John Irving's 1978 novel The World According to Garp was one of the major fictional works of its decade. Critics heralded the author's robust imagination and gallows humor. Four million people read the book, taking in Irving's keen observations on our world of deep-seated fears, capricious violence, and rampant sexual confusion. Irving has a gift for conveying paradoxes. He knows what Joseph Conrad meant when he wrote: "It is very difficult to be wholly joyous or wholly sad on this earth. The comic, when it is human, soon takes upon itself the face of pain."
Steve Tesich adapted The World According to Garp for the screen, and George Roy Hill directed. Tesich's sterling humanism and Hill's healthy respect for life's serio-comic dimensions made this film one of the best movies of 1982. The performances are all top-drawer. The storyline true to the spirit of the novel compels us to consider the ambiguities of love, death, sex, and violence that characterize modern life.
In the striking and memorable opening scene of the movie, baby T. S. Garp is tossed into the air by his mother Jenny (Glenn Close in her affecting screen debut) while they share some time together on the beach. The image of flight will animate Garp's thoughts as a child, an adolescent, and a man. He carries on a love affair in his mind with the dad he never knew, a World War II tail gunner. Jenny raises T. S. while serving as a nurse at Steering Prep School for Boys.
Although Garp's mother is disgusted by the libidinal obsessions of men, she bestows on her son a lust for life. She is always there when he needs her. Garp (Robin Williams) takes an interest in wrestling and falls in love with Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), the coach's serious daughter.
In New York, mother and son become writers. Jenny's autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, is a bestseller; she becomes a hero to American feminists. Garp's story, The Magic Gloves, shows great promise and reveals his literary gifts. He is able to wholeheartedly embrace whatever happens to him by staying attentive. "Sometimes you can have a whole lifetime in a day and not notice this is as beautiful as life gets," he observes.
Garp marries Helen and settles down in suburbia. He cooks, cleans, writes, and takes care of their two sons while she teaches in the university. They keep in touch with Jenny; she has established a feminist halfway house for members of the Ellen James cult who have cut out their tongues in tribute to an 11-year-old victim of a violent rape. Garp's best friend is Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow in an outstanding performance), a former football star who has undergone a sex change; he is also one of Jenny's closest associates. T. S. and Roberta share a nurturing spirit, which is at once dignified and tender. In one of the movie's most magical moments, Garp delivers a paean to the pleasures of parenting; for him, fatherhood is no chore, it is a joy.
"The family is the greatest haven humans have invented," John Irving has written. "But even the family is not impenetrable. It is violated over and over again by an outside world that is both terrifying in what's familiar about it and terrifying in its unfamiliarity." There is no way to make the world safe for those we love. If it isn't an anti-social, vicious dog on the loose, then it's a crazy driver speeding down suburban streets in a pickup truck. Both trunks of the Garp family are hit by tragedy. To be human in these times is to be violated in one way or another.
The opening image of the film comes full circle in the closing one. Garp is airborne again. A story of life's complexity, The World According to Garp lifts our spirits. Irving, Tesich, and Hill have brought to the screen some of the wisdom conveyed by novelist John Cheever's description of what it means to be human: "We can cherish nothing less than our random understanding of death and the earth-shaking love that draws us to one another."