THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP
Film Quarterly 1982-83


Director: Goarge Roy Hill. Script: Steve Tesich,
based an the novel by John Irving. Photography: Miroslav Ondricek. Warners.


John Irving, author of the novels The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire: for integrating feminism as a major philosophical theme; for writing about rape with its true horror and brutality;for creating male characters who care about kids; and for understanding that feminist excesses are funny.- -"Ms. Heroes," Ms. (August, 1982)



The World According to Garp is a remarkable achievement. Steve Tesich and George Roy Hill have succeeded in transforming John Irving's powerful, darkly comic "feminist" novel into an insipid, safe and sentimental "masculine" film. Something indeed has been lost in the change of medium: the message. Lust, rape, new relationships between men and women, new definitions of fatherhood and manhood--these are the issues in Irving's Garp. All changed or omitted in the film. Tesich, its screenwriter, and Hill, the director, have taken a novel which presents a world of characters significantly altered by the ideas of the women's movement and have magically returned both the themes and the characters to their safe, traditional places. They have made Irving's The World According to Garp into a man's world after all.

Ms. praised Irving "for writing about rape with its true terror and brutality." Rape is indeed a central issue in Irving's Garp. The film virtually omits it. The novel explores the issue in two powerful and unforgettable scenes. While running in the park Garp finds a ten year-old who has just been raped. His response is to break down crying: "The sky was grey, dead leaves were all around them, and when Garp began to wail aloud, the girl picked up his T-shirt and covered herself with it."(1) Garp's initial sorrow gives way to outrage as he wildly searches the park to find and capture the rapist. The second scene is in the first chapter of Garp's novel 'The World According to Bensenhaver.' This chapter is a powerful, detailed description of the terrifying rape of Hope Standish who manages heroically to slash the rapist to death with his own knife. The significant point about this novel within the novel is that Irving tells it from the woman's point of view, making it perfectly clear that rape is nothing but a brutal violation of a human being, that Hope Standish has the right to defend herself to the death, the rapist's death.

These two scenes present rape in its "true terror and brutality." But they are also important because they demonstrate Garp's new awareness of the meaning of rape. He understands it from a woman's rather than the usual male point of view. In a central passage in the novel, Garp reflects on the significance of rape:

I feel uneasy, Garp wrote, that my life has come in contact with so many rapes. Apparently, he was referring to the ten-year-old in the city park, to the eleven year-old Ellen James and her terrible society--his mother's wounded women with their symbolic, self-inflicted speechlessness. And later he would write a novel, which would make Garp more of a "household product," which would have much to do with rape. Perhaps rape's offensiveness to Garp was that it was an act that disgusted him with himself-with his own very male instincts, which were otherwise so unassailable. He never felt like raping anyone, but rape, Garp thought, made men feet guilt by association (p. 209).
In The World According to Garp a new male consciousness emerges. Garp's response to rape is self-disgust and guilt.

Shockingly the film omits all of this. No child in the park, no Bensenhaver story, no Garp anguishing about rape. The film makes one feeble gesture at confronting the issue when Garp studies for a few moments a picture of Ellen James and listens to the story of her rape. He does react briefly with some feelings of pity, but quickly shifts his attention to attacking the Ellen Jamesians for their extremism. The film nowhere presents rape in its "true terror and brutality." This omission is unforgivable. Either Tesich and Hill don't believe that rape is a serious issue in the novel, which reveals a strange misreading, or they wanted to avoid offensive subject matter in a safe commercial product.

Besides avoiding the unsettling issue of rape, the film-makers also violate the novel by translating the liberated characters of Garp, Helen, and Jenny back into safe traditional stereotypes. A few gestures towards feminism exist. Jenny, the feminist leader, and Roberta Muldoon, the transsexual, two extreme and usually ridiculed types, are sympathetically treated, but in safe and superficial ways.

Robin Williams's Garp is the film's biggest weakness. True, his Garp is a happy house-husband, home fixing meals and playing cute games with his kids, while Helen is off teaching. But these are superficial role changes. Wearing apron strings does not represent a significant change in attitude and awareness. Garp, outraged at rape, anguishing over male lust, sympathetic to the exploitation of women? Forget it. Nothing like that is in the film. Irving's Garp is the "new" man, the man who has a new awareness about women. Garp is one of the few heroes in American literature to show such empathy with women, to engage in rethinking male-female relationships. Not only is he outraged by rape, but he is deeply disturbed by male lust. He anguishes over his seduction of babysitters. He does not exult in his macho power, but instead is confused and shamed by it. After the last babysitter seduction, he reflects on why he doesn't want to have a daughter: Garp didn't want a daughter because of men. Because of bad men certainly; but even, he thought, because of men like me" (p. 212). The film shows nothing of this complexity of feeling. Garp's seduction of the babysitter is treated as a typical male indiscretion which has little significance to him and which he soon forgets. There is no sign of an intense conscience at work, but rather, in Williams's treatment, a little boy's naughtiness.

Garp's reaction to Helen's affair with Michael Milton dramatically shows the film's recasting of Garp into the old male role. Williams plays the betrayed, cuckolded husband to the hilt. The happy family world according to Williams's Garp is utterly destroyed by Helen's horrendous act of infidelity. No sexual equality here. No remembrance of the babysitter. Just pure simple male outrage. Later, while the family convalesces at Dog's Head Harbor after the tragic accident, Williams delivers a splendid outburst of male self-righteous anger, slamming the piano shut as Helen is playing. How wonderfully ironic this incident is, revealing once again the laughable fragility of the male ego. And how unlike Irving's Garp. Not only does Irving's Garp try to understand his own lust, he also struggles to believe in the equality of infidelity. In the novel, Garp is hurt and angered when he rinds out about Milton. He does react like a typical mate. But the crucial difference is that he goes beyond those feelings. In a key moment Garp reflects:

He was at the point in his feelings toward Helen where he felt betrayed but at the same time honestly loved and important to her; he had not had time enough to ponder how betrayed he felt--or how much, truly, she had been trying to keep him in her mind. It was a delicate point, between hating her and loving her terribly--also he was not without sympathy for whatever she wanted; after all, he knew, the shoe on the other foot had also been worn (and was certainly thinner). It even seemed unfair, to Garp, that Helen, who had also meant so well, had been caught like this; she was a good woman and she certainly deserved better luck (p. 371).
Garp here struggles to keep the affair in perspective and demonstrates a complexity of feeling and sympathy for Helen's point of view that is totally absent in the film.

Williams's Garp is vintage traditional male. The film-makers so misunderstand Irving's point that Garp is the new male that they leave the most telling presentation of Garp's new sensibilities entirely out of the film. In the novel, Garp goes to his mother's funeral, the first "feminist" funeral, in drag because no men are allowed. Garp is a marvelous comic figure decked out as a sexy queen with blond wig, cherry-red boots and huge breasts. When he is discovered by Pooh and chased out of the auditorium, he escapes in a cab. The cabby, thinking Garp is a woman, begins spouting male cliches about Sally Devlin, a candidate for governor who has just spoken at Jenny's funeral. The cabby gives the old male put-down of Ms. Devlin because she had cried during her speech: " 'She looked like a real idiot to me,' the cabby said. 'She couldn't be no governor if she couldn't control herself no better than that."' (p. 504). Here Garp reveals his sensibilities. First he feels ashamed that the cabby is such an ignorant man. Then he gets angry when the man keeps on. In a wonderfully comic but profound moment, Garp actually becomes what the cabby thinks he is: a woman. He says to the cabby: "'You're an asshole and a moron . . . and if you don't drive me to the airport with your mouth shut, I'll tell a cop you tried to paw me all over' " (p. 504). When the cabby cusses him out, "Fucking women," Garp responds, "Fucking men." Here's Garp at his funniest but finest moment: he understands and identifies with women's experience and is outraged at the male abuse that women experience every day. Why is this scene omitted in the film? The answer is obvious: nothing in the film remotely suggests that Garp is capable of such insight, Williams's Garp is just a good old boy.

As if to make up for so much that they leave out, the film-makers overload one aspect of Garp-Garp as father. But once again they have betrayed Irving and transformed Garp as the new father into Garp as the traditional gushy family man. Garp in the novel is deeply involved in the daily lives of his children. He is obsessed by their vulnerability and has an acute awareness of life's tragic possibilities, the omnipresent threat of the "Under Toad." He is a neurotic, anxious father who desperately wants to protect his family from the brutality of the world. This desire drives Garp into wonderfully bizarre and comic behavior: chasing speeding cars in the neighborhood; his hilarious trip in the middle of the night to Mrs. Ralph's house to get Duncan; and his marvelous, zany story "Dog in the Alley"all to warn Walt about running in the street.

But Garp as sensitive, comic, concerned father has a darkly ironic side, too. His very concern to protect his children leads him into such excesses that he helps produce the very disasters he tries to avoid. Garp himself is aware of this irony:

There was so much to worry about, when worrying about children, and Garp worried so much about everything: at times, especially in these throes of insomnia, Garp thought himself to be psychologically unfit for parenthood. Then he worried about that, too, and felt all the more anxious for his children. What if their most dangerous enemy turned out to be him? (p. 275)
The film reduces this complex vision of the ironies of fatherhood to Williams's sentimental desire to look at his "beautiful" children while they're sleeping and to luxuriate in the grand pleasures of being a father. No fear, no anxiety, no irony to disturb the traditional happy family man.

If the film's Garp is a disappointing misreading of the novel, Helen's transformation is downright offensive. Irving's Helen is a liberated woman. She is a beautiful, brilliant (she received her Ph.D. in English at 23) professor of English, a sophisticated, self-assured woman, who from her first appearance in the novel, reading in the wrestling room, knows who she is. She is strongly independent, especially in her relationship to Garp. Mary Beth Hurt's Helen captures all the cliches of the bookworm; Helen becomes a sweet, passive, sexless little girl who has no identity except as Garp's wife and who might pass for a stereotypic kindergarten teacher. Two incidents demonstrate how clearly Hollywood has put Helen back into her proper feminine role. The first scene is when Garp is courting Helen. He performs a Mork-like routine for her as she is reading in the bleachers. After enthralling her with his performance, Garp begins to talk about James Joyce. Remember that Helen is supposedly the intellectual specializing in literature. Yet the scene shows them walking off together with Garp lecturing her on some esoteric point about Joyce's singing career. This scene, of course, isn't in the novel at all. Written especially for the film, it is the old male-female scenario: the dominant male lecturing the passive, approving female. She's the expert, but he knows more and she loves it.

The second example of the transformation of Helen is her response to Garp's first important short story. The scene shows them in the bleachers, Helen reading his manuscript while Garp anxiously waits for her verdict. She finishes the story and calls Garp over. She clutches the manuscript to her bosom dramatically declaring that the story makes her sad, so sad. Garp is ecstatic, as Helen lavishes extravagant praise on her adored hero. Helen is awed by Garp's achievement and gives him uncritical, loving, female praise. But Irving's Helen never gives Garp such adolescent adoration. In fact she is highly critical of his early efforts at writing and always takes a sophisticated ironic stance towards his work. Her intellectually demanding attitude goads Garp into becoming a serious writer. After he shows her his first story, instead of gushing praise, Helen writes him the following letter: "Dear Garp, This story shows promise, although I do think at this point, you are more of a wrestler than a writer. There is a care taken with language, and a feeling for people, but the situation seems rather contrived and the ending of this story is pretty juvenile" (p. 93). Irving's Garp relates to Helen as his superior when it comes to critical judgment about literature, and he readily accepts her harsh criticism. Even when he wites his first good story,"The Pension Grillparzer," Helen is not lavish with praise. She tells him, quite reasonably, that it is a pretty good story for a start. She is never easily impressed or awed by Garp at any stage of their relationship (unlike Hurt's Helen, she never goes to any of Garp's wrestling matches). She is not dependent on him for her selfhood and doesn't find her identity in being the writer's supportive wife. Theirs is a relationship of equals and it would be unthinkable for Helen to act like a member of Garp's fan club.

Jenny Fields is the sexual suspect transformed into lovable mother--the perfect Hollywood feminist. Nothing threatening or offensive about this Jenny. The film, of course, omits the most important incident that establishes her radical character in the novel--the opening scene in which she slashes a soldier in a movie theater when he jams his hand up her dress. That is a crucial scene because Jenny's act of self-defense is met with stereotypic male responses. The soldier who assaulted her, the police, even her family, accuse her of wrong-doing. Once again the woman victim of sexual assault becomes the criminal. Jenny has no right to defend herself since they all accuse her of "asking for it." She rejects such accusations and asserts her right to protect herself. This scene cannot be logically omitted--in it she asserts her right to independent reality separate from, and if need be, against the male world. Jenny's bizarre method of conceiving Garp is only the comic embodiment of her revolutionary assertion that she doesn't need relationships with men to give her life meaning. In her key reflection on this issue Jenny realizes: 'In this dirtyminded world . . . you are either somebody's wife or somebody's whore-or fast on your way to becoming one or the other. If you don't fit either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you. But . . . there is nothing wrong with me" (p. 13).

In the film, Jenny is a cardboard feminist, a lovable, eccentric woman whom we mostly see either looking prim and virtuous at those quaint feminist rallies or playing protective mother to Garp. Why would any man want to assassinate this woman?

The film reveals its conventional attitudes not only by omitting potentially disturbing scenes such as those involving rape and Garp's sympathetic identification with women, but it adds a major "normalizing" theme that isn't in the novel at all: Garp's obsession with his flying father, Technical Sergeant Garp. Early in the film is the cute animated scene of young Garp flying with his father, and he becomes a wrestler because the headgear reminds him of a flyer's helmet. In the roof scene he also imitates his tail-gunner father. The car accident happens because Garp is "flying" his car. His final helicopter ride is the culmination of this obsessive flying theme. Even the goofy baby at the beginning and end is "flying."

With unintentional irony, the film-makers create a dominant father figure for Garp in direct contradiction to the novel's view that Jenny and her son can get along perfectly well without one. In the novel, T. S. Garp is a "one-shot" man: he does his job and is never heard from again. Garp never misses, nor even thinks about his father. In fact, what is most radical about the world according to Jenny is that it is a fatherless world, which she and Garp experience not as loss, but as freedom. But Hollywood isn't ready to sell a fatherless world; so Garp gets a father after all.

Irving's The World According to Garp is not a simple feminist tract. As Ms. magazine suggests, Irving integrates feminism into a serious reflection on the nature of the world. That world is a darkly comic world: "In the world according to Garp, an evening could be hilarious and the next morning could be murderous" (p. 565). Garp articulates this tragic-comic view of the world in a letter to Mrs. Poole who criticized Garp's fiction for precisely its bizarre mixture of the tragic and comic:

Horace Walpole once said that the world is comic to those who think and tragic to those who feel. I hope you'd agree with me that Walpole somewhat simplifies the world by saying this. Surely both of us think and feel; in regard to what's comic and what's tragic, Mrs. Poole, the world is all mixed up. For this reason I have never understood why "serious" and "funny" are thought to be opposites. It is simply a truthful contradiction that people's problems are often funny and that people are often nonetheless sad (p. 233).
Irving presents us with a "serious funny" world--a world of Garp's hilarious conception, a little girl's rape, Garp's sniffing an old man's crotch in the park, Jenny's and Garp's assassinations, the transsexual Robert Muldoon's throwing a body block on a male chauvinist pig, Michael Milton's paradise lost. He confronts us with a darkly tragic view of the brutality and violence that dominate the world--a world in which "we are all terminal cases." But he also offers a way of coping with that world--humor. Garp says it for Irving in his letter to Mrs. Poole: "I take people very seriously. People are all I take seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave--and nothing but laughter to console them with" (p. 233).

John Irving gives us a vision of a world in which women and men are in a serious funny struggle to be free from the old oppressive sexual roles and definitions. The world according to Irving is a dark, frightening place, but he has written a wonderfully comic book of consolation.(2)

The world according to Tesich and Hill offers no such vision. The film gives only cute, slap-stick heroes and sentimental consolation. It can do nothing more because it does not seriously confront the tragic dimensions of life. No confrontation with rape, no serious presentation of the terrifying aspect of cxistence. The ending is a perfect Hollywood ending. Garp's tragic assassination by Ellen Jamesian, Pooh Percy, in the wrestling room is transformed into an upbeat finale. Garp is whisked away by a helicopter and in a marvelous, triumphant ending, looks out the window and cheerily exclaims to his heartbroken wife: "I'm flying, I'm flying." And if such an apotheosis were not enough--the closing shot cuts to the adorable floating baby for a last wonderful ooh and ah!

Congratulations to Tesich, Hill, and the others responsible for this film. They have performed a remarkable feat: they have emasculated a feminist novel.


1. John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), p. 199. All citations are from this edition.

2. Pauline Kael, in her review of the film (The New Yorker, August 23, 1982), sees the novel and film, a "generally faithful adaptation" of the book, as neither feminist nor serious. She calls the novel a "poison-pen letter to Mother and the feminist movement" primarily because of the portrayal of Jenny as an " inhuman drillmaster mother" and the Ellen Jamesians as "a hideous and deformed political group." She criticizes Irving for writing a cunning but sensationalistic story, a "masochistic gifted-vtctim game that has been played in recent American writing on just about every conceivable level." She wonders why Ms. magazine could praise Irving as a hero when, in her opinion, "there's no feeling of truth in either the book or the movie."

While I share many of Ms. Kael's criticisms of the film, I disagree with her contentions that the novel is anti-feminist and lacks a "feeling of truth." Aside from her comments about Jenny and the Ellen Jamesians--with which I can, in part, agree--she does not address the primary feminist issues in the novel which are, as I have suggested, the centrality of rape, the character of Garp as the new man, and Garp as father. She also misses the comic spirit of the novel, seeing Garp's world only as a tragic world of mutilation and castration. But just as the novel is tragic, it is equally comic. Garp is a serious and funny book true to at least my "feeling of truth" about the tragicomic nature of the world. The world according to Irving does frighten me, but his wonderful laughter also consoles me. Perhaps had Ms. Kael seen both aspects of the novel she would have found some "feeling of truth" in it.