The novel, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, takes place in Lake Forest, Illinois, during the 1970s. The story centers on the Jarrett family—Calvin, Beth, and their son Conrad. They are mourning the older Jarrett son, Buck, who was killed in a boating accident. Conrad felt so guilty about Buck’s death that he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists before the novel begins. Guest uses three points of view to tell the story, allowing Calvin and Conrad to narrate their own internal conflicts in alternating chapters and also occasionally using an omniscient narrator. Beth’s character is developed through the point of view of her husband or her son.
Screenwriter Alvin Sargent meticulously adapted Ordinary People for the screen. Director Robert Redford, in contrast to Guest, adheres to a traditional onscreen storytelling style with an omniscient point of view and a focus on characterization through action. Redford cuts and combines certain scenes and rearranges the order of certain plot points, altering the chronology of Guest’s original story.
The film version of Ordinary People opens with several quick camera shots to set the scene. First, the camera pans over a serene setting: empty winding roads, fallen leaves over a small bridge, a pier jutting out over calm water. Next the scene cuts to an imposing school, where inside a student choir sings ‘‘Hallelujah.’’ Next Conrad Jarrett, a boy from the choir, wakes up in bed in a sweat.
Viewers next see a stage play in which a husband and wife are having a conversation. The husband tells his wife that he doesn’t know a thing about her—especially little things, like what perfume she wears—but he has always been in love with her. The camera pans to the audience, where Beth and Calvin Jarrett are sitting. Calvin is asleep. In the car on the way home, Beth remarks on Calvin’s quiet mood. When they get home, Beth sees Conrad’s bedroom light on, but ignores it. Calvin goes in to talk to his son and asks if he is okay. Later that night in bed, Calvin makes love to his wife.
The next morning, Beth makes breakfast, while upstairs in his bedroom, Conrad appears anxious. He finally goes downstairs, but declines the French toast Beth offers. She dumps it down the sink even though Calvin tells her not to waste it. Beth rushes out. Calvin assures his son that they just want him to get stronger and suggests he start bringing friends home again. Calvin also asks if Conrad has called the doctor.
The novel opens with similar domestic scenes, but focuses more on internal conflict. In his room, Conrad dreads the day before him and sees routine tasks as daunting. Calvin and Beth are also beginning their day. Calvin, who was raised in an orphanage, thinks about how his fatherless childhood has affected him as a father. Calvin seems lost as his son. Calvin, Beth, and Conrad spend a tense breakfast together.
Family and Friends
Conrad waits outside for his friends to pick him up for school. They tease him about the fact he has to repeat eleventh grade because he missed final exams. The car stops for a train, and Conrad flashes back to a cemetery. After the train passes they continue on; when they see Jeannine Pratt walking to school, they harass her a bit.