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Door prize
John Irving and Tod Williams let the actors take the Floor
Writer’s bloc

At first glance, the story of Door in the Floor seems straightforward: a sad ménage à trois involving Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a jaded husband and dissipated children’s-book writer, Marion (Kim Basinger), his grieving wife, and Eddie (Jon Foster) Ted’s horny/romantic teenage assistant. No fancy postmodernist stuff, just a hot and tawdry tragi-comedy of kinky sex, loss, and betrayal. But spend a few minutes talking with John Irving, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, and Tod Williams, who directed and wrote the screenplay, and the door opens onto a much more complex and self-reflexive process.

Like determining the title. The original novel spans 40 years and three generations, but the film deals with events from only the first third. The novel’s title is therefore not just enigmatic but irrelevant. "Okay, we can’t call it A Widow for One Year because we’re dealing with a four-year-old ‘widow’ at the end of the film, right?" says Irving, referring to the character of Ruth Cole, who grows into the novel’s protagonist but here plays only the part of the precocious daughter. "So I said, well, there’s a whole bunch of chapter titles, you know. ‘The Door in the Floor’ came off the page in a heartbeat — partly, of course, because it was [the title of] one of Ted’s stories. The only other one that tempted me, we talked about it for all of two minutes, was "Marion Waiting." That sounded like a French movie from the 1960’s. But ‘The Door in the Floor’ immediately had resonance through the whole thing.

"And what you’re deciding there, is, whose story is it?" adds Williams. " ‘The Door in the Floor" was how we found our way to realize that Ted is the author of this story, The Door in the Floor, and the entire summer — everything that happens."

"He creates the film," says Irving. "Ted Cole creates all of this and brings it down on himself, he puts his wife and Eddie together and orchestrates the whole thing. He even gets the swimming pool he wants. What he doesn’t understand is how bad it’s going to feel. He gets everything he wants, but it doesn’t feel the way he maybe thought it was going to. It really is a film about the way a writer manipulates things — it is about his manipulation, not just as a children’s-book author but of his life, of his whole circumstance."

If Ted Cole is the author of The Door in the Floor, then he gets high marks from Irving. "I would certainly say that without question the two best films made from my work are The Cider House Rules [for which Irving won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay] and The Door in the Floor. This was a far easier endeavor on my part since Tod did all the work and all I did was give him my feedback, but I felt, you know, welcome to be a collaborator, and our agreement about agreeing to agree about cast and script and type was the same I had with Lasse Hallström and Richard Gladstein in The Cider House Rules."

And Irving’s feedback could be extensive. "I love dailies because they’re sort of these pure details and whenever you see a cut of the picture, I would remember the detail that had been omitted. I would think, well, why can’t we see that close-up from inside the car? Does she or does she not see her mother take Eddie’s hand and put it to her breast? And what does it mean if she sees it? Do we want her to see it? Do we want that angle of it? Or do we lose Ruth from that moment and see it more from Eddie’s point of view?"

"Such fun," Williams recalls.

Then there was the matter of the basketball shoe. Instructing Eddie on the art of writing, Ted cites the importance of the specific detail. The example he chooses is the basketball shoe on his son’s severed foot when he was killed in a car crash.

"It’s a very cruel observation coming at the time," Irving notes. "But it’s also a very true observation about writing. I think everything that Ted says to Eddie about writing, even though Ted is a hack, even though he is a fraud — a failed novelist — everything he says to Eddie is dead on, not pleasant, always, but it’s true."

Which is why Williams is disappointed by the choice of basketball shoe in the film.

"Ted says it was an Air Jordan. You know why it would have been better to say it was a Converse High Top? Because you can picture a Converse High Top. Air Jordans change every year. What the fuck is an Air Jordan?"

— PK

For a writer whose oversized characters, flamboyant invention, bawdy humor, and unabashed sentiment would seem to make him a natural for adaptation, John Irving hasn’t had much luck on the big screen. The World According to Garp (1982), a hit in its day, seems cute, contrived, and sappy in retrospect, a half-baked Robin Williams vehicle with John Lithgow in drag and Glenn Close being creepy. And though The Cider House Rules (1999) had the courage of its pro-choice convictions, the power of Michael Caine’s Oscar-winning performance, and the clarity of Irving’s own Oscar-winning screenplay, at times, it too meandered into melodrama. As for the others, they are best forgotten, or disowned, as in the case of Hotel New Hampshire (1984).

What’s the problem? Perhaps it’s girth. Irving’s books tend to the quarter-pounder size and beyond. That hasn’t posed a problem for Charles Dickens, though, with whom Irving has been (generously) compared. Perhaps the problem is that Irving’s work has just enough postmodern self-consciousness and reflexivity about it to dispel the suspension of disbelief an old-fashioned movie requires. His novels, despite the richness of their fancy and the bigness of their emotions, tend to be about novels and those who write them. No fewer than four of the major characters in his 1998 bestseller A Widow for One Year, for example, have literary aspirations. By the end of its four decades and its 500-plus pages and its fugally intertwining sprawl of a narrative, it seems less a fiction on the themes of loss, love, familial tumult, fate, and quirky desire than a reflection on fiction itself.

That may deepen the novel but it can spell death for a movie. Fortunately, writer/director Tod Williams has no patience for such tail chasing. To begin with, he chops off two-thirds of the novel, limiting himself to the self-contained first section. Next, he takes to heart the advice that Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, womanizing children’s-book author, gives to his summer intern Eddie (Jon Foster) on the art of writing: stick to the "specific details."

The details Williams chooses are most often Irving’s details, but without the genial explanations with which Irving burdens them. Thus, when Eddie is almost caught masturbating in front of a photo of Ted’s wife, Marion (Kim Basinger), you hardly notice the tiny pieces of paper that Eddie has taped over the disembodied feet of Ted’s two sons that intrude into the picture. Irving feels obliged to footnote this detail with a dissertation on the theory and practice of Eddie’s onanistic fantasy life. No need to in the movie; the bits of paper alone are precise, mysterious, and funny enough.

They also underline the absence that defines the lives of the film’s characters. The two Cole boys died in a car wreck some years before. They were teenagers around Eddie’s age. Probably no one was to blame, but that never helps. Marion has sunk into perpetual despair; Ted, who was already an asshole, remains one, drinking and creatively humiliating the rich, bored housewives (poor Mimi Rogers, the victim of Irving’s unaccountable fit of misogyny) who are his neighbors. He’s a good father to their moppet daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning, the Russian doll inside her sister Dakota), who was conceived to fill the void left by their sons. For Marion, though, Ruth is a memento mori. As is Eddie, but he’s also something more . . .

This makes for one hot summer in the Hamptons, and Williams, whose only previous film was 1998’s odd, rough-hewn The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, knows enough to let the actors, like the details, speak for themselves. Bridges equals his performance in Fearless as a person who’s attractive and sympathetic but unthinkably twisted. Basinger at once conveys unapproachable tragedy and irresistible sensuality. No special effects, computer-generated or stylistic, compete with the simple truths of their gazes and their silences.

The younger performers are no competition either. It’s hard to believe that Fanning’s Teletubbie-ish Ruth will ever grow into the tough and canny author that she does in A Widow for One Year. And the naïveté of Foster’s Eddie, credible perhaps for the 1958 setting of the original, seems unlikely in the present day of this updated adaptation. That change in setting not only compromises Eddie’s character but precludes any possibility of a sequel (maybe a sci-fi version set in 2044?). Which is just as well. I can’t think of any ending more conclusive, any specific detail more terrifying, than when the door in the floor at last closes.

Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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