Irving opens WFF, reflects on transition from text to film

John Irving, the keynote speaker at the opening of the Williamsown Film Festival (WFF), spoke about his work in the film industry. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org
John Irving, the keynote speaker at the opening of the Williamsown Film Festival (WFF), spoke about his work in the film industry. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org

Last Wednesday in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, author and screenwriter John Irving opened the Williamstown Film Festival (WFF) in a Q-and-A style discussion with Professor of English Jim Shepard, a member of the WFF board. The discussion focused on Irving’s prolific career as an author and the joys and challenges that come along with adapting written works for the screen. Irving won an Academy Award in 2000 for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on The Cider House Rules, taken from his own bestselling novel. This event was casual, interesting and set the stage for the relaxed professionalism that would define the next 18 events on the schedule for the WFF.

After a brief introduction by Steve Lawson, the festival’s director, which emphasized the prolific nature of both writers’ careers, Shepard and Irving took the stage. They sat in large armchairs that were slightly tilted toward one another in the center of the MainStage and began to converse. Though each was clearly aware of the audience, it still functioned as a normal conversation. Shepard constantly interspersed Irving’s more serious reflection with jokes, beginning the discussion with, “Last time you were here, you filled Chapin. Isn’t this a bit of a disappointment?” referencing the far larger, and therefore seemingly emptier, MainStage space.

Irving began by explaining a bit about The Cider House Rules for those who were unfamiliar. Though it has become famous as an “abortion novel,” Irving never really intended for this to be the case. While he acknowledges that his book certainly takes a side in the abortion debate, Irving intended for it to be a novel about “a child facing a harsh, adult reality.” Irving’s grandfather was an OB-GYN, so he was introduced to the concept from a young age and perhaps did not realize how squeamish the material could make some people. This concept, however, dawned on Irving when a woman fainted during a reading of the novel while it was still in the work-shopping stages. Both he and Shepard were present for this, and while humorous, it was certainly an omen of controversy to come.

The film version of The Cider House Rules was certainly not without its difficulties. The project went through four different directors before settling on Lasse Hollström, who Irving proclaimed is the only director with whom he would ever consider making another movie. Irving stated that Hollström “knows how to work with children as actors,” making their performances feel just as genuine as those from adults. He also appreciates Hollström’s “European” style of filmmaking, which allows for a much slower pace, as The Cider House Rules only has about one-third the number of scenes as the average Hollywood film.

Of course, there were issues in adapting the novel that even Hollström could not alleviate. Irving’s novels are long, both in page number and in time span. Thus, not only did content need to be cut, but several actors are needed to play one character, which according to Irving, “diminishes the audience’s capacity to form an emotional connection with them.” In addition, some of the more sexually graphic and bloody scenes had to be severely edited, as Irving wanted to avoid an “R” rating in order to make the film as accessible to adolescents as his books.

Although Irving did not want to take a particularly active role in casting the film, he did make one insistence: He wanted the characters to be their real ages. In particular, in a scene where a 12-year-old needs an abortion, he wanted the actress to be 12 years old. Though this received pushback from producers, Irving eventually got his way.

The evening ended with a Q-and-A period from the audience, allowing them to get clarification from Irving himself. Perhaps surprisingly, Irving revealed his opinion that there are far more talented actors than there are talented directors and screenwriters. But this does not mean that good actors always make good movies. “It’s possible to make a bad film with a good script, but it’s impossible to make a good film from a bad script,” he said. Irving also revealed that he never changes an ending. He keeps ideas in his head for upward of 10 years, deciding what to write next purely based on feeling. When deciding what to write next, he keeps ideas in his head until he is absolutely positive of the ending. Then, he knows what to work toward as he writes.

Shepard and Irving provided a fascinating window into two worlds: that of film adaptation and that of the mind of a world-famous author. The evening was certainly a great way to kick off a weekend of film and fun.