Movie News

John Irving's personal thoughts on Simon Birch.

Published at: Sept. 7, 1998, 10:44 a.m. CST by staff

This should clear up doubts about the original writer's feeling concerning the "libertys" taken with his novel in the screen adaptation SIMON BIRCH. Now on to the meat...

I am a Senior Publicist at Disney/Hollywood Pictures. Here is the full text of a letter John Irving wrote to Mark Steven Johnson after seeing SIMON BIRCH. I think your readers will find this very interesting and it will help put to rest some of the furor from the "Owen Meany" purists that has been posted in "Talk Back."

Harry, I hope you'll post this. It's words from Irving himself about his thoughts on the adaptation. I'm plugging it in here as well as attaching it. I hope to see it on the site SOON.

JOHN IRVING responds to SIMON BIRCH

For thirteen years I have been writing and rewriting my screenplay of "The Cider House Rules," for four different directors. The first, Phillip Borsos, died; the fourth, the Swedish director Lasse HallstrOm, will direct the picture for Miramax this September -- Richard Gladstein (the Film Colony) producer.

For eight years I have been writing and rewriting my screenplay of "A Son of the Circus," for one director (Martin Bell) from the beginning. That film is supposed to go into production, in India, in January of '99 - with Jeff Bridges in the role of the missionary.

And, since the winter of 1994, I have also begun and completed my ninth novel, "A Widow for One Year."

In short, I decided almost ten years ago that I was too busy to attempt to write a screenplay of "A Prayer for Owen Meany," in addition to feeling that the issue of an alleged religious miracle would prove harder to film that it was to write about, and that I had neither the desire nor the stamina to revisit the Vietnam years. (In the sixties, I hated the sixties; in retrospect, I hate the decade even more.)

Therefore, when Mark Steven Johnson approached me not to write a screenplay of "A Prayer for Owen Meany" but to allow him to write and direct the picture, I was very happy to let him try. My conditions were demanding. I am both surprised that Caravan accepted my terms and grateful to them that they did. I said I wanted to read the shooting script and decide at that time if I wanted them to use my title and the names of my characters. Mark agreed.

I read the script, which I liked; it's a good story. But I felt that Mark's story was markedly different from the story of "Owen Meany"; I felt it would mislead the novel's many readers to see a film of that same title which was so different from the book.

I respect Mark's decision not to include the Vietnam War as the period for the film, although that period was what compelled me to write the novel in the first place. It was not Mark's period. I also respect that he softened the degree to which Owen Meany/Simon Birch is himself a religious miracle. In "A Prayer for Owen Meany," Owen Meany is a miracle; in "Simon Birch," that character is prescient to an unusual degree but he is not literally miraculous. Yet Simon's curiosity regarding "God's plan" for him makes him more than a character in mere destiny's hands. That part of the film feels very close to the spirit of the novel, although there are (of course) literal differences. In any case the larger differences between the novel and the screenplay -- Vietnam and the nature of a religious miracle -- made me ask Mark to come up with a different title for his movie, and to rename my characters.

The film is essentially true to the novel's first chapter, and to the situation of the narrator not knowing who his father is at the time of his mother's death. Mark was honest with me from the beginning that this was his principal interest, and I think he told that story extremely well.

I also like how he changed Owen's obsession with dunking a basketball to holding his breath underwater -- brilliant! That works very well, and the feeling is the same.

But "Simon Birch" is really Mark Steven Johnson's story -- with "Owen Meany'"s beginning. I think it was, therefore, a happy resolution for both Mark and me that he was able to make his film, which clearly was "suggested by" (as credits say) "A Prayer for Owen Meany," but which is clearly not "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

I saw the film on Monday, August 24, in Los Angeles. It was what I expected to see -- a good, new story that takes as its starting point the first chapter of "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and goes somewhere else with it. I enjoyed it. I thought Ashley Judd was terrific as the mother and Oliver Platt was wonderful as the mother's suitor. (Naturally I liked the Voice Over, too.)

Another noteworthy point of difference between the novel and the film is the sense of humor. Mark's character of Simon is a virtual stand-up comic -- much of the comedy in the film comes from one-liners. The comedy of the novel comes less from dialogue that from the overall situation the characters find themselves in. Mark also does this well. The Sunday-school teacher is more than a memorable character; she's a great situation. (The humor in dialogue was also a sizable difference between the film of "The World According to Garp" and that novel, too. Steve Tesich's "Garp" screenplay made a similar use of one- liners. I don't really write comic dialogue.)

And, in the case of "Owen Meany"/"Simon Birch," the uses made of the Christmas pageant scene are also very different; both scenes are interesting, maybe moreso for their differences. I took my seven-year-old to both a theatrical version of Owen Meany's Christmas pageant (in Seattle, last Christmas) and to the "Simon Birch" film. He loved them both.

I think Mark and I have had an admirable relationship. We've been candid to each other and we respect each other. It was simply impossible for me to be close to, or feel involved with, a production of "Owen Meany" as a film -- not while I was writing two other screenplays and a new novel.

I think it took a lot of courage for Mark to push ahead with his vision of "Owen Meany," knowing from the beginning that it was unlikely I would permit him to use my title or the names of my characters. I like "Simon Birch" as a title, too. Mark and I discussed many other possible titles, among them "A Small Miracle," which was my idea, but I like his idea better.

I wish the film well, and I tell readers of "Owen Meany" that they should go see it. They'll find much in it that is remindful of the novel, and sizable differences, too. I think of the film as more of an interpretation of a novel than as a movie "based on" a novel. I know Mark would agree.

As for the more general topic of the translation of novel to film, I can speak with more authority on that subject in the cases of the two novels of mine that I have adapted for the screen -- as I told you, "The Cider House Rules" and "A Son of the Circus" -- but the proper time to address that subject is when those films have been shot and are ready to be released.

Michael Moses

Readers Talkback

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  • Sept. 7, 1998, 1:02 p.m. CST

    Wait a minute...

    by Stephen Gallagher

    Doesn't this mean that there can now be no direct movie interpretation of the book because another movie with a different story and title has locked up the screen rights? That's pretty ludicrous.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 1:23 p.m. CST

    Movie Rights

    by Matt Marcotte

    No...I think that the rights revert back to Irving after some period of time. I mean, look at the number of adapatations of "classic" literary novels...how many versions of "Tale of Two Cities" are there?

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 2:01 p.m. CST

    Irving: master politician

    by me

    Geez, I still agree with Moriarty. Irving is obviously dancing around here. Putting icing on the cake. I mean he HAS to know any screen play is going to be different than the original novel, that is obvious. All this proves is he managed to rip off the mouse for a bunch of money and got away with it. It's this Disney suit that is the real clown in this scenario, somehow trying to convince us that Irving wants anything at all to do with this saccharine, empty shell of a movie. They let a talentless goofball try to rewrite it and Irving pulled away from this mess as far as possible with as much as possible.Nice job. One has to admit he plays the political game very well.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 2:48 p.m. CST

    What this proves...

    by Gremlin

    Actually, what this proves is that Disney is aware of the power that this site and us, it's loyal band of filmic critics, have. I say good job, though it does put Disney in an unglamorous light. I am beginning to think that Disney worries a little too much about it's relation to the masses--this is evidenced by their continuous bowing to th religious right idiots out there. Instead, Disney should remain aloof, unworried, I believe, that any of us can actually do much harm to them. This should be true of how they handle ABC,(Ellen etc.)the parks(changing Pirates, or dismantling Mr.Toad and religious outcries about "Gay Days")and to how they handle their movies(artistic additions to the cartoons, or pandering). You don't see Lucas sending out an E-mail everytime some rumour gets spread, or worse yet making one of his writers do it for him. I am all for us fans affecting the main texts in the media,Babylon Five, X-files being excellent examples of this reflexivity,but Disney needs to make sure that unlimited creativity is their primary goal.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 3:07 p.m. CST

    Simon Birch letter?

    by Will

    Much of this "letter" from John Irving was part of a newspaper story in the Toronto Star September 2, 1998 where both Steven Johnson and Irving were quoted on their thoughts between the book and the script/movie. The story is a lot more comprehensive than this letter.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 4:34 p.m. CST

    goodgrief

    by klickink

    come on. what is that when a person is honest and nice he's being a politician? that was Irving being a nice, open guy. an artist without an ego too big to appreciate fine writing. as a writer i might not like someone taking my characters somewhere i know they wouldn't go. but Irving saw a good tale, obviously, when he read SIMON BIRCH. he didn't get mad and tyranical. so what. if you've read Irving then you know his work is more about accepting life as it is and getting on with it whenever tragedy interrupts. so guys, get on with it, Irving's a nice guy. sorry that ruins your acidic view of life. m.k. smith http://rampages.onramp.net/~klickink

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 7:59 p.m. CST

    Excuse me?

    by Andy

    Disney bowing to the religious right? Since when? If you recall, it was people on the left (feminists) who were upset about the Pirates thing. And I'm willing to bet Ellen would still be on if the ratings hadn't plummeted. Have they cancelled Gay Days? Not that I'm aware of. Try to get your facts right before you call other people "idiots".

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 8:19 p.m. CST

    A QUESTION!!!!!

    by steve

    Does anyone know if (a) Jim Carry is somehow in this movie, maybe as the narrator, and (b), that the author of Owen Meany also wrote a fantastic book called THE CIDER HOUSE RULES---it's a masterpiece Hmmmmm. .. anything else? Uh, I guess I'd like to see this movie. It has a fair preview and Ashley Judd is a demi-goddess. The kid looks like he can act too.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 8:45 p.m. CST

    Movie Cast

    by Matt Marcotte

    Yes, Jim Carrey is in the movie, but only as a narrator. His casting is the one thing I can't stand about the film so far as a fan of the novel. to me, the narrator should be more methodical and plodding. Also, the idea of having the narrator have a kid and name him "Simon" is just WAY out of line with the book. All of Irving's work is brilliant, although his last two books, especially A SON OF THE CIRCUS, have been less than optimal.

  • Sept. 7, 1998, 10:57 p.m. CST

    AND THE NOMINEES FOR WORLD'S WORST SCORE ARE...

    by clubber_lang

    I saw SIMON BIRCH last night at a sneak and liked it, though not nearly as much as I would have if the film didn't have the SINGLE MOST NAUSEATING, TREACLY, ANNOYING MUSICAL SCORE IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF CINEMA. The music was slathered over every scene, overwhelming the delicate scenes with cutesy goo. Mark Shaiman should have his composer's license taken away from him and be sent to a lifetime sentence in movie jail without possibility of parole. Yes, this is the WORST SCORE IN MOVIE HISTORY, rivaled perhaps only by Bill Conti's inept pseudo Warner Bros. cartoon music in Belushi and Ayckroyd's NEIGHBORS. The CD should be standard issue for renegade CIA agents interested in its uses as a weapon of torture. AAAARGHHHH. Shame on you Mark Steven Johnson for vomiting all over your otherwise charming film in this way.

  • Sept. 8, 1998, 7:24 a.m. CST

    Bullshit Floats!

    by Pat Hobby

    Okay, I think this letter is bullshit! First, the author says that he is writing this letter to Mark Steven Johnson. Yes, the author does continually refer to Johnson in the third person. Not to mention, why would Iring need to apologize to Johnson or Disney for that matter? Second, the author of this letter claims that he has been writing the screenplay for "Son of the Circus,' for the past eight years. I might be wrong about this, but has "Son of the Circus," even been out for eight years? Maybe it is just that I read it three years ago, so I assumed that it came out at that time. Third, does this even seem like Irving's writing style to anyone else who has read him? It doesn't to me at all, especially the way he talks about his other movie deals. As a matter of fact, it sounds much more the type of terminology that an evil suit would use. Say, someone in the publicity department for Disney. Is there any way to get some confirmation from Irving, himself, Harry? I don't want to sound like some obsessed Irving fan. Personally, I had already decided to see Simon Birch and to try to use a bit of perspective and do exactly what the letter suggests - not view it as a version of Owen Meaney, at all. However, this type of misrepresentation will not be tolerated! There is noooooo way that I will see this movie not, that you have tried to pass yourself off as THE MAN! Why not, claim you have a letter from Hemingway explaining why it is that "To Have and Have Not" really didn't bastardize the original text? Or what about a personal testimony from Nathaniel Hawthorne's ghost that he thought Demi's alternative ending to the Scarlett Letter really kicked ass! Oh yeah, he said her tits looked great, too! Your bluff has been called! As Irving WOULD say, "BULLSHIT FLOATS!"

  • Sept. 8, 1998, 7:48 a.m. CST

    Irving...a nice guy? Whatever.

    by Phishtar

    Okay, judging from the Toronto Star thing someone else posted, this was assembled from interviews...I don't think you'd see Irving being as nice if he'd kept "Owen Meany." In fact, I imagine Irving would be just about as 'nice' as he was about low-income Vermonters when the state threatened to raise his taxes (I believe the exact comment involved snot-faced kids living in trailer parks, but I don't remember for sure.) He made them change the name to "Simon Birch" and the credit to "inspired by"...this film is no longer "Owen Meany." Therefore, Irving can be generous to it-- as a film only 'inspired by' his work-- without undermining the fact that it is *NOT* Owen Meany. As an Owen Meany adaptation, it obviously blows. As an 'inspired by'...I'd have to see the film (though it looked like "Tiny Tim Comes to America" to me, all right...sigh...) As for rights, I would guess Irving sold 'em one-time rights to make one picture...that (I think) is the way it usually works...and the reason "Tale of Two Cities" has been remade as often as it had is 'cause the copyright expired...therefore no one has to pay royalties.

  • Sept. 8, 1998, 8:52 p.m. CST

    Why I Buy The Letter

    by Matt Marcotte

    1. The New York Times published an article last Wednesday or Thursday, I think--which I sent to Harry, that contained an interview with Irving. the interview did deal with several of the points presented in the letter and said almost exactly the same thing. 2. On the "Son of the Circus" issue. "Son of the Circus" the book IS far less than 8 years old. However, if you read Irving's author's note in the book, you'll find that he mentions he's been working on a screenplay with the same title, but with a completely different plot, for quite some time and has been constantly retooling it. Now a question-- How "select" are we talking when they say select cities? Are we talking top 20 markets, which means I, in Memphis, get screwed. Are we talking major cities but limited screens, a la "Amistad?" Or are we talking something else entirely?

  • Sept. 9, 1998, 9:30 a.m. CST

    The REAL Issue

    by Pennifer

    It strikes me as both frightening and sad that you all sit here and debate with ardent fervor whether or not this letter was written by John Irving. The real issue is SLAPPING you in the face and you IGNORE it. I refer, of course, to Ashley Judd. Does the fact that this woman is an alien being mean nothing to any of you? Owen Meany/Simon Birch, a religious miracle?? SO? Dammit, men, I tell you we have a visitor from the skies beyond living in Judd's body, evident to anyone who listens to that calm, eerie, even voice coming out of that mouth. I, for one, intend to see Simon Birch if only to see religion and science... joined as one... at last. P.S. My point: Relax, kiddies... good films are rare enough to come by as it is. If you find one, appreciate it, no matter what.

  • Sept. 9, 1998, 12:53 p.m. CST

    Will's Toronto article

    by Andy

    You've stumbled upon the truth of entertainment news --- the articles you read and the clips you see on Entertainment Tonight are merely regurgitated from official studio publicity. Why do you think Irving is writing a Disney publicist in the first place? It's so the publicist can turn around and send the same ready-made quotes to all the entertainment reporters in North America. It should be obvious that this is not a 'letter' from a gifted novelist, but an instant interview from an smart man avoiding controversy.

  • Sept. 9, 1998, 3:27 p.m. CST

    cynicism!

    by Amelia Cone

    I really can't understand why everyone is getting so het-up over the authenticity - or not - of the Irving letter. It is a remarkably even-handed and generous evaluation of the problems inherent in adapting a novel for the screen. Too, it's entirely consistent with his writing style (check the use of semicolons and counterpoint);as well as his philosophy as eludicated in the work. In all, I found it a most inspiring bit of commentary - call me gullible if you wish. And Irving is an unmitigated genius.

  • Sept. 22, 1998, 12:01 a.m. CST

    A Prayer for Owen Meany

    by Timothy A Parsley

    First, let me say that I did not read the earlier responses, so pardon me if I repeat their points somewhat. While I was heartened to read that Mr. Irving considers the movie worth seeing, I consider it a shame that Hollywood, yet again, has failed to realize that it is the story that matters. To take what I feel to be Mr. Irving's finest work and reduce its impact to presumably make it more palatable to a wider audience verges on literary rape. That may seem strong when viewed alongside Mr. Irving's own opinion of the finished movie, I must add -- to be fair -- that I have not seen it yet. That in itself makes my criticisms less than valid. I will be too curious NOT to see it, and I would prefer to be proven wrong. Sadly, the chances are that my assessment will be vindicated.