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Screening out the messy parts: Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire in The Cider House Rules

By his own admission, John Irving has seen exactly two movies in a theater during the last ten years. Sorry to say, it shows. With the opening of The Cider House Rules, we can now add Irving himself to the list of people who've failed to translate a John Irving novel into a decent movie. Despite retaining sole screenwriting credit and near-absolute veto power (not to mention outlasting three directors in a development hell that lasted 13 years), Irving gets the film version of his 1986 novel just as wrong as, say, the people behind last year's forgettable Simon Birch, which was loosely based on Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

My guess is that the problem has to do with the way that Irving novels are built. According to the man himself (as detailed in both Waiting for Piggy Sneed and My Movie Business: A Memoir), he completely maps out each character's life story before composing a single sentence. As a result John Irving novels are models of economy in which the smallest of details--a phrase, a baseball, a heart defect, a stuffed armadillo, a sexual practice--not only recur, but figure into each character's fate in surprising but satisfying ways. The marvelous thing about this method is that Irving creates a world in which the people and places his characters encounter never truly leave them; instead, the characters become accumulations of their lives to date, their fates set in early actions that, in any other novel, would amount to inconsequential set design. The drawback, though, is that editing down Irving's epic sprawl must be something like time travel: Change one thing and you change the whole story. (John Irving, meet Marty McFly.)

As a result, the cuts that bring director Lasse Hallström's The Cider House Rules in at a reasonable running time (two hours and five minutes) also recast what's billed as a homecoming story into the tale of a boy who learns that he has nowhere else to go. In the course of the movie's first half-hour, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) grows up in a 1940s Maine orphanage run by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, who looks here as though he has just been scrubbed under a hot faucet). Twice adopted and twice returned, Homer eventually becomes a permanent orphan and Dr. Larch's protégé, learning to assist the deliveries and perform the (illegal) abortions that occur at the hospital. Homer balks at carrying out the procedures, a position he outlines in too many paint-by-numbers moral debates with Dr. Larch ("I'm happy to be alive under any circumstances" versus "If you expect women to be responsible for their children, you have to give them a choice"). I mean, wouldn't you expect an orphan to be a little squeamish on the subject?

When Candy and Wally, a couple from the coast, arrive seeking the second of Dr. Larch's services, Homer decides to leave with them, and takes a job in Wally's mother's apple orchard on a picking crew overseen by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo) and tended to by Rose's daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu, in her film debut). When Wally (Paul Rudd) returns to war, Homer initiates an affair with Candy (Charlize Theron). Back at the orphanage (what a soap opera, this!), Dr. Larch is pressured by a state board to take on another doctor and begins to make secret preparations (including falsified documents) to bring Homer back to work in his place, so that the abortions can continue uninterrupted.

Due to this aspect of the story (which is so blown out of proportion that it becomes a big, fat Issue-with-a-capital-I), a pro-choice press made up of mostly vapid women's magazines has in recent weeks taken to hailing John Irving as "a friend to women" or some such thing. And in both his actual novel and his nonfiction account of making the film, John Irving does sort of fit that bill, mainly because he takes a nonhysterical, historical approach to the subject: Both pregnancy and childbirth, he points out, were potentially life-threatening undertakings until well into this century. Abortion, practiced regularly in colonial times but illegal in the U.S. from 1846 until 1973, was far less risky if done correctly, though without legal access to correct medical procedures, women regularly died from botched or do-it-yourself attempts.

None of this reasonableness makes it into the movie, though. And with the plot compression, Homer's onscreen reasons for returning to the orphanage--as well as his incentive to perform abortions--rest on the shoulders of a small, overacted subplot involving an unintended pregnancy. Played like an ABC Afterschool Special, and meant to serve as Homer's initiation into the world of reality as opposed to the world of law (embodied by both the groundless rules posted in the cider house where the migrant apple pickers sleep and the laws against abortion), this episode gives the impression that other (black) people have had troubles for the sole purpose of the hero's moral enlightenment.

It's such an extreme case, this subplot (clearly the pregnancy is wrong), that the movie never really delves into the reasons that women might want to have an abortion in less extreme cases. The story only presupposes an influx of women who'd have them at any cost--women who, without Homer's help, would risk death (or, in Rose Rose's case...what? Shame? Self-hatred? Exile?). It bears noting, too, that Rose Rose never actually requests an abortion. Instead, the solution is foisted upon her by well-meaning (white) people--first Candy, who shares the details of her own experience, and then Homer. Strangely, the depiction of Rose Rose's abortion is a surprisingly unsympathetic portrait of something the film assumes to be the height of sympathy: In a bizarre twist, Rose Rose's father is made present for the procedure. To me, it comes off as yet another episode in which Rose Rose is mishandled by the men in her life. And in the long run, it's unclear whether she was well served by her easy access to a medically safe abortion. Given the way her story plays out, it seems that pregnancy was just about the least of her concerns.

The movie fails to notice any of this, though. Instead, it keeps chugging along, faithfully re-creating the book's significant details while overlooking the fact that, in this edited version, they fail to add up to anything significant. Just as the makers of Simon Birch unforgivably altered the meaning of the protagonist's refrain "I'm going to be a hero" by changing the actual events in which he becomes a hero, here, too, the novel is tweaked beyond recognition. Candy's "Let's wait and see" response when Homer asks about the future of their relationship becomes a delay tactic used by a fickle girl who knows that they have no future. Homer's supposed congenital heart defect changes from loving, farsighted protection into an overly symbolic subplot ("Here--take your heart!") that's revealed far too late. What's more, we never see any significant growth in the relationship between Dr. Larch and Homer, due to the simple fact that both are reticent characters who spend much of the film apart.

Yet the emotional cues are still set for the old story: According to the music and the pacing, we're supposed to thrill when Homer returns to the orphanage to assume Dr. Larch's role. I just felt sorry for the guy: Out in the world a miserable 15 months, tossed over by a beautiful girl with a soldier boyfriend, and strong-armed into a political decision by a misguided author-turned-filmmaker, this guy's going to spend the next 60 years delivering unwanted babies, reading bedtime stories to orphans, and cleaning up vomit? The guy is more horribly trapped than Gilbert Grape in an earlier Hallström flick: At least Gilbert got to leave town. At this point, Homer will be nearly 60 before Roe v. Wade allows him to take a break. This is triumph? This is homecoming? How strange that a film trumpeting the holy grail of choice has so little left for its hero.


The Cider House Rules starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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