One of the most remarkable things about “The World According To Garp” is just how well director George Roy Hill (“Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, “The Sting”) and screenwriter Steve Tesich managed to preserve the tone of John Irving’s novel even as they must have had to judiciously adapt and condense some of its more indulgent prose. They’re helped in large part by their two leads, both making debuts of sorts: Glenn Close making her feature film debut and Robin Williams making his dramatic film debut. Prior to this, Williams had one other feature under his belt, Robert Altman’s comic adaptation of “Popeye” but in “The World According To Garp” we see Williams playing it straight for the first time even if the movie it’s in is arguably more bizarre and idiosyncratic than Altman’s take on Sweethaven’s favourite sailor man.
According to the author himself, John Irving’s mother was not married at the time he was conceived. He never met his father nor would his mother talk about him. When he gave his mother the ultimatum that if she didn’t tell him about the father he would invent the man and circumstances of his conception, she replied, ‘Go ahead, dear.’ “The World According to Garp” is that story. Born to a pragmatic and logically-minded nurse through a decidedly unorthodox conception, T S Garp (Williams) grows up in his mother’s shadow, constantly yearning for a conventional life which forever eludes his grasp.
Blunt, raunchy, poignant and laced with sly black humour, “The World According To Garp” is a favourite movie of mine, one I have returned to time and again at different points in my life, always finding something new that resonates with me as my perspectives have changed over the years. Williams’ performance is a little raw and unpolished at times, but that’s one of the reasons I rate it so highly amongt his many great movies, because here, early in his movie career, he’s not yet so self-aware of his usual schtick and he’s more open to trying new things. It’s hard to see anyone else embodying Garp the way Williams does; his innate likeability softens some of Irving’s character’s more unlikeable traits and his gift for bringing authenticity to whimsy and pathos makes the character indelible. Glenn Close, on the other hand, leans right in to Irving’s characterisation, embracing Jenny Field’s pragmatic approach to ideology and morality, turning a compassionate no-nonsense attitude into an art form. Between the pair of them, they cajole and nurture the movie into shape, their characters helping to overcome the structural and pacing issues which are part and parcel of the loose biographical vignette structure. In support, Mary Beth Hurt conjures up a fantastic chemistry with Williams, both creating a completely believably imperfect but loving couple buffeted by the tribulations and tragedies of life but its John Lithgow who makes the fondest impression in a lowkey but warm-hearted and key role as trans woman Roberta Muldoon, one of Jenny and in turn Garp’s closest friends and confidants.
Aside from its fascinating and compelling mix of characters, the film has plenty to say – albeit not always coherently – about equality and feminism, especially radical feminism but while it might superficially appear to be a robustly anti-feminist satire, it most often seems to be more a searing indictment of an ideologically driven worldview devoid of compassion, understanding and Jenny’s prized pragmatism. Moving and insightful, it’s often very funny, more often bittersweet and occasionally terribly sad. “The World According To Garp” remains one of Williams’ best and unshowiest performances. It may have been forgotten in the shadows of “Mrs Doubtfire”, “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poet’s Society” to name but a few, but it’s no less deserving of praise and recognition than his later work.