The Ice Storm: America Out in the Cold

Lately with the weather across the United States and Europe producing abundant precipitation, most of it freezing, I can’t help but be reminded of The Ice Storm. Having first seen Ang Lee’s 1997 film, I recently decided to pick up Rick Moody’s 1994 novel, which Lee based his film on.

The Ice Storm, which is told from four different character perspectives, follows two families who live in the affluent suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut circa 1973. They are neighbors who have been involved in each others’ lives for years. Each couple has two teenagers around the same age: The Williamses consist of Jim, Janey, and sons 14-year old Mike, and 13-year-old Sandy; The Hoods are made up of Ben and Elena, sixteen-year-old Paul, and 14-year old Wendy.

The story takes place in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving while a vicious winter storm is brewing on the horizon. Despite the storm’s strength, no one seems to be prepared for it or even aware of it. The same can be said about the nonchalant attitudes the characters have about their dysfunctional lives and the impact that their apathy will have.

Unbeknown to most, Ben Hood and Janey Williams are having an affair. They have sex in the Williamses’ guest room on a seemingly regular basis when no one is around. One day, Janey gets up in her lingerie and leaves the room. Ben goes out looking for her, thinking she’s playing a game, and waits for her to come back. She never does. A few minutes later on his quest for Janey, Ben finds his daughter, Wendy, being dry humped by Janey’s son, Mike, on the couch in the Williamses’ basement. Neither kid seems all that phased that Ben is in the house and Janey isn’t.

This kind of fooling around between the kids isn’t unusual. Fourteen-year-old Wendy is sexually promiscuous in a kinky and aggressive way. At a slumber party, she rips her friend’s underpants down and goes down on her while her friends look on. She preys upon young, quiet Sandy, locking him in the bathroom and getting him to pull his pants down. Meanwhile Mike is pressuring Wendy to have sex with him. It soon becomes clear that she doesn’t really want to have sex, she just wants to shock people.

During all of this groping Paul, who is the eldest of the kids, is in a prep school trying to bed a girl named Libbets Casey. He goes to her New York apartment while her parents are out and finds his best friend Francis Davenport there, making his moves on Libbets. In retaliation, Paul drugs Francis with pills from Mrs. Casey’s medicine cabinet, and accidentally gets some into Libbets’s system, as well.

It’s obvious that the kids are losing control for a number of reasons, most probably puberty, unexpected freedom, and the second adolescence their parents are experiencing. The adults in this novel are so self-absorbed, they are completely unaware of what’s going on in their childrens’ lives.

Case in point: That same night, Elena and Ben go to an elite New Canaan party, leaving Wendy in the living room watching the same cartoon over and over repeatedly. Elena is embroiled in her suspicion of Ben and Janey’s affair. She accuses him of it while on their way to the party and when they get to the party and find out that it’s a key party, wherein married couples swap sex partners. She is sure that Ben will mark his keys so that Janey will be able to choose them.

Back at home, Wendy grows bored and goes over to the Hood’s quiet house to find Sandy in his room. The two move to the same guest room their parents have their indiscretions in, and get in bed. Meanwhile no one seems concerned about Mike, who is nowhere in sight. Moody writes:

But here Mike was: out in the cold. One of the unsupervised kids of New Canaan.

As it turns out, Mike is out playing on the ice, sliding around the roads near a mental asylum, marveling at live wires felled by the heavy ice, thrashing and spitting sparks onto the road, dangerously close to the metal road guard near which he stands. You can imagine the tragedy that happens next.

Ang Lee’s adaptation of the book is gorgeous, mostly true to the book, and boasts an array of incredible acting by an all-star cast that includes Kevin Kline (Benjamin Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Williams), Elijah Wood (Mike Williams), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Tobey Mcguire (Paul Hood), and Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey). Lee captures the ’70s on film the way Moody captures the era in the book. It’s the midst of the sexual revolution, the Watergate scandal is erupting, and the country’s social consciousness is changing. The suburban family is becoming more secretive, distant, and cold in many instances. The Ice Storm is a perfect metaphor for this disconnect, and the title Moody chose is obviously about more than just the impending weather.

The film uses silence spliced with shots of frozen wind chimes and ice-covered tree limbs against a white sky. Lee is able to capture on film what Moody’s language embodies on the page, particularly pertaining to the storm and the impending tragedy. Moody writes of Ben Hood, walking home, hungover, from the key party:

The whole world was white and gray as he inched down Ferris Hill. He passed cars parked along the road, or stalled in the ditch. The conifers, weighed down with ice and snow, were shrouded mourners.

There are a few things that film didn’t take into consideration. The characters’ appearances are greatly improved for the movie. Ben Hood is described in the book as having “beady eyes” and “mottled, puffy features”. His son, Paul, is also depicted as having a “helmet of long, wavy hair”, a “lack of athletic prowess” and referred to as a “garbage head”.

Neither handsome Kevin Kline, nor cute, preppy Tobey Mcguire fit these descriptions. In addition, the Williamses’ last name is changed to the Carvers, and a suicide attempt by Wendy is absent. There are also many other occurrences from the novel missing, mainly those that are redundant and those that don’t necessarily add anything to the book’s message.

As a firm believer of the “less is more” philosophy, I was happy to see that screenwriter James Schamus cut out a lot of needless dialogue and shot straight to the heart of what the book is trying to say. The last scenes of the movie are so powerful and sparse, they make the point Moody was seemingly trying to make about neglect and selfishness in a crystal clear, heart-wrenching fashion. This is not to say that Moody’s book isn’t powerful and beautifully written. It’s darker than the movie and the book’s characters are even more dysfunctional than those depicted in the film. The language is seamless and Moody’s story is a fantastic take on the broken American family.

Like John Cheever, Moody brings suburban American life and all its secrets eloquently to the page. As Charles Taylor of Salon put it: “Rick Moody’s 1994 novel, is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally satisfying books any young American novelist has produced recently.” (“Charles Taylor – Baby it’s cold outside”, 17 October 1997).

Moody’s novel and Lee’s film compliment each other in a symbiotic manner. Both are dark, filled with black comedy, and beautiful, icy imagery. I highly recommend the book and the film.

RATING 7 / 10