of vignettes, but had none of the emotional impact of the novel. "Hotel New Hampshire" was unconvincing. The book was full of "Movie Moments" (incredible coincidences used to drive plot) which don't work so well in real movies. "The Cider House Rules" (for which Irving wrote the screenplay himself) was a much more successful adaptation - and it's success stemmed partly from Irving's courage in stripping his own work down and remaking it rather than trying to keep every detail from the book.
"The Door in the Floor" - an adaptation of Irving's "A Widow for One Year" is unlike any of the previous adaptations. Does it work?
Yes, mostly it works. It is one of the most beautifully realised and acted movies you'll see. It is gripping, frightening and emotionally wrenching. It is also extremely funny at times. People's cruelties, resourcefulness and unexpected likes and dislikes are exploited to hilarious, cringe inducing effect.
Kim Basinger burns up the screen, grown softer, sexier and even more gorgeous with age. Jeff Bridges is a loveable, frustrating and very, very funny anti-hero as the truculent alcoholic writer of disturbing children's books. New kid screen star Elle Fanning gives a devastatingly intelligent performance as Ruth. Unlike most child actors she's neither annoying, nor revoltingly cute. Jon Foster provides a subtle performance as the young man discovering debilitating sadness in those around him and remaining strong despite temptations to be destructive.
The grey New England lakeside setting, filled with a sense of fresh seaside coldness, gives the film a perfectly wistful but uneasy colouring which mirrors Jon's chilling coming of age story.
"The Door in the Floor" is a story within the story in the novel. It's used as a structure within which to contain one idea from "A Widow For One Year".
The problem is, if you've read the novel you will almost certainly end up feeling that "Door in the Floor" is like the first episode of a (brilliant) mini-series that will never be concluded. You'll be a bit jarred by the way that the focus of character is shifted from Ted Cole's young daughter Ruth, to the apprentice Eddie. The change of title from "A Widow for One Year" to "The Door in the Floor" encourages you to see that the movie and the book as two almost completely separate creations. But the adaptation is too faithful and the movie's characters resemble those in the book too closely to avoid making comparisons.
Yes, the book, as that old chestnut goes, is better. But the movie is pretty damn fine - it's just a pity that the whole story was far too long and complex to properly tell in a two-hour epic film. You're left feeling frustrated, unsatisfied and hungry for resolution. What was just the beginning of the story has become the story, and too much feels like it's missing.
- Jean Barker
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