A Prayer for Owen Meany/Simon Birch Book vs Movie Review

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989)

Simon Birch directed by Mark Steven Johnson (1998)

This is a subscriber request by Dustin! I know he has been wanting me to cover this one for a while, so Dustin, I hope you like the video and make sure to share you thoughts in the comments!

Book Review

This is my first John Irving novel and I really enjoyed it. I hadn’t really known what to expect, but I was surprised at how funny it could be. There are events that are so ridiculous and hilarious, and yet that same silly scene can later be talked about in such a tender, heartfelt way. He balanced the two very well. I also like that this is framed as one of those stories on “why I believe in God”, and yet we see that our main character, named John, has a very flawed faith. We also have a pastor who people like because he has so much doubt which goes hand in hand with his faith.

Irving himself said he is on and off again religious and he wrote this story as a way to think about what he would need to experience in order for him to be a believer. I can’t relate to people who are so steadfast in their faith because I myself feel uncertain and am kind of an on again off again kind of person when it comes to religion.

Along with religion and faith, this also has themes of grief and loss, friendship, and delves into politics and war. It is a book I will read a second time at some point because one, I know there are things that I missed. I listened to this as an audiobook and I don’t take in as much with audiobooks as I do when physically reading and this is such a long book with so much to it. But even if I had read it I would still want to go through a second time because once you know the full story, I think you would pick up on different things while reading and you would know what and who to pay more attention to than you had the first time through.

I am not going to give a movie review; I will save that for the end of this video. So from here on out there will be spoilers for both the book and movie!

 Names of characters

The book and movie give different names to all of the characters, and John Irving himself said when selling the rights, that they could not use the book title. He provided the suggestion of renaming Owen Meany, Simon Birch. He felt his book wouldn’t be adapted properly and therefore didn’t want the name being used. He does have a cameo in the movie though so it doesn’t seem he hated the movie.

Throughout this I will be referring to the characters by their book names, rather than their movie names.

Owen Meany

In both, we see that Owen is very small for his age and has a high-pitched voice. In the book, his father runs the granite quarry, and it is assumed that rock dust causing palapus on this throat ever since he was born is the reason for his voice. In the movie, we don’t see this, and his parents are shown to be very distant and not care about Owen and to be ashamed of him. In the book his parents weren’t in the picture much, and we know that he doesn’t tell them much about his life, but they weren’t as cruel as we see in the movie. His mom in the book is out of it and doesn’t speak at all, just stares out the window. It is implied that something with the Catholic church is to blame for how she is. Owen hates the Catholics but we never hear the details on what went down with them.

In the movie, Owen dies when he is 12 years old but in the book he lives into his mid 20’s and his adult height is 5 foot. In both, he feels God made him the way he is for a reason-his size and his voice he feels are meant to serve a purpose.

Tabby Wheelwright

In both, John our narrator, was the illegitimate child of his mother Tabby, who is part of a rich family in town. It is pretty scandalous that she has her baby, but she has no shame about it. She is a kind, free spirited person who John and Owen both love. She and John live with her mother, John’s grandmother, who is also quite the character at times.

Tabby meets a man named Dan Needham and the two date for four years in the book before getting married. They are only married for one or two years before she dies. She had never told John or Dan who John’s father was. In the movie, she dies soon after meeting Dan and the two never marry.

Her death is very comical, yet it is one of those things that is at times funny, yet other times is heartbreaking the way it is talked about it. But she was going to John and Owen’s baseball game when they were 11. Owen is up to bat, and the ball he hits ends up hitting her in the head and killing her. Owen had loved her as much as John and is torn up about what has happened.

In the book, she had been waving to someone when she was hit, and John later suspects for no apparent reason, that she had been waving to his biological father. He then tries to remember who was in the stands that could have been his dad.

In both, Dan is the father John never had and I really loved their relationship in the book. In the movie he is played by Ben Platt and I thought he gave a standout performance. He really captured the warmth, sincerity, and love of the character of Dan.

After she and Dan had been married, John and Tabby had moved in with him but after her death, he does back to living with his grandmother. But once he starts high school, he and Owen goes to the boys boarding school that Dan works at.

The Christmas Pageant

In both, after his mother’s death, that December we hear about the Christmas Pageant their church is putting on. In the book there is also the annual production of A Christmas Carol which Dan directs. We hear in the book how Owen orchestrated the behind the scenes of both of these, casting himself as the ghost of Christmas Future in the play, and choosing the casting of the pageant and putting himself as the Christ child.

In the book, during the play there is a part when Owen is sick and he ends up passing out and seeing his own name on Scrooge’s tombstone as well as the date he will die. He feels this to be true and is in horror of it.

In the movie we don’t see the play, but do see the pageant. In the movie, Owen didn’t choose who played who, the way he did in the book but here too he plays the Christ child. In the movie, the pageant goes wrong when Owen is obsessed with the boobs on the girl who plays Mary. He tries to grab them, which causes chaos and the whole thing is ruined.

In the book, the pastor’s wife kisses Owen in a teasing way and it gives him an erection. From there, the play gets messed up because the kid playing the angel doesn’t know his lines, and later, Owen sees his parents in the audience and is surprised to see them there and yells out “what are you doing here?! You aren’t supposed to be here!” Others in the audience don’t know who he is talking about though and they think they mean him.  

Owen is wrapped in swaddling clothes so tight, John and someone else carry him to his parents’ car and he has to be laid down across them because he can’t bend. The whole thing was so ridiculous and one of the funniest parts of the book.

Yet even this is talked about again in the end in a way that is sentimental and sad in a way.

Owen’s death in the movie

In the movie, John and Owen are told they need to volunteer at a church retreat that is happening over Christmas break. However, Owen gets sick but even before that, the reverend tells him they all need a break from him after the pageant fiasco and tell him not to come.

However, Dan and Owen end up driving to the retreat for reasons we will get into later, and on the way back, Owen rides the bus with the young kids and John. Throughout the movie we see that Owen likes to try to hold his breath for as long as possible and we see why when the bus crashes into the freezing lake on the way home. Owen is able to take command of the situation and helps rescue all fo the children with John’s help. However, he is almost trapped on the sinking bus, but is small enough they are able to pull him through the bus window.

He is in the hospital and ends up dying by the end. We see present day John who has a son of his own he has named Simon. By the way, adult John is played by Jim Carrey and he narrates the whole movie. How he ended up in this I have no idea!

Owen’s death in the book

There is so much to the book, and as said, Owen lives into his 20’s and there is so much I won’t even be getting into. So I want to apologize for skipping over so much!

But Owen not only saw the date of his death back when he was 12, but as he gets older, he also has a dream which shows parts of how he will die. He believes he will die in Vietnam and so he keeps trying to get shipped over there once the war begins. Instead they assign him to be the person who takes care of dead soldiers and tends to their bodies-getting them to the proper mortuary, meeting with the families, and all of that kind of thing.

One fourth of July, he invites John to come to Arizona with him where he will be arriving with a body to deliver to a family there. They meet the family of the deceased and they are a trailer trash kind of family with the dead man’s brother being a messed up teen who can’t wait to go to Vietnam himself and get to kill people.

After seeing the family, John and Owen then enjoy the rest of their time together. Then it is time for John and Owen to fly back home, and Owen is anxious wondering if this truly is the day he will die, as foreseen, or if he was just crazy all along.

However, he ends up seeing a bunch of nuns get off a plane along with Vietnamese children whom he had seen in his dream. They are asked to help the kids to the bathroom, and John and Owen go take them but then they run into the crazy brother from earlier. He has a grenade and Owen is able to grab it, then John picks him up and Owen gets it out the high window and it blows his arms off, which cause him to die.

“The Shot” is something Owen and John had been practicing for years where John would pick up Owen and he would make the basket and Owen kept trying to get them to make it in under three seconds. This comes full circle, when we realize it was God who inspired Owen and John to keep practicing this shot through the years in order to save the kids in this moment. Owen’s size is what makes it possible for John to lift him, and his high voice and the Vietnamese phrases he had learned are how he is able to get the attention of the children while in this dire circumstance.

John’s father

John wanting to know the identity of his father takes up a good part of this book as well. He loves Dan, but he still wants to know. Owen warns him at one point that he might be disappointed when he finds out. Using the logic that if he had been a man that his mom thought would have been a good dad, she wouldn’t have kept it a secret and this man would be in his life.

After Owen’s death in the book is when John learns that the Reverend Merrill, the one filled with so much doubt and who had a sad wife, is his father. Rev. Merrill was indeed the one she was waving to when she died, and he said that in that moment he wished she would die.

John is kind of disgusted in the reverend for still having so much doubt even after knowing Owen Meany. He then uses a dressmakers dummy which had belonged as his mom, to make it seem like Tabby is sending the reverend a message from beyond the grave and this is what gives the reverend unwavering faith.

I thought this was so interesting-the reverend has unwavering faith after something contrived and fake happens yet this is what turns him into a believer rather than the miracle of Owen Meany’s life. Definitely seems significant and is food for thought. There is a line in the book when John says, “Watch out for people who call themselves religious; make sure you know what they mean––make sure they know what they mean!”

In the movie, it is during the church retreat that the reverend tells John. Dan and Owen had been driving to see John, because they too had found out the truth and felt they needed to tell John right away. This seemed overdramatic. Like if Owen found out who John’s father was, why not wait until they got back that evening to tell him? In the movie the reverend is played by David Strathairn who I love and thought he was great in this role.

John as an adult


In the book, we get flashes to present day where John is a teacher in Canada. We think he went to Canada to doge the Vietnam draft and/or because Owen dies in the Vietnam war. We find out though that Owen cuts off John’s fingers as a way to prevent him from being drafted so he didn’t need to go to Canada just to avoid war. We also find out that Owen didn’t die in Vietnam. But it is someone who is a product of America that causes Owen’s death, and this, along with other things happening in American politics, that cause John to be disgusted with the US and choose to move to Canada.

We hear how he is obsessed with the US though and is addicted to reading the paper and being up on current events in the US and getting angry about it and ranting to anyone who will listen on how stupid America is.

He is still upset about Owen’s death and he can’t get passed it. In an interview, Irving said that he wrote John as being gay and in love with Owen. But that he came from a generation that would never admit to being gay. Even into his later life, John is still a virgin.

None of this is in the movie. John still lives in America, and he presumably has a wife, considering he has a son. He isn’t bitter and upset still but seems well adjusted.

Loss of limbs

There is a lot of symbolism in the book of people not having their limbs or fingers. We have:

the grandmother’s maid who has a leg amputated

John getting some fingers cut off

A stature of Mary Madeline that has no arms

The armadillo from Dan, which Owen cuts the hands off of

Owen himself loses part of both his arms

The dressmaker’s dummy which has no arms

It seems like there may even be more, but those are the ones that come to mind. This is interesting when thinking of Owen and how he cut off the armadillo’s hands to show that God used his hands to kill the mother and it wasn’t his own doing. He feels throughout the book that he is an instrument in God’s hands. Maybe in general this reoccurring symbol represents how we don’t have control over our own lives and there is an element of predestiny that we can’t escape.

Hester

Someone I wanted to talk about who isn’t in the movie at all, is John’s cousin Hester. John himself is attracted to her and her brother’s play this gross when they are around 10-13 game where they tie her to a bed and then race and the last one has to french kiss Hester as punishment.

When Owen and Hester meet, she and her bothers, take an instant liking to Owen. Then when Owen in in high school, he brings Hester to a school dance and from there they are in a relationship. It seems on again off again at times, but he ends up moving in with her after high school. She is upset when he is trying to go to Vietnam and she will even beat him up.

By the end, Hester has become a successful rock star. She was always an angry person, protesting various things in the country, and now that has paid off and she is idolized by the younger generation.

Book vs Movie

 Even though I do like some of the adult performances, as said, Ben Platt is fantastic and David Strathairn is a great actor as well, and I also thought Ashely Judd was well cast as the confident, happy, free-spirited mother. I also wanted to mention a scene that I don’t recall in the book, where John and Owen get in trouble for breaking into the school and Dan picks them up. The reason they give for getting into trouble is that “John just went a little nuts.” Dan says that is reason enough, saying everyone needs to be allowed to go a little nuts at times. I loved this part in the movie so much and it really captures the kind of person Dan was in the book as well. He was kind, wise, empathetic, and a loving adoptive father.

But honestly that is kind of the only positive things I have to say about the movie. They kept a lot of details from the book, but it lost so much of what made the book profound and thought provoking and boiled it down to being another sappy Christian movie. It lacked the nuance and complications, and while it kept some of the humor, I didn’t find it as funny as the book. They literally zoom in on the breasts of a young teen girl in the Christmas pageant scene; it was awkward and weird. The book has sexual humor (there is a part when they overhear a married couple having sex and the man keeps yelling out “the wetness, the wetness” while the wife yells, “the hardness, the hardness” which was hilarious), and it also makes commentary on the taboo nature of sex. When John feels lust for one of the maids, he feels it is a sinful thing and must reflect his unknown father who must have been an evil, lustful man. And when they hear the married couple having frequent sex, they think they must be depraved sexual deviants. It isn’t until John is older that he sees what a beautiful thing it was that the couple were so sexually active.

But yeah,  I don’t expect the movie to include everything from the book of course. But the fact that they changed the vibe and message of the book in such a drastic way and made it into something so simple and trite is what I really dislike and why I think it is a basic movie and a bad adaptation. Needless to say, when it comes to book vs movie-the book wins!

I also want to mention what a great writer Irving is. I have just one quote I will share as an example of his writing, “Owen Meany who rarely wasted words and who had the conversation-stopping habit of dropping remarks like coins into a deep pool of water… remarks that sank, like truth, to the bottom of the pool where they would remain untouchable.”