“The first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.” So says John Berry, son of a hapless dreamer, brother to a cadre of eccentric siblings, and chronicler of the lives lived, the loves experienced, the deaths met, and the myriad strange and wonderful times encountered by the family Berry. Hoteliers, pet-bear owners, friends of Freud (the animal trainer and vaudevillian, that is), and playthings of mad fate, they “dream on” in a funny, sad, outrageous, and moving novel by the remarkable author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and Last Night in Twisted River.
Excerpted from The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. Copyright © 1997 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980, was John Irving's fourth novel and his first international bestseller. Irving's novels are now translated into thirty-five languages, and he has had nine international bestsellers. In One Person is John Irving's thirteenth novel.
An Essay by John Irving
In 1999, the movie version of The Cider House Rules was released, winning two Academy Awards (including one to John Irving for Best Adapted Screenplay). The same year, Mr. Irving published My Movie Business, his candid, anecdotal account of the novel-to-film process. In this excerpt, he discusses director Tony Richardson's film adaptation of The Hotel New Hampshire.
I've never felt as flattered as when Tony Richardson told me he wanted to make a movie of The Hotel New Hampshire, my fifth novel. I loved Tony Richardson's films. He had a range like no one else-- violent or austere one minute, wildly comic the next. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The Loved One, Tom Jones and The Border. I had no doubt what Tony Richardson would do with The Hotel New Hampshire--a macabre comedy and a fairy tale, not half as realistic as The World According to Garp. Tony didn't even pretend to be disappointed when I told him I didn't want to write the screenplay; he wanted to write it himself, which he did.
It was a brilliant screenplay, but Tony's original vision of The Hotel New Hampshire was of a film in two parts. Some critics of the novel had recoiled at the degree of sexual farce. Not Tony. The film couldn't be sexual or farcical enough to satisfy him. His was an uncompro-mising vision. He would leave nothing out; he would capture the whole novel, he said.
But now that I've had more experience in the movie business, I accept that most films are exercises in compromise. Tony was unprepared to compromise. When Orion Pictures insisted on making one movie, not a film in two parts, Tony refused to significantly cut the script; he shortened scenes, he used a lot of montage, he increased the voice-over, which fast-forwarded many scenes, but in essence he deleted not a single story line or minor character from his two-movie screenplay. The rousing choice of music (Jacques Offenbach) gave to the film the lunatic, exuberant pace of the cancan.
Many good films, like George Roy Hill's Garp, are toned-down vesions of the books they come from; Tony Richardson's The Hotel New Hampshire is a deliberate exaggeration of the novel. By speeding up the story to the Offenbach score, Tony heightened both the comedic and the fairy-tale qualities of the book; he enhanced the hectic narrative momentum of the novel. But he paid a price. Many of the minor (and even the major minor) characters were reduced to caricatures-- they became cartoon versions of themselves. (Another oft-heard criticism of the film is that you need to have read the novel to know who many of the characters are. Knowing the novel as well as I do, I can't speak to that charge.)
In addition to fastforwarding many scenes, the voice-over imitated the novel's persistent foreshadowing accurately, but many film critics have a knee-jerk objection to voice-over, and both film and book reviewers are often suspicious of flashforwarding. (Note: this is not a typographical error. Fastforwarding and flashforwarding are two different things.) In the narrative voice of a novel, or in voice-over, what I mean by "flashforwarding" is any voice of authority that does this kind of thing: "Ten years later, I would regret running over Mrs. Abernathy's cocker spaniel, but at the time it seemed that the episode would quickly pass."
In a recent review of A Widow for One Year, a book reviewer went so far as to say that the flashforward has a "lesser ontological status" than the flashback; furthermore, the reviewer concluded, the flash-forward is "a subversive, supernatural process." You bet it is. If a novelist or a movie director can't play God, who can?
Whether in the narrative voice of a novel or in voice-over, what the flashforward does is invite the audience to have a look at the storytelling mechanism itself. Rather than label that process "subversive" or "supernatural," I would contend that most readers and movie-goers like to be given hints of the future. One of the pleasures provided by storytelling, in both a novel and a film, is anticipation.
In the film of The Hotel New Hampshire, Tony Richardson made a purposeful choice--heighten the farce. He fastforwarded and flashforwarded like crazy. In the novel, John Berry (Rob Lowe in the film) is in love with his older sister, Franny (Jodie Foster); John's infatuation with Franny is both agonizing and bittersweet. In the movie, Tony chose to make John Berry's incestuous obsession with his sister a comic romp. As for Franny, a rape victim who is later seduced by a terrorist, Tony gave her a tomboy's enduring toughness and a kind of in-your-face sexual swagger.
But John's infatuation with Franny was hard for me to see. In the film, I could never convince myself that Rob Lowe, a gorgeous boy-- prettier than most girls--could be head over heels for Jodie Foster. Ms. Foster was not nearly as attractive as a young girl as she has become; she is a good-looking young woman, and a terrific actress, but she was not a pretty girl. In the movie, I could have been more easily convinced that Jodie Foster was obsessed with Rob Lowe.
That said, if the incest wasn't convincing, Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe were otherwise right for their roles, and their supporting cast was first-rate. Beau Bridges as the heedlessly dreaming father was superb; he was exactly as I'd imagined the father of that unfortunate family. And Tony's decision to make Franny's rapist and her terrorist-seducer the same actor (Matthew Modine) was shrewd. Mr. Modine was especially good as the terrorist without a conscience, as was Amanda Plummer in her role as the terrorist with a conscience. (Ms. Plummer, who is tongueless in Garp, is also handicapped in The Hotel New Hampshire, where her nickname is "Miss Miscarriage.")
The more eccentric characters, Iowa Bob (Wilford Brimley) and Freud (Wallace Shawn), suffered less as caricatures than did some relatively more realistic minor characters, and both Brimley and Shawn were wonderful. Somewhat less successful in the film was the tragicomic character of Susie the bear (Nastassja Kinski). It was not Ms. Kinski's fault, although her being visibly pregnant during the shooting did not help her cause. Perhaps she'd mistakenly assumed that she would be wearing the bear suit in all her scenes--hence no one would know she was pregnant. But, alas, there was an all-important love scene between her and Rob Lowe, when of course she was out of her ursine costume--and any other costume--and which Tony was forced to shoot in the half-dark. It was a shame not to see more of her, I thought.
It was Susie who suffered most from the cartoon effects on the characters; she was the principal victim of Tony speeding up two movies to turn them into one. Only once, when Ms. Kinski is dirty-haired and shambling through the Prater in her bear suit (without the head, which she is toting like a lunch pail in one paw), does Susie the bear look like the sexually wounded character she is. She is a symbol for all the sexually wounded, which is what The Hotel New Hampshire is about.
I liked the movie nonetheless. Tony's interpretation of the novel as sexual cancan is a much more suitable translation of my sense of humor than Steve Tesich's dialogue in The World According to Garp. But, to most audiences, The Hotel New Hampshire was not nearly as successful a film as Garp. Only in some countries in Europe was it more popular, which may have been the result of Hotel being more popular in parts of Europe as a book, too--I mean more popular than Garp. (The film's success in Europe may also have been the result of Tony Richardson and Nastassja Kinski being better known there than they are in North America. I don't know.)
Earlier, before Orion Pictures was involved, there had been some effort to finance the film of The Hotel New Hampshire with money from an interested pizza billionaire. "The pizza money," Tony called it. But soon the pizza magnate began to behave like a producer. "Even the pizza man has an opinion!" Tony said.
Somewhere along the line, the pizza man's money was spurned and Orion Pictures became the major player; maybe that was when Tony's idea of a film in two parts was compromised. Tony's old friend, and The Hotel New Hampshire's producer, Neil Hartley, tried to explain the intricacies of film financing to me once, but I have never been able to grasp it. Neil was very kind and patient with me, but he might as well have been describing the pleasures and perils of hang gliding to a mole.
Tony Richardson died of AIDS in November 1991. His memoir, The Long-Distance Runner, was found by his daughter Natasha on the day of his death; Tony had hidden it in the back of the same cupboard where he kept his Oscars. I miss him. He was not just another eccentric Englishman living in Los Angeles; he lived there like deposed but flamboyant royalty, like a king who relished his own exile.
There is a picture that was taken of us on one of the locations for The Hotel New Hampshire, an abandoned school somewhere in Quebec. It's raining. Tony's poncho balloons around him like a sail. I'm standing in the archway of the massive door to the old school. Tony, standing a step down from me, is still half a head taller than I am. He is standing defiantly in the rain, in profile, his distinctive nose like the beak of an inquisitive bird of prey. For no reason that I can remember, Tony is wearing black elbow-length gloves--like the fireproof, heat-resistant gloves of a man who works in a forge. He wore his eccentricity like that--baffling and absurd, but also with the appearance of something casually acquired, to which he was indifferent. (God knows what those gloves meant to Tony--probably nothing.) That he struck others as bizarre did not matter to him.
I was teaching at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vermont, when Tony finished shooting the motorcycle scenes in The Hotel New Hampshire. To find a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar had not been difficult; a larger problem had been to make the sidecar strong enough to carry the bear. (I mean a real bear, not Nastassja Kinski.) In both the novel and the film, Freud drives the bear named State o' Maine around in the sidecar. Wally Shawn must have loved that.
To my surprise, Tony sent me the motorcycle. There was still bear hair in the sidecar. The motorcycle and sidecar had been boxed up and trucked from Quebec to Vermont. It was an illegal, unlicensed vehicle, and dangerous because its brakes were only equipped to stop a motorcycle less than half its power and size. On the dirt roads around Bread Loaf, my son Colin's preferred method of stopping the machine was to drive off the road and wedge the sidecar between two trees--with my son Brendan in the sidecar. As the father (at the time) of two teenage boys, I quickly decided what to do with the motorcycle; I gave it away.
"Pity," Tony told me later. "If I'd been able to arrange it, I would have sent you the bear."
“A hectic, gaudy saga with the verve of a Marx Brothers movie.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A startlingly original family saga that combines macabre humor with Dickensian sentiment.”—Time
“Rejoice! John Irving has written another book according to your world. . . . You must read this book.”—Los Angeles Times
“Spellbinding . . . intensely human . . . a high-wire act of dazzling virtuosity.”—Cosmopolitan
1. When Freud gives his blessing to John's mother and father in 1939 at Arbuthnot-by-the-Sea, he tells Mother, "Forgive him, even though it will cost you." What do you think Freud was referring to? A specific event or Father's lifelong dreaminess?
2. Irving frequently gives the reader an important piece of information (such as that the Mercedes in front of the Vienna Hotel was a bomb) then unspools in detail the lead-up to the action. Did you find this to be an effective method of engaging the reader? Can you think of other authors who use a similar narra-tive technique?
3. John and Franny's love for each other form the novel's sometimes tense but always solid core. As you read, how did you expect Irving to resolve the sexual attraction? How did John's acceptance of his feelings for Franny affect your view of their relationship?
4. The author and the first-person protagonist are both named John. John is also the protagonist's name in Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. What do you think this name choice says about the author's intentions for the fictional John?
5. Sorrow the dog is far more potent in death than he was in life; a harbinger, if not an actual instrument, of doom for Iowa Bob, John's romp with Bitty Tuck, and Mother and Egg. When Frank and John see Susie the bear in Franny's room, they imagine that she looks like Sorrow and may be Sorrow in disguise. Do you think Susie reflects Sorrow or is she an agent of fortune for the family? Did the later appearance of Seeing Eye dogs make you wonder if Sorrow had resurfaced?
6. Win Berry says that Earl/State o' Maine was "too old to be a bear anymore," and later Freud writes, "A smart bear makes all the difference." Ironically, the old bear is the actual bear, while the smart bear is a vulnerable, angry woman. What characteristics does Irving associate with being a successful bear? Do you think that Susie eventually incorporates her bear exterior into her interior self?
7. Several themes are threaded through The Hotel New Hampshire, such as Sorrow as doom and the strength of bears. What other images, themes, or phrases did you find repeated in the story? If you've read other novels or stories by John Irving, discuss any themes that are common to those works and The Hotel New Hampshire.
8. With the exception of John's mother, nearly all the women in this novel take money for sex, have been raped, or seem asexual. Why do you think the author created his characters this way? How do the women characters' sexual experiences compare to the men's? Do these women's sexuality propel the story as much as Win Berry's dreams?
9. After their mother and Egg die, Franny tells her surviving siblings, "From now on, I'm mainly a mother.... The shit detectors are gone, so I'm left to detect it. I point out the shit--that's my role." Do you think this was their mother's role--and every mother's role? Does Franny do a good job being a mother? In what ways does she succeed or fail?
10. While in Vienna, Win Berry's children often agree that their father is "blind" long before he literally is. Do you think Win Berry's physical blindness "opened his eyes"? How much of his personality seems to be his own and how much of it is Freud's? After becoming a blind hero in Vienna, does Win veer closer to becoming like Freud or does he start treading his own path?
11. Why do the old whore and the old radical have the same name, Old Billig? Why are they referred to as billig, or "cheap"?
12. Do you see the years spent in Vienna as a time of metamorphosis or a time of hibernation for the Berrys? Who changes the most during that time?
13. When John ponders how little he knows about Vienna after living there for seven years, he thinks, "I knew about my family, I knew about our whores, and our radicals; I was an expert on the Hotel New Hampshire and an amateur at anything else." Does the focus on the family expand or stunt the individual growth of the Berry family members? At the end, do you think that John has, in essence, made a career of being an expert on the Hotel New Hampshire?
14. "Keep passing the open windows" is a common refrain among the Berrys. Did you suspect that one family member would fail to do this, and did you guess who it would be?
15. In examining the motivation of blowing up the Opera, John thinks, "The terrorist and the pornographer are in it for the means. The means is everything for them." Do you agree? Do you think pornographers and terrorists have the same internal drive?
16. If you could read the story of the Berry family from the point of view of another character, who would you choose and why?