Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) conceived her child T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) in most unusual circumstances, as she told her aghast parents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), in an opportunity arising from her capacity as a nurse she had climbed on top of a patient who was dying and practically senseless thanks to injuries received as a bomber pilot in the Second World War then had intercourse with him using his now near-permanent erection. He died shortly after, but that suited Jenny perfectly: she didn't want a husband, she wanted a baby, and she was very suspicious of lust, so tried to guide the growing Garp away from it...
The World According to Garp was probably the best loved novel of John Irving's career, and as there had been a strong following for it in the years after its publication in 1978 it seemed an obvious choice for adaptation. Yet a strange thing happened in transition from page to screen, with those who had not read the book, which seemed to be most of the audience, left bemused at best and outright nonplussed by the movie and exactly what it was supposed to mean. They knew it must mean something, it came across as the sort of enigmatic work which did as it was easy enough to understand, but the precise nature of what it was trying to say was confounding.
Those who knew the source would say, ah, well, you have to read to book of course, but not everyone had that luxury, so was the confusion justified? Even if you were unaware of Irving's stories, you would be able to discern the generosity of spirit in this as it took a bunch of misfits, some good and some bad, and presented them to one another, winding them up and letting them go to see how they would interact. That sense of divining a greater truth through the observation of the untypical life, no matter how typical Garp would like his life to be, was what prompted audiences to wonder if they were receiving a lesson of some sort, either from a place of wisdom or from someone who was failing to make themselves clear, thus you could see why this quickly became a cult movie.
One which was lauded with awards and nominations, but nevertheless spoke to those outside the norm, or at least those who that appealed to. As Garp turns from childhood to adulthood, he really wants two things: to be a writer, and to have a conventional family just as his mother denied him. Not that Jenny is the villain, far from it, she simply knew the way she wanted to live and embraced it, eventually moving away from the school she brings Garp up in and setting up a refuge for damaged women which unintentionally leaves her son rather alienated from her affections. The women there are deeply suspicious of men, and some have taken to cutting out their tongues as a protest in solidarity with a young rape victim who suffered that assault.
Garp finds this incredibly offensive, the idea of refashioning yourself as a martyr even against the wishes of your inspiration, but ironies abound here as it becomes obvious there are a large amount of men who are pretty terrible with no thought for anyone except themselves, going as far as deliberately victimising people for their own selfish satisfaction. Take the plumber who races around the suburban streets near Garp's home, someone else who raises his hackles as he cannot stand irresponsibility, especially that which can put lives in danger, young lives at that. More irony there in light of what eventually happens to Garp's family, the one he has with the wrestling coach's daughter Helen (Mary Beth Hurt in the role which wins her fans to this day).
There was an element of fickle fate here, of attempting to find some sort of rulebook to a deviously complex game of existence and one which will defeat you sooner or later, so while Jenny is pro-women to the extent her book on the subject is embraced by the female liberation movement, that doesn't mean all women are saints because some can be just as vindictive as the men, so how are you supposed to judge people when no one regulation applies? The film was also notable for its depiction of a transsexual character played by John Lithgow as Roberta, the former football player who became a woman and is one of the kindest people in the story, rather than a raving serial killer or butt of cruel humour as she might have been previously, though even she is not immune to the terrible machinations of the small-minded. Williams in drama was not always something welcome as he piled on the twinkling, but under George Roy Hill's careful, faithful direction he and the rest of the cast avoided caricature and cliché; yes, there were laughs, but as it embraced the bizarre of the everyday Garp rang true.
American director, more at home with character than story, with a wide range of subjects under his belt. He started in television and theatre, and his first films were stage adaptations, but with The World of Henry Orient he appeared to find his voice in film. Other nineteen-sixties work included the epic Hawaii and musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, but he enjoyed a monster hit with light hearted western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.