Playing by the Cider House Rules

Monday Book: My Movie Business: a memoir by John Irving (Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99)
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The Independent Culture
THE TITLE of this slender volume is something of a misnomer. Although the novelist John Irving has seen a fair number of his books turned into scripts and slightly fewer made into films, he skims over his earlier adventures - an unproduced script from his debut novel Setting Free the Bears, the well-known, if compromised, movie versions of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire - to concentrate almost exclusively on his most recent experience. This was scripting a film based on his novel The Cider House Rules, directed by Lasse Hallstrom after three earlier helmsmen fell by the wayside (in one case, literally). Simon Birch, the recent, ill-regarded film inspired by Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, is not even mentioned - suggesting a depth of feeling on Irving's part that he is not ready to plumb.

There is a problem in reading this memoir now, before we have seen the film that it is primarily concerned with. Although he casts a wry eye on some of the absurdities of the film-making process (he fervently wishes, probably in vain, for the poster to show crotchety old Michael Caine rather than supercute Charlie Theron), Irving clearly feels that Hallstrom has more or less nailed his script, and is generally well pleased with the result.

This makes less immediately engaging reading than a diatribe against the makers of Simon Birch might have done. Even when Irving is spotlighting the unsatisfactory aspects of the Garp and Hotel New Hampshire films, he is respectful of the decisions made by their makers. He no longer believes that the job of a movie adaptation is to stay as close to the original text as possible.

Unusually, this is the opposite of a gossipy book. Irving is focused on his subject, and explains clearly the process whereby The Cider House Rules - a book he feels very close to - becomes a film of which he cannot claim exclusive authorship.

He spent little time on the set, although he has a chapter about his wordless cameo as a stationmaster (he was also the wrestling-referee in Garp). He says little about the contributions of the distinguished cast and skimps on the technical details about the direction, editing and photography. What we do have, though, is an analysis of the craft of screenwriting, as opposed to the art of the novelist.

This is an essay by a man who has chosen his mode of expression, and intends to stick to it. In asides that strike sparks with anyone who has written books and been involved in movies, Irving says that he would far rather write a published novel than an unproduced screenplay. Good unpublished novels are a rarity; good unproduced screenplays are the norm. He even admits that the only films he has seen in the cinema in the past 10 years are The English Patient and Schindler's List, and only then because he wanted to enter conversations about whether they were better than the books (he thinks not, but without disrespect). Nevertheless, he is interested in the medium, and in the mavericks who are its masters. He writes pointedly about the sundry directors he has worked with: Irvin Kershner, George Roy Hill, Tony Richardson, Michael Winterbottom.

Irving admits to being stubborn and a shouter, but is amazingly discreet about Hollywoodians for whom he has little respect. Perhaps the most revealing section is an account of the period when Winterbottom, director of Jude, was attached to Cider House, and then left because a producer would not let him bring another writer in to rework Irving's material. With perfect yet devastating understatement, Irving recounts that "Winterbottom implied... that working with Thomas Hardy was easier".

If the book feels incomplete, it may be that we cannot yet judge the happiness of the ending. A film of a John Irving novel that pleases the author may prove to be less interesting or exciting to the rest of us than one with which he had a few serious quarrels. Like all authors who write scripts from their own works, Irving may be unable to cope with the notion that a film adapted from a book should try to engage in a conversation, even an argument, with the original, rather than passing on the message Chinese-whispers fashion. Then, again, if the film of The Cider House Rules is a masterpiece, this memoir will be triumphantly vindicated.

Kim Newman