Too little has been said about John Irving’s typographical tics. He may or may not be our Dickens, but he is decidedly an ace at emphasis. He’s generous with exclamation points! He does the italics—and the dashes—and (in A Prayer for Owen Meany) the ALL CAPS TO DENOTE VOLUME. This supple handling of standard prose markings, as much as well-turned plots and endearing characters, keeps the pages turning.
Cinema scrubs these graphic prods, and the shruggable quality of Irving’s filmed oeuvre may owe something to this insurmountable blockage of energy. In regard to the attention paid to such prosaic mechanics, Tod Williams’s The Door in the Floor (an adaptation of Irving’s A Widow for One Year) is a triumph. As a character notes of the kid’s-book author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), he “changes a comma from a semicolon, and the next day he changes it back.” Who can perceive such invisible emendation?
More transparently, The Door in the Floor eliminates much of its source’s plot, focusing on the book’s first third. The result is a crisply shot chamber piece for husband, wife, and boy. At times it plays like an affecting portrait of a marriage on life support intersecting with an earnest coming-of-age story, at times like a Lands’ End catalog in which all the models have been instructed to squint at the middle distance. Famous, randy Ted and beautiful but zombie-like Marion (Kim Basinger) have drifted apart since the tragic death of their two teenage sons. (The sound design features the most significant use of a car’s turn signal since Park Ki-yong’s Camel(s).) They have a young daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning), who prefers her father to her shell-shocked mom; the photos of her deceased brothers, whose lives she pleads to hear about, turn their Hamptons house into a memory palace for people she never knew in the flesh.
In the film’s fateful summer, Ted takes on a writing assistant, virginal Exeter kid Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), not simply out of allegiance to alma mater but as an offering to his withdrawn wife: Eddie resembles one of their sons. Amanuensis and spouse become lovers, and the film doesn’t stint on the lust. Yet the psychology behind the affair—and behind Ted’s counterintuitive gift—doesn’t quite work on the screen. Bridges gives a full-bodied (and often bare-butted) performance that’s a more somber counterpart to his incarnation as the Dude, but too much silence hems in Foster and Basinger, and their inarticulateness scans more cryptically than necessary. At a critical moment, Marion declares that she’d rather be no mother to Ruth than a bad one, to which Eddie responds, “That doesn’t make any sense.” And indeed it doesn’t.
Widow‘s full arc might have filled in the blanks; intensifying Irving’s playful metafiction, both Eddie and Ruth become novelists. In the film, though, Ted’s the only scribbler; the writing life becomes a trap, and the title’s portal gets a literal, elegant workout in the final scene. The image brings to mind this year’s Secret Window, based on a story by another would-be latter-day Dickens, Stephen King. In that Depp-charged glimpse of authorial madness, a fictional way out of a marriage leads to a murder that will correspond to what was previously only imagined. For all Door‘s flaws, there’s a hermetic grace to its final erasure; “a sound”—as Ted Cole writes of a mouse at midnight—”like someone trying not to make a sound”; a comma removed and replaced.