“But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”
—The World According to Garp
I knew it was going to be sad, but I didn’t realize how sad it would be. Tuesday, I took myself to the Arclight Cinema to see a special showing of “The World According to Garp” as part of a Robin Williams celebration. I didn't know what I was getting myself into.
I don’t think I’d seen that movie since it had come out in theaters in 1982. I remember, at the time, liking the movie, but not too much. It would have been impossible for any film version to please me, given my utter devotion to the source material. “The World According to Garp” was one of the first contemporary adult novels I read that wasn’t for a class, and that didn’t include space travel, wizards or the supernatural. It was about Life, its terrors and joys, humor suffused with melancholy, and it perfectly encapsulated my world view at the time. John Irving is a masterful storyteller— the worlds he creates are so complete and rich and textured, his characters are so full of life you feel like they live on beyond the page. “Garp” was also the first book I read that described the life of a writer and the creative process in a way that felt both honest and aspirational. It was, and continues to be, a touchstone novel for me.
It’s a lot for any movie to live up to. When I first saw it as a college student all I could concentrate on was what was changed from the book (where was “The Pension Grillparzer”?) and the fact that the guy from “Mork and Mindy,” was playing T.S. Garp. I remember being unimpressed with his performance, and also thinking he looked waaay too old to play a high school student.
What a difference thirty years, and a tragedy, makes.
In the Arclight theater, watching him make his first appearance onscreen, the first thing I thought was “God, look how young he looks.” His smooth, baby face, the long lashes, the bright clear eyes. It didn’t get any easier from there.
The movie was much, much better than I remember, full of great peformances (Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Marybeth Hurt, even a young Amanda Plummer). It was touching and funny and surprisingly faithful to much of the book. But of course I was watching it through the lens of grief. I laughed a lot, but wept almost as often. In the movie, there is tragedy hiding around every corner, and no matter how much Robin William’s Garp tries to protect his family from harm’s way he of course never can, because death is waiting for us all, the Under Toad ready to suck you out to sea.
It’s impossible to watch the movie and not imagine that Williams felt the Under Toad swirling at his feet, even then. There’s a sadness, or so I perceive now, lurking in his twinkling eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. And I appreciate his performance much more, his restraint (no John Wayne impressions here) and simplicity. I’ve come to believe he was perfectly cast in the role, a man trying to hold it all together in a world filled with absurdity and horror. The world, according to Garp, is full of terminal cases, and in the end Williams became one of them.
Early on in the movie, before Garp becomes Robin Williams, Glenn Close, as Garp’s mother, takes a young Garp aside and tells him, “Everybody dies. I'm going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure, having a life.”
Thank you, Robin Williams, for sharing so much of your life with us. It’s been quite an adventure.