The World According To Garp


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The World According To Garp
"Garp was only the second big screen leading role for Williams (after Popeye) but he really gets to show his range."

In 1978, US feminism was engaged in several major battles over reproductive rights, equal pay and access for women to traditionally male preserves. John Irving, meanwhile, was writing his fourth novel, The World According To Garp, whose critical (yet sympathetic) take on the burgeoning movement would make a lot more sense in retrospect than it did at the time. Like most of Irving's work, the novel is long and meandering, an observational comedy focused on human stories and posing a question often asked at the time: what might life be like for those growing up in a feminist world? Its hero, Garp, is ahead of his time, his take on the wider world profoundly skewed as a result. When it came to filming the story, four years later, the only real choice for the role was Robin Williams.

Garp is, in context, an unusual child, his father a soldier whose sperm was harvested just before his death, growing up as much an object of study as of love for his distinctly unromantic mother, Jenny (a perfectly cast Glenn Close). He is, nevertheless, cheerful, happy-go-lucky, confident and highly promiscuous, at least until he meets Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), with whom he falls head over heels in love. A notably furry Williams makes the world's least convincing teenager (he was 31 at the time) but engages with the character with such enthusiasm that it's easy to suspend disbelief. We follow him as he and Helen buy a house because a plane has just hit it ("The chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. It's been pre-disastered."), as he publishes his first novel and as Jenny accidentally becomes a feminist icon, once again overshadowing everything in his life.

Copy picture

Jenny is also an outsider, a student of life who seems to exist at some remove from it, latterly untouched my concerns like money or sex. Her effective isolation in the country house that she turns into a retreat for vulnerable women allows her a freedom of thought that at once seems more modern (her feminism is trans-inclusive and also makes room for Garp as an ally) and naive in relation to the politics going on outside; she has a tendency to fail to anticipate how her words will be received or how little some others will think before they act. In particular, she falls foul of the Ellen Jamesians, a group of women who cut out their tongues to honour a rape victim whose tongue was cut out by her assailants, despite the fact that the woman herself has asked them to stop. Whilst this could be seen as an unfair parody - almost deliberate trolling - it's undeniable that there have been dangerous extremists to be found on the fringes of feminism as with every other mass movement, and the Jamesians also have something in common with the leftist extremists of Life Of Brian, highlighting problems present in far more mundane organisations, especially the human tendency to go looking for freedom of thought and end up substituting blind faith.

In the midst of all this, Garp is trying, in his way, to live an ordinary all-American life, living in a nice suburban home with two genuinely adorable kids. Irving has always written children well and the humour in the film stems as much from their observations as their father's - some of these have had a bigger impact of the popular imagination than the film itself. Life buffets relentlessly against the family's dreams. John Lithgow's troubled former footballer, Roberta, living at Jenny's house, is initially presented as a tragic character but travels in the opposite direction to Garp over the course of the film until she is the one looking after him. Garp was only the second big screen leading role for Williams (after Popeye) but he really gets to show his range, consistently funny throughout much of the running time but equally in touch with suffering.

Despite dealing with serious and sometimes academic subject matter, this is a playful, quirky story full of unexpected events. At times it lurches between extremes, and it keeps its balance with admirable skill. Although the book often comes across as cold, the film is warm hearted and tends to be remembered with affection. It's fair to say that you'll never see another film quite like it, and it's something Williams fans cannot afford to miss.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2014
Share this with others on...
A voyage through the lifetime of an ambitious writer overshadowed by his celebrated feminist mother.

Director: George Roy Hill

Writer: Steve Tesich, based on the book by John Irving

Starring: Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Nathan Babcock, Ian MacGregor

Year: 1982

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database: