Robert Redford's adaptation of Ordinary People has always been one of my favorite psychological films of all time, but I had no idea it was based on a book (heap shame on me, all of it).
The narration dives straight into each character's thoughts and swims along, flashing this way and that in a stream of consciousness that really does pull you straight into the water too. You feel the panic that swallows Conrad up, bearing you along relentlessly down the hole with him. You feel as trapped as Cal does by his frustration with himself and his inability to hold his family together. You even begin to understand things from Beth's perspective, grudgingly and ultimately with unexpected compassion for a woman who cares so much she fears the showing of it.
The movie was a stirring masterpiece -- to this day, I cry whenever I see Conrad weeping in Berger's office or Cal sitting in the darkened dining room. Though the movie adds greater force to the story's emotion, the book sheds better light not just on the Jarretts but also the rest of the world the Jarretts live in. Jeannine is fleshed out, not just the one pretty girl who tolerates Conrad's company but one who grows to find comfort in him as much as he does in her.
So much of why I love the movie was lifted straight from the book's deep understanding of loss and human nature. The film saw no need to change Berger's powerful conversations with Conrad, or Beth's wrenching outbursts. Although Cal's heartbreaking "I don't think I love you anymore" never appears in the book, it builds up and manifests itself as a storm that finally breaks at the end. The book ends more hopefully, with Conrad contemplating reconciliation with his mother one day and rebuilding the friendships he lost.
I have so much to say about this book, about how the themes of forgiveness and understanding are in this story, or how masterfully Guest portrays a family spiraling apart despite the threads of love that still bind them.
In Ordinary People, there is no protagonist who stands above reproach, no villain with malicious intent. It may start out that way, but over time everyone in this book reveals that they are really just ordinary people, with ordinary desires and limitations they sometimes just can't overcome. Just like us.