The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Keep passing the open windows.  

If you are a John Irving fan, you know that I've wished you well, hoping that you would never be depressed enough to leap from an open window instead of just passing by it the way normal people do.

If you are a real literary snob, you're supposed to look down your nose at John Irving's odd seriocomic treatments which have done fairly well in the mass market, have been turned into some successful films (Garp and Cider House Rules), and some less successful ones (Hotel New Hampshire and Simon Birch)

My first wife and I disagreed with the critics on this issue. We liked Irving's work, and read everything we could get our hands on. We both felt that Irving would be still read many years in the future. The only thing we found fault with was the similarity from book to book. I thought if I read one more Kafkaesque short story written by one of his characters, encountered one more character with a uniquely confused sexuality, or heard one more anecdote about Vienna or trained bears or wrestlers or stunted growth, I was going to burn his books. But the books are still around somewhere, so I guess I got my frustration in check.

I like the books, but they are certainly difficult to translate to film. Think about it. In Garp, when Garp's wife is giving the guy a blowjob in the car, and Garp and the kids crash into them, causing his wife to bite the guy's dick off, and killing one of the kids, how do you bring that to life on screen? On the pages of a book, there are elements that are grotesque, some that are tragic, and some that are funny. The author and reader have time to examine them all in some detail and sort everything out, as in real life. But in a movie, you have a couple seconds to present it. What tone do you use? I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure you have to lose all the black humor.

Irving's novels are full of such incidents - bizarre coincidences, literary devices, stories within the story, characters which are mad and perverted by the "normal" standards of society, weird events. He creates a surreal world, then makes us believe it. Irving has a great, all-encompassing sense of humor, but also a deep sense of tragedy bordering on bathos, maybe even crossing the border now and again. His attitudes are so complex that it's hard to get the right tone on film.  


Nastassia Kinski was briefly topless when she stripped off a bear costume.

Anita Morris was never topless, but she might as well have been, because her nightie hid nothing in the scene where she played the older woman who took Rob Lowe's virginity

Paul McCrane showed his buns in a scene where he was pantsed by some bullies. Matthew Modine showed the side of his buns. Rob Lowe took a shower, but revealed nothing, although he is shirtless several times in the film.

You probably know that Simon Birch failed miserably as a screen adaptation of "A Prayer for Owen Meany", losing all the complexity and retaining only some mawkish sentimentality and optimism. It's OK to leave the sentimentality, of course, but not JUST that. Irving is a sentimental man, but he's also much more than that. As are we all. 

The Hotel New Hampshire did a pretty good job at this Herculean translation task, although I'm not sure it didn't get a bit precious at times. For example, the family has a beloved dog named Sorrow. They put him to sleep while one daughter is in the hospital, but one of the brothers steals the dog's body from the vet, and plans to stuff it in order to create a Christmas surprise for his sister.  That's silly enough to begin with, but it causes them to deliver plenty of literary double-entendres. When they were taking the dog to be put to sleep, the narration said "but we found that you can't get rid of Sorrow so easily, and none of us knew how soon Sorrow would return".  I think maybe that was too obviously literary to be used as a movie narration.

The other problem was that the film retained unnecessary sub-plots and characters. Father's father, Iowa Bob the coach, could easily have been eliminated without sacrificing anything integral to the tone or the flow of the story. 

But I sort of overlooked all the problems, because I felt that the movie somehow got the essence of the book, and created a special literary  fairy tale on film, a sensitive and offbeat movie that is unique. It may not be a mass market film, but we need to treasure the unique in a generally formulaic cinema universe. Most of the performers in the film did a good job at making us believe the offbeat characters, and I think you have to give everyone credit for a solid effort except Matthew Modine, who couldn't find a way to connect his obnoxious dual role to reality. Modine ended up wearing a black hat in both roles, but Irving characters need to be nuanced, not Snidely Whiplash villains.

Just for fun, identify the young performers making their initial screen appearances. Click on the picture to get the answer.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • no major features

Tuna's comments in yellow

I was thrilled when the DVD release for this film was announced, as I remembered it fondly as a wonderfully quirky film full of what Reel used to call off-beat energy. I did not enjoy it nearly as much this time. It could be that, after the number of strange films I have seen in the last 24 years, it was not off-beat enough for me. There were still a few laughs, but I was mostly bored. It is hard for me to take seriously when one of the main characters is a dog that is put to sleep because of too many farts, then reappears stuffed and kills the grandfather. On the other hand, it is difficult to see it as a comedy when a young girl who is already a best selling author jumps out a window. See Scoopy's review for a  discussion of the author of the book, and the attempts to bring his material to the screen. 

Another film from his books, The World According to Garp, improved with age for me, possibly because the humor was less scatological, and the characters more like people I have met. Technically, the film was well done, but the DVD release has a disappointing lack of special features. Why is it something as inane as The Girl on a Motorcycle has a full-length commentary, and something this odd has not so much as an interview?

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.8 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed only $5.1 million on a $7.5 million budget
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C (Scoopy), C- (Tuna).

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