Door in the Floor, The (2004): Todd Williams Version of John Irving, Starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger

John Irving’s novels are extremely difficult to adapt to the big screen, a combined result of their size, sprawling nature, taboo subject matter, loose style, and shifting tone.

Thematically, Irving has tackled in his novels such taboos as incest, castration, rape, and abortion. The recurring theme that runs through his work is violence, random and arbitrary violence, grounded in ordinary life.

In his novels, Irving takes his time in describing events and characters without necessarily drawing their immediate dramatic implications, without the pressure to present neat resolutions or clear reverberation. But what works in his book as literature doesn’t necessarily work in film as drama, at least not feature-length drama. It’s therefore with great regret that I note that The Door in the Floor, the pared-down version of Irving’s 1998 novel, A Widow for One Year, is the latest disappointing Irving adaptation, joining the ranks of Hotel New Hampshire, Simon Birch, and others.

The main reason to see The Door in the Floor is Jeff Bridges’ towering performance in the lead role (see Oscar Alert), and Kim Basinger’s delicate work in a smaller part.

If the picture is stumbling at the box-office, it’s not because of its counter-programming status to summer’s popcorn movies. Door in the Floor is a flawed movie, lacking shape, rhythm, and focus, a movie in which individual scenes are effective, but the movie as a whole is not.

As writer and director, Todd Williams looks at Irving’s tragicomic rumination on life, death, and sorrow from the outside. Though sympathetic, his perspective is too detached, which creates an almost unbridgeable distance between the story and the audience.

The tale chronicles one fateful summer in the lives of an East Hampton couple still struggling to cope with the tragic death of their two sons. A successful children book’s author and illustrator, Ted Cole (Bridges) has seemingly buried his sorrow and has moved on with his life. In contrast, his wife Marion (Basinger) remains in a state of perpetual sorrow, withdrawal, and self-pity. They live with their four-year-old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister), a girl who under these peculiar circumstances matures faster than kids her age; she asks her parents direct, often embarrassing questions.

The text uses the paradigm of an outsider who enters into a mysterious household and his very presence affects all of its residents in radical, unexpected ways. Here the outsider is a teenager, Eddie O’Hara (Jon Foster), ostensibly hired as Ted’s assistant but whose main job is to drive Ted to his drawing sessions and assignations.

A youngster with a healthy libido, Eddie develops a crush on Marion. He places her sexy lingerie on his bed and watches her bare feet in a photo as a foreplay to masturbating, which, of course, is interrupted. Much to his surprise, the older, still alluring woman, responds favorably. An illicit affair follows, with Ted watching the couple quietly, without interference. (Considering Eddie’s feverish yearning, the sex is depicted by Williams a dull, unexciting manner).

Eddie enters a haunted house that’s full of ghosts, both dead and living. Marion is so hollowed by grief that she looks as if she’s wearing a mask. Photographs of lost children, each with a tragic story behind it, hang from every wall in the house, and the characters seem haunted, even obsessed by them.

As the intruder, Eddie shatters the family’s facade of ordinary wholeness. But unlike Ordinary People, a drama dealing with a similar tragedy (the death of a favorite son and its devastating impact on his parents and surviving brother), there are no judgments in Door in the Floor, no heroes and villains, no therapy or healing sessions.

Irving’s novel stretches across decades and centers on Ruth, whereas Williams’ film is a portrait of a marriage falling apart. Both Bridges and Basinger are at least a decade older than Irving’s characters. Williams transposes the story from the late 1950s to the present, and his narrowly-focused treatment turns the saga into a more routine coming of age.

Williams, who made his debut with the decent feature, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, might have been too careful in his adaptation, too concerned with being faithful to the book. While never shying away from Irving’s thorny issues and overt sexuality, he’s unable to create a film with its own identity.

The film is remarkably unsentimental, but there’s not much drama or melodrama. As a movie, Door in the Floor may be too modest, too scaled-down, too restrained for its own good. Williams barely touches upon the book’s more risqu ideas. For example, the notion that, despite Ted’s grief, there’s also a sense of relief, that the tragedy has also allowed him to be more free-spirited and self-indulgent. Similarly unexplored is Marion’s relationship with Eddie, which is partly based on his physical resemblance to one of her dead boys. For Marion, the affair combines pleasure and guilt, bringing out her dual and conflicting role as Eddie’s lover and “surrogate” mother.

Williams does better with his ensemble than with shaping the text into an involving dramatic narrative, or giving it a varied rhythm. Bridges renders an intelligent, multi-nuanced performance of a man who, despite personal sorrow, marital strain, and awareness of his wife’s affair, refuses to wallow in self-pity. Though playing a self-absorbed, flamboyant artist, Bridges’ performance is startlingly natural. Stripped of vanity, he is unafraid to embrace the character’s flaws, let himself appear weathered. It’s a testament to Bridges’ humanizing performance that Ted remains a sympathetic character. In the end, despite seemingly reckless conduct, Ted proves to be a more capable and loving parent than his wife.

Cinematographer Terry Spacey (who shot American Splendor) captures the idyllic beauty of the Hamptons in the course of one long summer, with shifting light that underscores the season’s progress. Door in the Floor would have been a much better movie if the tone had been as rich and diverse as its visuals.