Monday Movie: The Door in the Floor, by David Bax
Something that’s been on my mind lately is the loose and blurry definition of adaptation. In the realm of television, especially, we’re seeing plenty of shows outpace their source material. Game of Thrones has been breaking increasingly free from George R.R. Martin’s novels since the fifth season; The Handmaid’s Tale is on the verge of having to come up with entirely new plots; and how long was Piper’s prison sentence supposed to be exactly? At what point do we stop saying “adapted from” and fall back on “inspired by”? It made me think of an interesting, slightly sloppy but unfairly overlooked movie from 2004 that went in the opposite direction. Writer and director Tod Williams’ The Door in the Floor chose to carry over into film only the first third or so of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. In so doing, the story not only changes protagonists, it morphs from a tale of love and crime with a more or less upbeat ending into an upper crust domestic tragedy.
Jeff Bridges plays Ted Cole, a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Kim Basinger plays his wife, Marion. They have a daughter, Ruth (the novel’s main character, played here by a five-year-old Elle Fanning in a comparatively minor role) but they also had two sons who died sometime prior. Spending the summer in their tony Long Island beach town cottage, Ted hires a college student and aspiring writer named Eddie (Jon Foster) as an assistant. This young man soon learns that Ted and Marion live in separate worlds and finds himself mired in both of them, becoming a nuisance to Ted, a lover to Marion and a twisted sort of surrogate son to both.
Williams and cinematographer Terry Stacey root the story in so many traditional trappings of East Coast wealth—preppy fashion, Shingle architecture—that it’s easy to forget the movie is set in the present day and not the 1958 of the novel. This conventionalism serves another purpose, though, which is to alternately obscure or highlight the dark perversity of the story. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Ted and Marion’s unhappiness is one of bitterness and absurdity, marked by everything from shockingly callous words and actions to close-up sketches of other women’s vaginas. And the best part of it all is that Williams manages to improve on Irving’s ultimately pedestrian novel by truncating it. There may be a lack of resolution but that only adds to the devastation.