Ordinary People Book vs Movie Review

Ordinary People by Judith Guest (1976)

Ordinary People directed by Robert Redford (1980)

This movie is the 1980 best picture winner about a family dealing with depression and grief and loss of a loved one. I have seen it many times, and this was also my second time reading the book. I love them both, and before I get into plot details I want to say that I highly recommend them!

And I am going to jump right into the plot, which means there will be spoilers going forward.

Plot overview

the movie is incredible faithful to the book, and Both book and movie are about an affluent family comprising of Beth the mother, Calvin the father, Conrad the son, and Jordan/Buck the son who recently died in a boating accident. After the death of Buck, Conrad, who had been out on the boat with him when he died, attempts to kill himself but he is found in time and sent to the hospital and he then stays at a mental institution for a few months to get better. When he returns home he is trying to get back to life with his father who can over worry and his mother who acts like nothing has happened. He also sees a new therapist, Doctor Berger who helps him have some break thru’s. In the end, Beth leaves to get some space because she feels unable to give what Conrad and Calvin want of her.

That is a super watered-down description lol, but that’s the basic gist.

Feeling and expressing emotion

Beth is very closed off in book and movie. She isn’t someone who is able to show strong emotion and is uncomfortable around those who do. She does not want to address the loss of her older son, and doesn’t want to directly talk about what has been happening with Conrad. We see in both that she is a perfectionist, keeping her house and appearance and her life (at least from the outside) in perfect order.

Control is a theme that comes up with Conrad, when he sees Berger he tells him he wants to have more control in his life. That is what Beth also wants. She wants to be able to do the impossible-control life. The best way she seems to be able to achieve this sense of control is by keeping things orderly. Conrad might be annoyed at her need to have everything clean and perfect, but I think he doesn’t realize, at least not until the end, that her reason for that is because she wants the same thing he wants-control over life.

She also comes from a richer family and from a period in time when stereotypically, people didn’t talk about difficult things or show too many emotions and valued keeping compsure then the trauma she has been going through that expounds that. Even in the end when her own husband asks if she loves him, she is unable to say the words. I think she does love him, she just is at a place where she is incapable of expressing it.

This also comes back to Conrad and Berger. Conrad tells Berger he doesn’t like feeling, because all he feels is lousy. Berger tells him in both book and movie, “Listen, what happened this morning was that you let yourself feel some pain. Feeling is not selective, I keep telling you that. You can’t feel pain, you aren’t gonna feel anything else, either. And the world is full of pain. Also joy. Evil. Goodness. Horror and love. You name it, it’s there. Sealing yourself off is just going through the motions, get it?”

Beth has shut herself off from the pain of Buck’s death and the pain of Conrad’s suicide attempt, but because she has shut off the bad feelings she is numbing herself from the good feelings as well. Feeling is not selective. This is very much like that amazing line from Call Me by Your Name.

Thanks for Berger, Conrad is learning to let himself feel the crappy feelings, learning to accept that sometimes he won’t feel good but he needs to allow himself to feel bad in order to also feel good and feel and show love.

Beth

Beth and Conrad are alike in many ways, as Calvin points out when he sees Berger himself. They botj take everything very personally, especially when something bad happens they assume they are the center of it. When she mentions going on trips just her and Cal, and he mentions bringing Conrad, she takes is personally, thinking he brings him up to annoy her. When really, I mean come on, he’s your teenage son! Assuming he would join them on vacation isn’t something she should be so bothered by and be taking so personally. Even Conrad’s suicide attempt she sees as Conrad wanting to hurt her specifically.

Beth can be seen as the “villain” of the story, and when I watched this movie in the past I didn’t see her in a positive light. This time around, I paid more attention to her, wanting to understand her. She is grieving just like the other two are, but her grief is all internal and doesn’t allow herself to show it.

Some lines that give us insight into her as a person, we have in the movie Cal suggests they all go see Berger together and she says, “Don’t try to change me Cal. I’ve experienced enough change already.” Another part when Cal and she are arguing he says, “Can’t you see anything except in terms of how it affects you?” and she replies, “No! Neither can you! Neither does anybody else! Only, maybe I’m more honest than the rest of you, maybe I’m more willing to recognize that I do it.” I don’t think she is right, I think seeing things from another person’s perspective is an important thing to learn in life but she is only able to see things in terms of how it impacts her and she thinks this is how everyone is they are just in denial.

There is also the scene in the movie when they are fighting over the camera and Conrad has an outburst, afterwards, Beth still takes the picture! Her inability to acknowledge tense family moments is kind of insane sometimes. And yet, to be honest, it is also relatable because I have family that can ignore things and not want to acknowledge difficult topics, and I myself can sometimes have that tendency to just pretend things are normal when they are not, but I do it as a defense mechanism which is also why Beth does it.

In both book and movie we also get scenes where we see her try to reach out to Conrad in her way. She makes him French toast, his favorite, but he says he isn’t hungry. She takes this as a personal insult and as him rejecting her as she tries to do something for him. She then goes outside when he is out there and tries to chat with him. He then brings up a story of Buck, and she gets uncomfortable and the situation gets awkward and he kind of ruins it. We get scenes similar to this in the book too where we see that she did make efforts in the way she was able.

In the book, we get a more hopeful end with her. An epilogue that takes place about six months or so later reads, “Gestures. He is learning to interpret them now. In a letter that she wrote to his grandmother she said, “The Aegean is bluer than the Atlantic, and rough and bumpy. It looks just the way the boys drew it on those funny school maps.” For she had saved them all—the maps and papers and a construction-paper valentine trimmed with Kleenex-lace that he had made for her—and packed them away in a box he had found in the basement, when they had moved out. Do you save stuff like that if it means nothing to you?…He will see her when she comes home, maybe drive over to his grandmother’s house some morning, and say hello. Just hello, nothing important. No point in it anyway, because she knows it all, knows just as he does that it is love, imperfect and unordered, that keeps them apart.”

In the book we don’t get the exact conversation between Beth and Cal the morning she leaves. In the movie Cal tells her that she isn’t strong. Says that they would have been fine if things hadn’t gotten messy, but life did get messy and she can’t handle mess. He also says she is cold and that he doesn’t think he loves her anymore. I was trying to decide how I felt about this scene since this was added to the movie. It gives us a bit more context as to why she leaves, and let’s us see the headspace Calvin is in.

And maybe the point is that we are seeing Calvin understanding his emotions and finally able to express them. So maybe if anything, this scene is a reflection of Calvin more than it is of Beth. In both, people tell Cal that he doens’t see the truth of things, everything is “jello and pudding with him”. So in this moment, we see that he is finally seeing things clearly. But this scene also makes her leaving have more of a finality to it which makes the whole thing even sadder than in the book I would say. I actually prefer the hopeful ending of the book though.

Calvin

We hear more about Calvin’s past in the book, how he didn’t know his dad and his mom was absent from a lot of his childhood and he was raised in an orphanage and then his mom died. An attorney took him under his wing in his late teens and was his mentor but when he married Beth, the attorney cast him aside saying he wouldn’t be able to focus on his career while also being married. He feels heartbroken at this father figure turning his back on him so easily. We see more of his work life as well, but the movie does keep the part when his partner talks of firing their secretary and Cal says he is sorry to always put that on him, but he just isn’t able to tell someone they are no good.

In both, he goes to see Berger himself, but the movie adds the scene after where when he gets back he confronts Beth about why she made him change his shoes when they were getting ready for Buck’s funeral. How could she have cared about something so trivial, when they were going to bury their son. But going back to earlier, she cares about keeping up appearance sure, but she is also trying to stay in control in whatever way she can.

In both, Cal and Conrad are both so desperate to be able to talk about things, but Beth shuts them down. She might think that not acknowledging this trauma is a way of not letting it affect your life. But truth is, ignoring trauma and not consciously processing it, still impacts you only it impacts you in your subconscious. When you don’t consciously talk and out and process pain, you are then actually giving that pain power over your life in ways you may not even realize. Beth shuts down Con and Cal, thinking if she talks about it, it will be worse. But really, talking about it and confronting it is the way to make it better.

Conrad

In both, Conrad is on the swim team and his former friends who were also Buck’s friends, are also on the team. He ends up quitting because he doesn’t like it and the coach is a jerk. One guy in particular, Lazenby, was Buck and Conrad’s best friend. Part way through book and movie he opens up to Conrad saying that he doesn’t get why Conrad wants to deal with things alone and he says how Jordan and Con were his best friends and how he misses them. Conrad then tells him that it is just too painful to be around him now that Jordan is dead. In the movie, that is the last we see of Lazenby. However, in the book epilogue we see that Conrad is going over to Lazenby’s house to see if he wants to hang out and it was such a sweet scene and a great moment for Conrad.

He and Calvin (and even Beth you could say in the book) are learning to think of Buck without there always being the pain that follows. He can now be around Lazenby and be okay, Beth can refer to drawings the boys did when they were young in a fond way, and in the book we get a part when Cal has a memory of Buck and we read, “He hangs on now, pressing his hand lightly against the wall, below the window, waiting for the familiar arrow of pain. Only there is none. An oddly pleasant swell of memory, a wave of warmth flooding over him, sliding back, slowly. It is a first.”

Conrad also has a moment in therapy when he is saying how his mom will never forgive him for trying to end his life in such a messy, graphic way. As he is going on about this, he suddenly realizes that he hasn’t been able to forgive her. Berger also tells him that he needs to see that his mom may be doing the best she is able and that he can’t expect her to be someone she isn’t.

And this book and movie are so amazing too in how they show therapy and the stigma against it but how important and helpful it can be.

Conrad and Calvin

At the end of book and movie, Beth has left and Con asks why, he then quickly assumes he is to blame. Calvin then snaps at him and says, “I don’t know why she left. And neither do you, because a lot of things happen in this—this world, goddamn it!—and people don’t always know the answers! I’m no authority on her! You’re no authority, either!”

He then apologizes for getting after Conrad, but Conrad says that he should get after him more often. After talking about Buck, we then read,

-Conrad says, “You know, I used to figure you for a handle on everything. You knew it all, even though you grew up alone, with nobody looking after you—” “I was looked after,” he says. “Where’d you get that idea?” “Yeah, but nobody was responsible,” he insists. “Nobody helped you with the decisions—I’ve thought a lot about that. I really admired you for it. I still do.” “Well, don’t admire people too much,” he says, tossing the remains of his coffee into the bushes. “They disappoint you sometimes.” “I’m not disappointed,” Conrad says. “I love you, man.” He winces, and his throat is tight, his eyes filled with sudden tears. “I love you, too.” It is awkward, having all this between them; it bumps clumsily against the sentences, pushing them out of meaning, out of order. Painful, the problem he has with these particular words; they threaten to overpower him, cut off his breathing. He hooks an arm around his son’s neck and is at once caught in a fierce embrace. He smooths the dark head wedged against his shoulder, brushes the hair aside at the back of his neck to touch bare skin. Conrad pulls away, straightening himself, arms on his knees, head down.

And the movie scene is very similar, but I want to play it for you because it is just so good!

and the movie scene of this is very smilar, just with some different wording on Conard’s part because again, in the mvoie we don’t learn that Cal was an orphan.

and wow it is such an incredible moment!

This is a huge moment because we know Beth can’t express these words, but it isn’t common for even Cal or Con to say them. So, when they actually say the words I love you, these are the words they needed to say to each other to bridge the gulf that was beginning to form in their family. We sometimes dismiss the value of literally telling someone you love them, saying that they should know by your actions basically. I know I grew up in a house were we rarely said it and firmly believed that actions speak louder than words. Of course, you do need the action along with the words, but this movie shows how important it is to tell people the literal words and it isn’t fair to think people shouldn’t require the words to be said.

We also get this stereotype where a person never says I love you, and so we just assume that they must love the people in their lives even if they aren’t able to say it. But if someone is left feeling unsure because you have never said the words, it makes no difference whether you love them or not because they don’t even know. What’s the point of loving someone, if they don’t even know for sure you love them? People we love deserve to be told directly that you love them. It is something so simple, yet so powerful and often underrated.

Jeanine and Karen

In both book and movie, we see Conrad start to date Jeanine. We see more of her in the book, and in the movie, she alludes to having done a lot of things she is ashamed of, but in the book we hear about this in detail. We also see Conrad interacting with her brother, and her mom who is divorced. I liked seeing more of her in the book, but I also love what we see of her in the movie, it shows us enough to know the kind of person she is so it wasn’t necessary to include every scene of hers from the book.

One difference, in the movie she is asking him about his suicide attempt while eating at McDonald’s, and in the middle of this intense, intimate conversation, some guys from school come around being loud and rowdy and Jeanine is laughing which Conrad takes personally and the night is thrown off. This is not in the book, and in the book, she doesn’t ask him about this until near the end after they have slept together for the first time. This is a good part in the movie though, a good example of how he took it personally but later realized he should have brushed it off and seen things from other people’s perspective and rather than only being focused on how it effected him alone.

We also have Karen in both, the girl he knew from the hospital. They meet up, but she doesn’t want to stay long. She tells him she isn’t seeing a therapist because “the only person that can help me is me. At least that’s what my dad says”. Like Beth, her dad seems to be the type that wants to sweep things under the rug and not discuss them with each other and certainly not discuss them with strangers. She ends up committing suicide in both book and movie.

Title

And I wanted to address he title real quick. The Jarrett’s are wanting to feel like ordinary people and don’t want to have this heavy trauma weighing them down and the times when life feels normal and “ordinary” again, they take solace in that. But at the same time, the title shows that everyone deals with things of this sort. We are better about publicly acknowledging these things than we were back in the 70’s and before, but even so, we all sometimes think we are unusual due to family drama that may be going on and yet really, that family drama and the suffering we go through in life is pretty universal.

Book vs Moive

This is a character driven story and that is one of the reasons why I love it. We switch back and forth from seeing things from Conrad’s perspective and Calvin’s, but never Beth’s. I wondered why we never see her side, but she is a closed off person and so maybe Guest wanted the reader to also feel unable to get close to her. We also get to see her through the lense of her husband and son and see how they each feel towards her and how they perceive her.

The characters all feel so real and the dialogue comes off so genuine and natural. This is a book where when I read it, I feel transported and I am there with these people. The writing is so immersive and really puts you in the shoes of Cal and Conrad. The writing can be stream of conscious at times, but not so much so that it seems too out there and jarring compared to the rest of the book.

The movie stays so close to the book and so much of what is said comes verbatim from the book. The actors though just nail these performances. Each and every one embodies their role and as emotional as the book is, the movie is even more emotional as you see these people in the flesh dealing with this grief and trauma. As well as seeing their love and the complexities of these relationships. Timothy Hutton won best supporting actor for his role, at only 20 years old and it is well deserved. This movie also won best picture and best director.

Book and movie are so similar but ultimately, I will say movie wins because seeing this story come to life in such a beautiful, tragic, touching, heartfelt way is just an amazing experience. But if you like the movie, I would highly recommend the book.

rev road