In Shakespeare’s time, John Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp (an existentialist tragicomedy that became a publishing phenomenon in in 1978) would have been quaintly referenced as that proverbial ‘tale told by an idiot’ – albeit, an extremely articulate and intellectually perplexed and probing one – though no less ‘full of sound and fury…signifying nothing.’ Even the mostly respectful book reviews of the year felt the need to take sides in the arguments as presented by Irving with terrific irony. Was the novel and the character, T. S. Garp (brilliantly conceived for the movie by Robin Williams in his film debut) pro- or anti-feminist; for or against modern marriage? The genius in Irving’s textually dense ramblings, devoted to this somewhat emasculated fop, chronically overshadowed by the women (and one surrogate transgender gal) in his life; the spawn of a demented Margaret Sanger-esque nurse’s biologically, proto-feministic and highly unorthodox need to procure a child without actually tolerating a husband; queerly never offered us an opinion – merely a series of vignettes travelling through various time periods, from which the reader might glean a variety of perspectives.
The whimsy in Irving’s apparently ‘straight-forward’ style to concocting his alternative reality gave it its’ impetus as a bizarre reflection on then contemporary society; the Ellen James Society being the most perversely acknowledged as a counterpoint to 70’s radical feminism. Here is a cult of pseudo-militants, incapable of relating to the world, or perhaps even each other through the gift of articulate speech; chained to a cause after having their tongues surgically removed in a thoroughly misguided show of support for a young rape victim – Ellen James – whose own tongue was removed via her male attacker to keep her silent. Using this intolerably violent act as their crutch, the ‘society’ – arguably, comprised of a bunch of man-hating lesbians – perverts one woman’s grief into a national campaign in order to eradicate masculinity from the earth – or rather, keep it at bay and away from their cloistered gathering.
As a reflection of modern American life back then (and its continuing spiral into anarchic oblivion since), The World According to Garp remains prophetically disturbing and desolate; the implosion of middle-class morality, and, escalation of random acts of violence, foreshadowing our present epoch with eerie and exacting precision, right down to John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon; a transgender former sports celebrity (Caitlyn Jenner, anyone?). As with all great works of literature, Garp’s purpose – perhaps, somewhat unclear to the rest of us not possessing the author’s far-reaching vision of a future – was generally misconstrued as densely packed intellectual ‘clutter’. Nevertheless, it places the reader in the driver’s seat to formulate opinions about truth and virtue while searching with Garp for a place of solace within this dystopian nightmare. There is little to deny Jenny Fields (realized with nonsensical empathy by Glenn Close) her crippling influence on the natural development of her son’s emotional psyche; a woman so enamored with marching to the beat of a different drum that she sets about to reshape the external influences of life itself, and Garp’s in particular, to assert them as fundamental truths about life and men in general.
Jenny’s grotesque canonization as a leading figure in the 70’s feminist movement is disquieting. For here is a woman who, by her own rather unapologetic admission first, to her parents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the film) – then later, Garp, and finally, anyone else who will listen or read her ‘tell all’ novel – has cruelly denied her child a father (even a father-figure, although Roberta does marginally serve as this bridge, straddling the two sexes); having taken advantage of an unconscious and brain-damaged technical sergeant while working as a nurse in the military hospital, simply to harvest his sperm for her own selfish needs. The baby grows up to be T.S. Garp; ill-equipped and even less likely to investigate the basic mechanics of what it means to be a man. According the novel and the movie – ambitiously directed by George Roy Hill – puberty is a curse, as is all male sexual desire. One cannot escape the natural evolution of the former or stave off the frustrated urges of the latter. Without a real man to point out the fundamental truth – that all human beings are dictated by their passions – cerebral and physical – young Garp’s (James McCall) sex education is extremely limited to Jenny’s ideas of ‘dirty male lust’ and reoccurring prepubescent experimentations with the town’s trollop, Cushie (Jillian Ross as a child/Jenny Wright as an adult). A reprieve of sorts arrives during Garp’s college years; a chance meeting and instant infatuation with fellow student, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt).
Garp wants Helen in the sort of cheaply erotic way Jenny finds disgusting and yet simultaneously fascinating. Helen, however, is not interested in jocks, something Garp has since become, thanks in part to his joining the wrestling team against Jenny’s wishes. She would have preferred him to take up basketball. Locker room shenanigans aside, Garp finds the company of men – or rather, boys of his years – stimulating. Despite being attracted to Helen, Garp also continues to see Cushie on the side; Cushie’s introverted sister, Pooh (Brenda Currin) exposing Garp and Cushie’s love-making on the grassy knoll to Helen, who thereafter avoids Garp like the plague. In the meantime, Garp has been working very hard to impress Helen as the writer she pledges to marry upon graduation. After their breakup, Garp decides to go to New York and become a real writer to spite her. Unwilling, as yet, to loosen the maternal yoke, Jenny quits her job as school nurse and moves in with Garp.
During their initial arrival to the Big Apple, Jenny becomes aware of Garp’s casual glances directed at a prostitute (Swoozie Kurtz). Partly meant to embarrass Garp, but also to learn more about his concept of desire – presumably, for which she has no stomach or extracurricular experience, Jenny is gripped to unearth this hooker’s particular back story regarding the world’s oldest profession. Mother and son befriend the reluctant prostitute. Jenny buys her a cup of coffee and then pays for Garp’s ‘first time’ with a professional. Later, Jenny will offer the hooker a safe haven at her family’s seaside retreat – converted into a sort of misfit’s oasis and respite for the socially stunted. But for now, as Jenny has momentarily retired from nursing, she takes up Garp’s passion to write; penning the bizarre memoir – Sexual Suspect. Inadvertently, it becomes a controversial best seller, embraced by the feminist movement.
Jenny’s overnight celebrity is an anathema to Garp’s carefully crafted proses; his first novella – richly supported by publisher, John Wolfe (Peter Michael Goetz) though receiving little exposure or praise beyond the literati. Garp returns to Helen and proposes marriage. She accepts, recognizing his talents as a brilliant writer. Nevertheless, the rest of the world knows Garp only from his mother’s novel as the ‘bastard son of Jenny Fields’. Garp’s marriage to Helen is hardly without its hiccups. After giving birth to two sons, Duncan (Nathan Babcock) and Walt (Ian McGregor), Helen – now a college professor at Reardon Academy – takes up with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton (Mark Soper). In the meantime, Jenny has established a sort of feminist refuge on the sprawling New England compound once owned by her parents, bequeathed to her after her father’s death. Garp meets ‘Roberta Muldoon’ – a transgender and devout convert of Jenny’s methodologies. Roberta is empathetic to Garp’s inability to accept his mother’s constant and controversial meddling in all their lives. Their unlikely friendship will ultimately ease Garp through some very tough times ahead.
Having discovered Helen’s ongoing infidelities with Michael, Garp confronts her over the telephone, flying into a rage. He takes Duncan and Walt out for dinner and then a movie to clear his head. But his anger incrementally festers as the night wears on. Earlier, Garp has illustrated his passion to fly by turning off the engine of his Packard on the decline leading to their house, allowing gravity to send the car coasting to an abrupt stop in the family’s driveway. Now, under the cover of night, as rain begins to fall, Duncan and Walt implore him to repeat this trick. Alas, they are unaware Michael has parked his car in the driveway, having coaxed Helen into performing fellatio on him in the front seat. In the resultant smash up, Walt is killed and Duncan loses an eye. Later, we learn Helen also bit off Michael’s penis in the accident, breaking her jaw; Garp cracking his neck and jaw, having his mouth wired shut for a time. The family retires to Jenny’s familial home to convalesce. But Garp’s ire remains unabated. Unable to speak, he nevertheless makes his disgust for Helen known to all, causing Jenny to take Helen’s side. Roberta comforts Garp.
Sometime later, Helen and Garp are reconciled; their marital bond strengthened by their shared grief at having lost a son. They decided to have another child. Garp writes a politically loaded novel condemning the Ellen James Society. It incurs the organization’s wrath, but garners him sincere praise from the critics and an anonymous note of thanks, presumably written by the reclusive rape victim. Jenny, accompanied by Roberta, leaves for New York to support a woman candidate (Bette Henritze) running for governor. Regrettably, the outdoor venue is patronized by a sniper who performs a public execution as Jenny takes the stage. Garp’s grief turns to scorn when the Ellen Jamesians organize a public funeral for Jenny meant to exclude him from attending. Roberta helps Garp in a disguise as a woman in order to partake in the services. But his presence is exposed by Pooh who has since become a member of the cult.
Spirited away by Roberta down a back alley to avoid a scene, Garp comes face to face with the reclusive Ellen James who holds up a copy of his novel, mouthing the words ‘thank you’ for his honesty, before helping Garp escape the militants in hot pursuit by hurrying him into a waiting taxi. A short while later, we find Garp has given up writing, having come home to coach the college wrestling team. Regrettably, Pooh is also on campus. Masquerading as a nurse, she fires several gun shots into Garp. As Garp is air-lifted by medical helicopter, he quietly peers out the window at the landscape, turning to a tearful Helen and adding, “Look…I’m flying, Helen. I’m flying.” We cut away to the image of a happy baby, Garp, being tossed into the air; the infant joyously smiling now. Is this merely childhood memory unearthed by the adult Garp as he drifts in and out of consciousness, or a recap meant to mark his life at its end?
As with most artists, The World According to Garp is a far more personal reflection of John Irving’s own heart; an intimate portrait grafted onto fictional counterparts, the veneer thin and stemming from Irving’s own obsession to draw a vicarious clarity out of being denied access to his own birth father. In reality, Irving’s mother never gave up information about his origins, just as Jenny baits Garp with a single ‘scripted’ story of his conception that leaves him feeling deflated, yet bursting inside with even more unanswerable questions. The novel’s view – that sex equates to death or, at the very least, is a harbinger to all sorts of dissatisfactory and emotional disfigurement, torturous and cruel – is carried over into the movie; ambitiously so, given the climate in American movies back in 1982; screenwriter, Steve Tesich choosing to explore some, if not all, of Irving’s ‘hang-ups’ via Garp’s repeatedly thwarted exploration of his own sexual feelings – rechristened as ‘lust’ by Jenny – without reprisals. In the novel, Jenny takes the young Garp to Vienna as an escape from American provincialism. In Austria, she and Garp encounter the prostitute. For budgetary and logistic reasons, this intercontinental venue was changed to New York instead. In both cases, this chance encounter that ought to have expanded Garp’s understanding of sex and love, is instead usurped and mined by Jenny as a chapter for her memoir, ‘Sexual Suspect’.
Interesting – and gutsy – of Irving to cast the fictional Jenny Fields as the empathetic organizer of the Ellen Jamesians – a self-mutilating cult of voiceless women, protesting the rape of a young woman – when, by her own admission, Jenny has raped a comatose and dying technical sergeant merely to conceive Garp. Ultimately, Tesich’s reconstitution of Garp’s marriage to Helen distills what, in the novel, had been multiple affairs with many singles and other married couples, into two separate indiscretions; Garp’s seduction of Duncan and Walt’s teenage babysitter (Sabrina Lee Moore) and Helen’s affair with her graduate student, Michael. This makes the couple’s later reconciliation more palpable and convincing; the audience able to excuse a ‘single’ indiscretion on both sides, recognized by both offending parties as an obvious lapse in judgment, though just as unlikely to embrace any married couple whose morality and attitudes toward marriage are laissez faire to non-existent. The inextricable link between sex and death, even murder, is less darkly drawn in the film than in the novel; the one exception being Walt dying from injuries sustained in the car wreck that causes Michael to lose his manhood between Helen’s clenched teeth after she agrees to fellatio as a parting gesture in their affair. The movie retains John Irving’s wickedness for combining a macabre sense of the perverse and silly, but even further lightens this mood by tipping the scales toward a sort of merciless sardonicism.
It helps that the novel and the movie are set in the afterglow of the fabulous forties; a decade then, as yet, untapped in the movies for its sexual explicitness. There is a great tendency among the young to look upon previous generations, particularly those in the early half of the 20th century, as harbingers of a sort of sexless glamor; women of virtue married to men of valor, everyone doing their part to remain congenially ‘above it all’ where love, lust and sex is concerned. To a large extent, this common view by the novice has been nurtured via the entertainments then in vogue; songs professing unrequited kisses left on a pillow and movies in which a brief interlude of mostly chaste clenches leads to a swift walk down the isle in a flourish of strewn rose petals and groundswell of underscore to punctuate the proverbial ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ – sleeping in separate beds, preferably, in separate bedrooms, with one foot firmly planted on the floor. But by 1982, the American movies’ fairytale about life as a couple had fallen on crasser times; the graphic nature of sex exorcised in countless ‘love scenes’ that had very little to do with satisfying our cerebral vestiges for a ‘good time’.
The world, at least, according to Garp, is misshapen, imperfect, dissatisfying and frequently harmful. Here is a man unable to find even the remotest satisfaction in most any relationship he chooses to cultivate; though chiefly, with the women in his life. Ironic, given his aversion to homosexuality in general, Garp’s most cherished and enduring friendship is with the transsexual, Roberta – likely derived from his remembrances of her when she was still a robust footballer, playing professionally for his favorite team. There are shades of the buddy/buddy picture at play in the scenes where Garp and Roberta narrowly escape a psychotic truck driver (Matthew Cowles), whom Garp threatens with a crowbar after he is caught recklessly speeding through their residential neighborhood. And later, Roberta and Garp are seen sharing a game of touch football, engaging Walt and Duncan in an afternoon’s make-believe of war and conquest, with Roberta as their damsel in distress. And it is Roberta to whom Garp turns in hours of genuine need; a sincere comfort after Jenny’s assassination and Garp and Helen’s recovery from their near-fatal car wreck.
As a novel, The World According to Garp remains densely packed with scenarios that frequently border on grand guignol; sexual encounters that end badly or scenarios where women struggle to discover themselves from under the postmodern feminist fallout, instead frequently find themselves the victims of an insidiously monolithic patriarchy that even embraces political assassination to remain in control. Deconstructing the novel’s stories within stories takes the reader into a complex netherworld of stumbling social situations and intricately woven character studies, frequently bleak and often quite horrifying. In the book, the fatalistic nature of its protagonist is exhaustive and exhausting. The movie is salvaged from becoming a real downer by screenwriter, Steve Tesich’s refusal to go all the way down this rabbit hole; also, by Robin Williams’ miraculously restrained performance, void of his usual need to take over virtually every scene in which he appears. Instead, we are given a kinder, gentler Garp – still cynical, world-weary and occasionally imbued with Irving’s sense of animosity toward feminists in particular and women in general. But on the whole, Williams’ Garp is a probing, nurturing and soul-searching drifter through life. He discovers his path through the wilderness of angst, self-pity and regrets; albeit, too late to truly appreciate all the meandering misfires as part of the learning curve in the journey gone before it. The intractable nature of Irving’s prose is not so much reinterpreted by Tesich, but played verbatim like a moving tableau of the text, with minor artistic license taken along the way.
The movie, however, lives entirely within its moments, eschewing Irving’s overriding arc of sublime nihilism. As a movie, The World According to Garp is director George Roy Hill’s counterculture folklore to Hollywood’s nationalized whitewash in candy-flossed entertainments. In increments, it’s grim, sour, and excoriating showbiz. But oh, what a show; the bits of business appropriately disturbing to their core; odd people do unsettling things to each other in the spirit of professing to be just normal Average Joes. Overlapping the ostensibly indivisible chasms of politicking and madness, the twain frequently runs a parallel course, unexpectedly meeting right down the middle with nerve-jangling results. As such, The World According to Garp is often wintry and abrasive in its storytelling, yet always with something relevant to say about the modern implosion of suburban life.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray has been remastered in 2k from a newly created interpositive. The results are impressive but slightly imperfect. Miroslav Ondrícek’s understated cinematography looks gorgeous for the most part, although there are still a few obvious hints of age-related damage scattered throughout this transfer; a speckle here, a fleeting scratch there. The subdued color palette, particularly during outdoor scenes, has been very accurately reproduced. Scenes shot indoors under natural lighting conditions tend to adopt a slightly thicker patina of grain (as they should) but with flesh tones ever so slightly leaning toward an unnatural orange. Overall, the image is finely detailed and generally film-like, untouched by unpleasant digital manipulations. But it doesn’t really impress. Okay, The World According to Garp is not a movie meant to overwhelm. It’s an earthy, alive and gritty main stream product that plays more like experimental art house. The visuals on this Blu-ray support this assessment. Let’s leave it at that. The original mono audio is presented in 2.0 DTS and is surprisingly robust with good solid clarity. WAC's Blu-ray is a first-rate presentation of this tenaciously idiosyncratic story. For those willing to invest in the tale being told, there are formidable riches to be mined and treasured forever. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)