Book vs. Movie
The Door in the Floor vs. A Widow for One Year
By Kim Hollis
August 23, 2004

Yes, I know it's embarrassing that I was married to a Baldwin.

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

A Widow for One Year/The Door in the Floor

The Door in the Floor is based on a portion of the John Irving novel A Widow for One Year. A book that is divided into three distinct but very interconnected subsets, the film centers around the first third of the story, which takes place over the course of one summer in 1958. Could the movie work despite the fact that the first section of Irving’s tale leaves many loose ends untied?

The Book

A Widow for One Year is the story of Ruth Cole.

Spanning the course of 36 years, the tale begins when Ruth is an inquisitive four-year-old. She is her parents’ only child, as they decided to have her in the aftermath of the death of their two teenage sons. Pictures of these beautiful boys, Thomas and Timothy, are hanging all over the family’s home in the Hamptons. There is a story behind every picture.

As Ruth’s father Ted says, this particular summer is a very sad time in a long marriage. He and Ruth’s mother, Marion, have decided on a trial separation that may or may not eventually lead to a permanent split. To ease their young daughter into this new situation, the Coles have rented an apartment not far away from their home, allowing them to alternate spending every other evening with their daughter, but apart from each other.

In the midst of all this upheaval, Ted decides to take on an assistant. Ted is a writer of children’s books, and as a graduate of Exeter Academy, agrees to hire the son of a staff member of the school. Eddie O’Hare, who aspires to be a writer himself, finds himself thrust in the middle of the confusion. He almost immediately falls in love with Marion, too.

What the teenage boy doesn’t know is that Ted has purposefully brought him into their home because he resembles one of the tragically deceased sons. Because Marion has essentially shut down, Ted’s plan is that she will become captivated by the young man and have an affair, enabling him to take custody of their daughter all on his own.

To reveal much more about the first part of the book is to spoil the film. Suffice it to say that after the opening section ends, we follow Ruth through several years of her adult life. At age 36, she is a world-renowned writer and a singularly unique personality. Throughout the book, though, it’s the early events in her young life that provide the backbone and motivation for many of the things that are to follow.

The Movie

Tod Williams’ The Door in the Floor is a very faithful adaptation of the first 183 pages of Irving’s novel. Williams both directed the film and wrote the screenplay, and he seems to take particular delight in emphasizing the quirky touches that dapple the book.

The movie is toplined by Jeff Bridges as Ted Cole and Kim Basinger as Marion, and both give solid, admirable performances. Jon Foster is appropriately overwhelmed and naïve as the teenager Eddie O’Hare. And finally, though the movie is much more Ted, Marion and Eddie’s story than Ruth’s, Elle Fanning is simply remarkable as the four-year-old girl. If anything, she might be even more precocious than her older sister, Dakota.

The Door in the Floor is lushly filmed, with soft cinematography that belies the harshness of the story that is developing. It is both comic and tragic, and essentially is a small slice of life of a family that is in very unusual circumstances.

The Verdict

Despite the fact that The Door in the Floor is gorgeous to watch and filled with solid acting performances, in the end, it feels incomplete and unsatisfying. After reading the novel, it’s easy to see that there’s good reason for such malaise.

Irving’s A Widow for One Year is a completely engrossing story about a woman and the decisions she makes. The first portion of the book provides ample background to help the reader comprehend why Ruth Cole possesses certain peculiarities later in life. Additionally, because almost all of the characters involved in the story are writers - novelists, children’s authors or journalists - the book becomes a superb treatise on the creative process. Part of the movie’s failure is that this theme is simply impossible to capture by focusing on only a small portion of the story.

But the novel goes further than being just a simple book for writers – it’s for readers, too. After numerous successful novels, Irving has a sublime understanding of what makes readers tick. It’s rewarding to see the author’s viewpoint in that regard – he doesn’t spare those who might be considered “bad” readers, but he does have a certain respect for those people he sees as having even the slightest understanding of the viewpoint the writer is trying to impart. One of the story’s heroes, in fact, is what could only be referred to as “a great reader.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can give to the novel is that immediately upon finishing it, I wanted to turn back to the beginning and read it again. Even more importantly, it inspired me to write - despite the knowledge that I could never put something on paper that is so exquisite as what Irving has accomplished.

And that is something that the movie, despite being somewhat of a smart allegory about the process of writing itself, simply cannot achieve. It’s missing too many of the essential elements that make the novel such a treasure.