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.