Madison's Jacquelyn Mitchard must start every day by pinching herself to make sure she's not still dreaming. Alas, it all began with a nightmare: In 1993, Mitchard's husband, Dan Allegretti, died of colon cancer, leaving her with four kids to raise. Many women would have gone to pieces. Mitchard went to work, churning out the manuscript that would become The Deep End of the Ocean. Even before Oprah Winfrey conked Mitchard on the head with her magic wand, the novel was going places, but Oprah's Book Club, which selected Mitchard as its first anointed, sent the book soaring into the stratosphere. As if that weren't enough, Michelle Pfeiffer bought the movie rights and brought in director Ulu Grosbard and scriptwriter Stephen Schiff (Lolita), two awfully artsy adapters for what is, after all, a work of commercial fiction. Almost from the moment it was conceived, there appears to have been no stopping this book. Who could have stopped it? After a Prologue, it leaps out of the starting gate like a spooked racehorse. Beth Cappadora, a Madison mother who's trying to juggle career, family and...life, has dragged her three kids to her 15th class reunion in suburban Chicago, and within minutes one of them--3-year-old Ben--has disappeared from the hotel's lobby. What follows is a hundred or so harrowing pages as Ben drifts from the warm bosom of his family to the back of a milk carton--a police procedural that Mitchard nails with documentary-like precision. Meanwhile, Ben isn't the only one drifting. Beth almost immediately sinks into something beyond fear, beyond anger, beyond depression, beyond grief. And one of the nice things about The Deep End of the Ocean is that we can't quite decide whether Beth's a good mother or a bad mother. Good or bad, she locks herself in some deep, dark mental closet only she has the key to. And Mitchard locks us in there with her. The rest of the book doesn't quite live up to those hundred or so pages. Instead, it starts to resemble other books we've read--especially Judith Guest's 1976 novel, Ordinary People, which was also set in a Chicago suburb, also featured a mother (named Beth) who withdraws after the loss of a son, also featured a surviving son who wrestles his guilt with the help of a psychiatrist, and also featured a father who tries to sail above his disintegrating family. On the other hand, Mitchard does something perhaps no other child-in-peril author has done before. She returns Ben to his family nine years later and stands back to see what happens. Some child-kidnapping cases lack not just a happy ending but any ending at all; they drag on forever. But I recently read that, of the million or so children under the age of 15 who disappear every year in this country, 90% return. What about that 90%? Happy endings all around? Not on your life. Another nice thing about Mitchard's novel is that its "happy" ending seems as tentative and fragile as the Cappadora family has seemed all along. I knew Grosbard's movie version was in trouble from the opening moments, where Pfeiffer's Beth is portrayed as a slightly harried, very much married woman--a good person whom bad things are about to happen to. Mitchard's Beth would be better described as a slightly married, very much harried woman--not a bad person, but with just enough flaws so that, when Ben is taken from her, it almost seems like some horrible extension of the lackadaisical way she's been raising her kids. Mitchard's Beth comes awfully close to having an affair with an old high school boyfriend; Pfeiffer's Beth is too busy sleepwalking, not to mention sleeping. Mitchard's Beth rates herself "a solid seven" on a scale of one to 10. Pfeiffer's Beth is, well, Michelle Pfeiffer. Which is to say, the filmmakers have cleaned Beth up--a pity, since Beth's messiness is what attracts us to her. She's a real person, not a saint. Pfeiffer plays her like Mother Courage if Mother Courage just happened to lack courage. Early in the movie, her temples throb so violently you expect her to pop a blood vessel. Grosbard does a decent job on the scenes right after Ben's disappeared, as the minutes tick away into hours, days and weeks, but it's all very compressed. (Those first 100 pages go by in no time.) And, when Whoopi Goldberg shows up as a lesbian detective named Candy Bliss, you kind of wish the movie would speed up even more. But, in fact, it needs to slow down and take stock of what's happening to the characters. Those of us who've read the book can fill in the blanks; otherwise, I suspect the movie would seem thin. It's as if only the plot has made it onto the screen.
And not even all the plot. Beth's older son, Vincent (played by Jonathan Jackson in the second half of the movie), has to get by without the help of that psychiatrist. And Beth's husband, Pat (Treat Williams), no longer has heart trouble. For this and other reasons, the movie's Pat seems rather callous. In the book, we see Pat through Beth's eyes; in the movie, we barely see him at all. This throws off the family dynamic, the whole question of what constitutes a family, which is what the novel's all about. Instead, Grosbard and Schiff focus on Beth's pain, which is like some unbelievably intense version of postpartum depression. Unfortunately, they don't dramatize her pain, just present it. Though locked in that closet with Beth, we never get inside her head. The movie's okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but it doesn't go very far, never ventures beyond the shallow end of The Deep End of the Ocean.