Irving novel lost in movie translation

Published October 1, 1998

IN A WORLD where few things are certain, here’s one sure bet: if you read and loved John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, you’ll be disappointed with the film suggested by it, Simon Birch. Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the author and director of Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men, Simon Birch reduces Irving’s 543-page novel, which covered a period from 1953 to 1988, to a 114-minute movie that covers six months of two boys’ lives.

The two boys are twelve-year-old best friends: Joe Wenteworth, (Joseph Mazzello) the fatherless son of Rebecca Wenteworth, (Ashley Judd) and Simon Birch, (Ian Michael Smith) the “Owen Meany” of the film, a tiny, dwarf-like, squeaky-voiced lad who believes that he has been placed on Earth to perform a great deed. Ostracized by the small-town community of Gravestown, Maine, Joe and Simon do everything together, from attending church, to swimming in the local river, to guessing who Joe’s father is.

Ultimately they face great trials: the accidental death of Joe’s mother and the tragedy that fulfils Simon’s destiny and ends his life. Gone from the Irving novel are the moral questions about the Vietnam war, about the Iran-contra scandal, about the relationship between child-like faith and adult doubt, about the nature of Anglicanism in Toronto churches.

What remains are the religious questions, but without John Irving’s wonderful complexity, this is replaced by a pale, American middle-class moralism. Faith and church hold a central part in Simon Birch. The local Episcopal church is the focus for large parts of the story. Simon is at his best when he talks back to the rector during the church-service announcements about coffee hour, asking what God has to do with coffee and doughnuts!

But, like most films (and this is a pet peeve of mine), Simon Birch is unable to get the religious references right: the priest does not wear the appropriate vestments, the liturgy is referred to by an incorrect term (what’s clearly a service of Morning Prayer is called Mass) and the tone of the parish community is phony and the characters (particularly the Sunday school teacher) are just not believable.

Still, the film raises important questions for church people to consider: how are outsiders regarded in the life of a congregation? what are we trying to do with children in Sunday school?

The best sequences of this film show a Christmas pageant gone very wrong with the baby Jesus being played by adolescent Simon Birch (the only kid small enough to fit in the crib – but also the kid with the biggest crush on the girl playing the Virgin Mary). It’s wonderfully irreverent, out-of-control fun.

Simon’s absolute belief that God has a plan for his life is another one of the film’s strengths. It is remarkable to see this little person, so put down by his community and his church be so clear about the reality of God and the purpose of God for his life. “I don’t need proof,” Simon tells Joe, “I have faith.”

His deep faith and his ability to act heroically can inspire even the most jaded Christian into looking a little more deeply at those who get marginalized by church and society – those who have been given the gift of faith, but annoy the ones who are simply trying to “run the parish.” In its exploration of God’s will and purpose for life, the film succeeds and prompts important questioning.

But still not enough to save this movie. With heavy-handed foreshadowing, shameless emotional manipulation and caricatures occupying places where real characters could have been, Simon Birch is another disappointing translation of an Irving novel into a film. One hopes that Irving’s own work on screenplays for The Cider House Rules and Son of the Circus might prove more rewarding. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


  • Peter Elliott

    The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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