My Movie Business by John Irving

John Irving’s memoir, My Movie Business, is a book that will appeal to the narrowest of audiences: hard-core John Irving fans and/or people interested in screenwriting. Fall outside of those groups and you’ll probably find this book self-indulgent.

My Movie Business is Irving’s account of the long, frustrating process of turning a book into a screenplay, and a screenplay into a movie – in this case, the book/movie was The Cider House Rules. Over the course of its thirteen year development, the movie had two producers, four directors and countless rewrites (which were all done by Irving at the behest of the producers and directors). When the movie was finally complete, it was perfection – that’s my opinion but critics agreed and it won two Academy Awards in 2000 – Irving for Best Adapted Screenplay and Michael Caine for Best Supporting Actor. It was also nominated for Best Picture (but lost to American Beauty).

The book begins with an account of the distinguished career of Irving’s grandfather, Dr. Frederick Irving, a renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist. Dr Irving also published many medical manuscripts (and, unrelated, filthy poems) –

As for abortion, Grandfather was wise to observe that “as long as there are unwanted pregnancies, women will attempt to rid themselves of them.” I was fourteen when I read that, in 1956. I was forty-three when The Cider House Rules was published, in 1985. I like to think my grandfather would have enjoyed the novel.

It’s clear where the inspiration for the character of Dr. Larch came from.

Despite confessing that he is not a movie-goer himself, Irving was well aware of the challenges of writing a screenplay –

Storytelling in screenplays follows a much more ruthless course than in novels.

Two of Irving’s novels had been made into movies, The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. He had not worked on either screenplay but “…believed that the best adaptation from a novel to a film was a literal one.”

That opinion changed when he began work on the screenplay for Cider House. Irving realised that elements of a novel, such as character development and back-story, had to be are sacrificed –

I wanted to make Larch more normal. There is less time for character development in a film than in a novel; a character’s eccentricities can too easily become the character.

My Movie Business offers fascinating insight into translating a novel to film, and also into Irving’s writing process in general (there’s a detailed explanation of why he writes the last line of his novels first, a fact that I’ve always marvelled at).

A screenplay, as a piece of writing, is merely the scaffolding for a building someone else is going to build. The director is the builder.

I  need to reread Cider House, to appreciate how Irving altered the story for the screen. And then I need to watch the movie again, with My Movie Business close at hand, to remind me of the bits where either he or the director compromised. It’s sounding like a Cider House project!

3.5/5 I’m a hard-core Irving fan, so…

It’s a cider house. In New England. In Autumn. This: Apple Cider Maple Fizz.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 29): Belfast 10°-19° and Melbourne 10°-19°.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I saw the movie first, and then the novel was my first from John Irving — read on my honeymoon road trip through New England. I’ve become a fan since, though perhaps not a diehard one: I’ve DNFed his first and most recent books, and there’s a swathe there in the middle that I’m not interested in, but Owen Meany and Garp are terrific. I enjoyed this slim memoir and would reread it if I went back to either the book or the film.

  3. I see you’ve lined up a couple of fixes for yourself there! I used to be hardcore but couldn’t get on with A Son of the Circus and it wasn’t until Last Night in Twisted River that I really enjoyed another one. I did love Cider House, though, both book and movie.

  4. This does sound interesting and I thought the film was excellent. I think having the author involved in the screenplay often works well, but I can see how it could be disastrous too! Irving sounds like he was willing to be flexible & the end result was definitely worth it.

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