We try to do a variety of different types of work around here, and goodness knows this is different from anything we’ve done before. It’s hard to think of anything we could do again that’s quite like it. It’s the most faithful adaptation I think we’ve encountered, which makes it even more surprising that it got made into a movie, even in 1984. Perhaps especially in the ‘80s, in the heart of the Reagan era. But it does exist, and it stars an Oscar winner, a handful of Emmy winners/nominees, and Wallace Shawn. So that’s a thing.
Win and Mary Berry have five children—Frank, Franny, John, Egg, and Lilly. Win and Mary are from the same small New Hampshire town, but they met working in a resort hotel together one summer in Maine. Win has been working as a teacher, but he buys a decrepit abandoned girls’ school and makes it into a hotel. Franny is raped by Chipper Dove and assorted other members of the football team then rescued by Junior Jones and assorted other tough black guys. The family moves to Vienna to help Freud, who’d known the Berrys that summer in Maine, run his hotel there; Mary and Egg are killed in an exploding plane on the way there. The hotel is full of sex workers and revolutionaries. Also a woman named Susie who dresses up as a bear. Win is blinded in an act of terrorism which the family thwarts. Lilly writes a book. The family returns to the US. They start another hotel. And so forth.
The movie is pretty much the same. Win and Mary are Beau Bridges and Lisa Banes. The children are Paul McCrane, Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe (in his pretty years), Seth Green (in his feature debut), and Jennifer Dundas. Chipper Dove, and Ernst the revolutionary pornographer from Vienna, are Matthew Modine. Junior Jones is Dorsey Wright. Freud is Wallace Shawn. Susie the Bear is Nastassja Kinski. And one of the revolutionaries is Amanda Plummer. It’s a strange cast. Which I suppose only makes sense, given how strange the movie as a whole is.
For one thing, one of the running plot points is that John and Franny are obsessed with one another. John ends up bonding with Susie because they’re both in love with Franny and neither of them can have her. (Franny experiments with Susie but is basically straight; Susie is A Lesbian Because Men Hurt Her.) Late in the story, Franny decides that the way to make John no longer interested in her is to wear him out sexually, and . . . that’s not a thing. But it did make it into the movie, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Honestly, given it’s 1984, there are worse people you could see a non-explicit sex scene with?
I’m not sure if this counts as magical realism. I don’t think it does; about the only truly unreal element is that Lilly stops physically maturing. They refer to it as no longer growing, but I’m pretty sure she explicitly remains in a child’s body. At bare minimum it’s true of the role that they cast a child and keep her as a child, but then the movie has the older children played by actors in their early twenties over the however-the-hell-long the story takes place. So I don’t actually know if it’s a deliberate choice rather than recast the character with a little person.
Is it surrealism? Definitely not. I wouldn’t exactly say the story makes much literal sense—characters come and go, and there’s a recurring thing that Win believes hotels need bears and a Thing about the taxidermied body of their dog. But if pretty well everything in the plot is improbable, none of it is impossible. Some of it is honestly a little too likely, such as the rape of Franny. But if it isn’t realism, it also definitely isn’t surrealism.
I don’t know what this is. Strange. Maybe worth checking out if you’re interested but also definitely avoidable if it doesn’t sound like your thing. Trying too hard? Yes, I think so. I seldom found Win whimsical and charming; mostly I found him insufferable. The only reason John isn’t completely terrible is that he’s Young Pretty Rob Lowe, and you kind of just ignore what he’s doing and think about how blue his eyes are. Is he in love with Jodie Foster? Well, why wouldn’t you be?
The race relations and queer representation in the story are . . . a lot. Frank is gay, and everyone’s okay with that except the obvious Bad Guys, but also he never even pines over anyone. Both of the women who have same-sex relationships do so because of emotional damage. Junior Jones is black and befriends the family, in part because his sister was also raped, but she appears simply to be Junior’s backstory and another woman John fools around with who isn’t Franny. And the Berrys do after all need the black guys to get Franny away from Chipper.
I’m pretty sure this is another one of those weird things I came across on Bravo in the days when that would happen. I think I got the book at a library book sale, to see if the book was as weird as the movie or if it just got screwed up in adaptation. And it did not. About the only change I can think of is from the ending, when they leave out a pregnancy. I mean, trimming, yes, but not a lot of the plot. Ernst using pornography as a tool to bring down the state? Yup, they left that in. The death of the bear State of Maine? That’s there, too. Everything. Exactly the same amount of linear story and logic.
Speaking of illogic, next month we’ll be getting into one of the worst adaptations we’ve covered. One where a work of let’s call it erotica obviously needed to become a wacky comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell. That’s right, your Patreon or Ko-fi support will help me afford access to Exit to Eden for next month!