One novel's happy journey to film

"You have to put your expectations in some other place when you watch a film (and you've already read the book). It will never be the same as the book. NEVER!" reads one posting by a member of the online group "John Irving is God."

Perhaps. But "The Door in the Floor," opening nationwide Monday, comes pretty close to the Irving book it's based on - or at least to the first 200 pages.

To Mr. Irving, the adaptation of his dense and lengthy novel, "A Widow for One Year," is "word for word, the most faithful translation of any of my books to film." Even more faithful, he says, than his own Oscar-winning adaptation of "The Cider House Rules."

Director Tod Williams did the honors this time, choosing only one of the book's three parts for his screenplay. The movie unfolds over the course of a summer, when Ruth Cole is 4 years old. Her father, played by Jeff Bridges, is a famous children's book author and rakish philanderer. Her mother, Kim Basinger, despondent over the loss of their two sons, is distracted from her grief by the prep-school boy her husband hires as his assistant.

It's the fifth Irving novel to be made into a film (a feat which, though it may not place him in a class with Stephen King, does, according to one screenwriter, put him in a "very special category"). While Irving seems to have to come to terms with those early films - "The World According to Garp," "The Hotel New Hampshire," and "Simon Birch," which deviated so far from "A Prayer for Owen Meany" that he is said to have asked that the film's title be changed - it wasn't until the "The Cider House Rules" that he began to embrace Hollywood.

"I'm not a moviegoer, having seen only two movies in a movie theater in the last 10 years," writes Irving in "My Movie Business," his 1999 memoir about adapting "The Cider House Rules." Those films - "Schindler's List" and "The English Patient" - he watched only because he was told they were better than the books. He disagreed.

Has Irving since seen any films better than their novel counterparts?

"I've seen many, but they don't come from very good books," he says, in a meeting room at Boston's Ritz-Carlton with Mr. Williams by his side.

"Which is why it's much riskier to go after a good book," says Williams, "and something I would typically want to avoid."

He needn't have worried; Irving is delighted by his approach.

"Not only do readers ... feel that they're really back in the territory of the book," Irving says, "but even better, from my perspective, is that for people who see this movie and don't know the book, Acts II and III are perfectly intact." The end is untrammeled, left safe in the memories of his admirers.

Whether fans will agree is uncertain. Those who know the book may find the movie abrupt - and be startled when the credits roll after so small a slice of the story.

But Irving gives the final product his glowing endorsement: "Without qualification, the two best films made from novels of mine are 'The Cider House Rules' and this one, 'The Door in the Floor.' "

This is unusual in the adaptation business, says Howard Rodman, chairman of the writing division at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema. "For an author to be happy with the movie ... is a very rare and wonderful thing."

As long as Irving's happy, so is fan Gary Norris. "If Irving's OK with it, then I'm OK with it," he says. A Seattle archivist and librarian, he has more than 130 copies of "The World According to Garp."

Next, Irving and Williams are considering a film version of Irving's most recent novel, "The Fourth Hand."

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