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Film Fight

[whitespace] Simon Birch
Down, boy: Joe Mazzello and Ian Michael Smith star in the flawed Simon Birch.

Author Marianne Wiggins takes on the 'Simon'-izing of 'Owen Meany'

By David Templeton


David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, Templeton inadvertently sparks a moral crisis for esteemed British author Marianne Wiggins when he invites her to see the controversial film Simon Birch.

WHEN I FIRST invited Marianne Wiggins to see Simon Birch--based loosely on John Irving's best-selling novel A Prayer for Owen Meany--the esteemed British author (John Dollar, Almost Heaven) was more than willing.

An avid supporter of John Irving's work (The World According to Garp, The Ciderhouse Rules, etc.), Wiggins had, in fact, once written a glowing review of Owen Meany for the Sunday Times in London; this was back in 1989, shortly after the book's publication in England. At that time, Wiggins met Irving and immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit: a fearless moralist with a keen sense of the ironic and a passion for chronicling the outrageous flip-flops of fate.

Wiggins' own work has for years explored similar territory. Her latest--the elegant, heart-stopping Almost Heaven--follows a troubled American war correspondent who returns home from Bosnia and is quickly thrown together with an enigmatic woman suffering from amnesia. What follows is a journey across the weather-battered American South, with the duo attempting to dodge God's practical jokes ("Say what you will about that sonofabitch The Almighty," says one character, "but The Bastard can aim when He wants to") while searching for the missing pieces in both their lives.

An ample showcase of Irving's mischievous genius, Owen Meany is the tale of an odd, enigmatic, dwarfish boy who claims to know the exact date of his future death, and who believes that he is the handpicked instrument of Almighty God (even though he has accidentally killed his best friend's mother with a baseball--another example of God's superior aim!). With its scathing indictments of Catholicism, moral hypocrisy, and the Vietnam War, Owen Meany still stands as Irving's most fiercely political work.

It could have made a great movie.

What Wiggins did not learn until after she agreed to see the film--the plan was for her to see it in New York and discuss it with me afterwards--was that Irving, appalled at the studio's handling of the material, has sought to distance himself from the movie. He's forced Disney, the studio that made the movie, to state in the credits that the film was merely "suggested by" Irving's book. Furthermore, Irving withdrew permission to use any of his characters' names.

Which explains why little Owen Meany has been renamed Simon Birch.

"Gee, I feel I should apologize," I find myself telling Wiggins, "for sending you to this movie."

"Except, David," she cuts in, gently, "you didn't. You didn't send me to it--you sent me away from it. I made the mistake of finding out that John Irving has distanced himself from this film. I respect John. So I've got a moral dilemma here," she says. "If the author of the novel doesn't want you to--well, basically, look, he just took the money and ran, didn't he? We have to be fair about that, but he's gone rather public with his impression that it is not true to the novel.

"And I'm a novelist," she continues. "So I feel I must stand with Irving on this. Your asking me to go to see it wasn't enough of a moral stimulus to make a flanking movement around the author of the book."

Would that I had taken a similar moral stance, I quietly think. Perhaps Simon Birch does deserve to be judged on its own merits, but as a fan of the book, I was entirely unable to separate the movie from the much better, far richer story it chose to ignore.

"I remember when A Prayer for Owen Meany came out in England," Wiggins recalls, "and the impression it made. I remember it exactly, because it was March of '89, and believe me, '89 was an important year for me, when I was reviewing this." 1989 was the year that Wiggins went underground with her then-husband Salman Rushdie, fleeing the death sentence placed on Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini as punishment for the author's irreverent book The Satanic Verses.

"I should also like to make the point, being fair about this, that just because John doesn't like the movie doesn't mean it's a bad movie," Wiggins continues. "I think that movies are not books, as books are not movies, and gorgeous translations will always be argued about. There are those people who think that Anthony Minghella made a fabulous movie out of The English Patient. There are those who loved the book and hated the movie. There's this constant discussion. That's why we talk about movies. That's why we talk about art in the way that we do."

There is a brief pause.

"But now I have a problem with John for selling the book to people who ... what? Wanted to make a different film. But I have to assume that the filmmaker was wanting to convey some of the irresistible moral questions of the book.

"That said, though, I must still keep my stand, that, boy! I would go to the barricades with John Irving. Because he is a strong moral voice, and he takes on these hard questions. Questions of 'Now that we've lost our moral center, where are we going to go?' And 'What are we going to call a god that isn't really a god?' This is at the heart of all the people I want to stand side by side with. All the writers I respect are taking on those questions. And that includes artists and musicians, and yes--it goes into makers of cinema as well.

"If you're grappling with how to explain the unexplained," she suggests, "then you are making great art."

That stops her for a moment. Marianne Wiggins pauses again to think it through.

"You know what?" she finally says, slowly, thoughtfully. "I suppose that if that's what Simon Birch is attempting to do--to grapple with those questions--then who am I, really, to say it's a movie that people shouldn't go see?

"Who knows?" she adds, happily. "Perhaps after seeing Simon Birch, they'll be inspired to read Owen Meany. And that wouldn't be a bad thing at all."

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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