How do you turn a thorny, 576-page novel that spans five decades in the life of a children's-book author and his family into a two-hour summer movie? For writer-director Tod Williams, the answer was simple: Don't even try. Instead, Williams focused on the first portion of John Irving's 1998 best-seller ''A Widow for One Year,'' a self-contained story narrated by the family's youngest child, Ruth. ''It had perfect structure for a movie,'' says Williams. ''The book jumps ahead 30 years after that, and I didn't see how I could do that effectively.''
Reducing the role of Ruth (played by Elle Fanning, Dakota's younger sister) was a decision that could have proved controversial. But Williams managed to charm Irving with his vision (and a script that kept much of the author's patented off-kilter humor intact), and even got him to offer up the story rights for a mere $1. ''At the time, he had an Oscar nomination for 'The Cider House Rules,''' says Williams. ''Studios would have paid top dollar for this book, but John was more interested in making a film that he felt good about.'' (In return, Irving retained script and cast approval.) And while numerous stars circled the high-profile project, it was Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger who eventually signed on to play Ted and Marion Cole, an East Hampton couple trying to cope with the death of their two sons. Says Williams, ''It's about how people recover from loss, pick themselves back up, and learn to love again.''
THE GOOD NEWS On the heels of ''Seabiscuit,'' Bridges remains hot.
THE BAD NEWS The last time Basinger and Bridges teamed up, we got ''Nadine.''