[box cover]

The Hotel New Hampshire

The problem with translating big, sprawling novels with bags of subtext into films is that a) given the usual 120-minute time limit, they really can't afford to sprawl; and b) the literary subtext is often lost, leaving us with a bunch of characters who just do oddball things for no apparent reason. John Irving's 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire is a big book about a family with a big life. As in his previous novel, The World According to Garp, Irving skillfully told a complicated story of a family of slightly odd, highly intelligent people and the attendant joys, tragedies and bizarre occurrences that fill out the stuff of their life over the years — all carefully orchestrated amid a recurring handful of symbols and signposts: bears, water, open windows, in addition to duplication of themes, characters and events. Irving's style is deceptively simple; his writing is so straightforward that it's easy to miss how exceedingly complicated his stories really are. With the 1984 film, director Tony Richardson (who is also credited with writing the screenplay) seems to have either misunderstood the book entirely, or just didn't care, giving us a narrative that's frustrating, incomplete and — if you've never read the book — at times incomprehensible. In a nutshell, the story concerns the Berry family: father Win (Beau Bridges), a teacher who really wants to be a hotelier; the otherwise-nameless Mother (Lisa Banes), who's loving but something of a cipher; middle brother and narrator John (Rob Lowe), who's going through the pain of adolescence and has a more-than-brotherly fixation on his sister, Frannie (Jodie Foster); gay older brother, Frank (Paul McCrane); little sister Lilly (Jennifer Dundas) who isn't a dwarf, but somehow chooses to stop growing; youngest brother Egg (Seth Green); and their grandfather, Iowa Bob (Wilford Brimley). Over the course of the story the family buys a hotel, Frannie gets raped, John sleeps with waitresses, we meet a vaudevillian named Freud who specializes in trained bears (both real and otherwise), family members die suddenly, another hotel is bought in Vienna, relationships are consummated, Nastassia Kinski wears a bear suit and makes out with Jodie Foster... far too many things, really, for a movie that only runs one hour and 49 minutes. For those who never read the book, the result is a mess of incidents and scenes that often makes no sense, with some characters appearing and disappearing without any explanation, while others do things without any apparent motivation at all. For those who have read the book, The Hotel New Hampshire is less a film adaptation than a frenzied slide show, zipping along as it presents truncated versions of familiar scenes without stopping long enough to allow time to savor any of it. The shame of all this is that — besides being a waste of a wonderful story that addresses issues like incest, homosexuality, and the death of a parent without beating around the bush — there are terrific performances that get lost in the crush. Jodie Foster (about 21 years old when this film was made) shows the remarkable self-assurance and acting mastery that she'd eventually be lauded for years later. A very young, very pretty Rob Lowe exhibits comedic chops that went unappreciated until his appearances over 15 years later in Austin Powers, The Spy Who Shagged Me and on TV's The West Wing. And, of course, there's Nastassia Kinski in a bear suit, making out with Jodie Foster. Unfortunately, the movie is kind of awful. Go read the book. MGM's DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with crisp Dolby 2.0 Surround audio in English or French. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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