It’s the same old story. Novelist meets Hollywood. Hollywood breaks novelist’s heart. Novelist either writes a searing, self-pitying fictionalized account of the affair or drinks himself to death (or, if he’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, both).
But in My Movie Business, John Irving’s new memoir of the 13 long years he spent struggling to bring his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules to the screen, there’s very little fiction, even less self-pity, and no drinking whatsoever. Instead, this sober, no-nonsense volume offers a scene-by-scene breakdown of the process by which Irving translated his least cinematic-seeming novel (with its multiple plotlines, abortion-rights theme, and sprawling length; when it was launched as a play last year, it lasted six hours over two nights) into a shootable screenplay. How his orphan-out-in-the-world tale lost some characters along the way (and gained some others); how the chronology of the story (set mostly in the 1940s) had to be streamlined; how certain lines had to be added to explain why one of its main characters (played in the film by Michael Caine) now has a touch of English to his accent.
In other words, My Movie Business is all business, practically an insert-part-A-into-part-B technical primer for turning novels into movies. A charming, sublimely written technical primer — Irving is a pitch-perfect stylist who could turn a VCR instruction manual into an irresistible page-turner — but a primer just the same.
There are some sweetly personal moments here and there, like the opening chapter Irving devotes to his grandfather, a dirty-limerick-writing obstetric surgeon who was obviously one of the inspirations for The Cider House Rules. And some brief but sly asides on his other books-into-films experiences, like his recollection of Robin Williams’ body-hair problems on the set of The World According to Garp (”The sounds of Robin screaming from the trailer, where he was being waxed in preparation for the blow-job scene, are memorable to this day”).
But considering all those years Irving invested in making Cider a movie, as well as his nearly unprecedented input on the project (aside from writing the script, he had veto power over director and cast), you’d expect a beefier, dishier payoff: a Hollywood According to Garp. At the very least you’d expect some tell-all payback for what must have been an excruciatingly frustrating decade-plus preproduction tease — a brutal stringing along even by movie industry standards. But no, a New Englander to the end, the writer remains impeccably polite throughout. Perhaps to a fault.
Irving went through a number of directors during the life span of the film, including Phillip Borsos (who died of cancer); Michael Winterbottom (creative differences with Irving scotched that deal); and finally Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog), Irving’s fave. Yet we never really get to meet any of these people, never get a whiff of who they are and what makes them tick. And where are brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax honchos who produced Cider? Irving’s take on these two outsize, neo-Dickensian characters is, disappointingly, nowhere to be found.
Instead, along with his stitch-by-stitch reconstruction of the making of Cider‘s script, he offers only the broadest generalizations of how Hollywood works. ”It is the presumption on the part of the people putting up the money that they have an unassailable right to interfere with what happens in the screenplay and with the outcome of the film,” he complains at one point. Well, duh. Even Joe Eszterhas could tell you that.
Still, those who loved the novel — and who may soon love the movie (it opens on Dec. 10) — will probably find something to love about this slim little offering. After all, gorgeous writing is gorgeous writing, even when it’s published in the simplest of how-to manuals. B