John Irving has long been vocal about how unhappy he’s been with film adaptations of his novels. No doubt, he’s had cause. The World According to Garp (published in 1978, released as a film in 1982) featured standout performances by Glenn Close and John Lithgow (as a transsexual former football player), but it is generally consigned along with The Hotel New Hampshire (movie released in 1984) and a third movie “suggested by” A Prayer for Owen Meaney and disowned by the author to the dustbin of ambitious and quirky but, in the end, basically lousy movies.
Apparently not one to take such abuse lying down, Irving has detailed his objections in My Movie Business: A Memoir. While his defensiveness may be understandable, his explanations of his intentions for the screenplay he has written himself, for The Cider House Rules , are a bit, how shall I say, prosaic? For all his apparent good humor and affection for ambiguities, displayed in his incontrovertibly odd characters, the man seems determined to explicate what’s self-evident and nail down his meanings (for example, “I wanted to make Larch more normal. There is less time for character development in a film than in a novel; a character’s eccentricities can too easily become the character. In the movie, I thought Larch’s addiction to ether was eccentric enough”).
First published in 1985, The Cider House Rules tells a lumpy story, which may explain why despite Irving’s ostensible efforts to clarify and condense the plot and his “eccentric” characters Lasse Hallstrom’s movie version is much like previous films based on Irving novels. That is, it features an array of colorful characters and situations, an idiosyncratic nostalgia that passes for history, and emotional complications that eventually devolve into a reductive sentimentality. It’s true that Irving’s stories tend to be expansive and raucous, full of wild life and yearning, populated by characters who can’t quite get hold of themselves. But the appeal of these erratically clever and discursive tales is both conspicuous and elusive. Though there’s lots going on (framed by an erudite, can’t-we-all-get-along, liberalish perspective), none of it is especially engaging or complex.
Worse, the film assumes a certain sense of privilege (and related naivete) whether this comes from Irving or not is unclear that never gets challenged, let alone dismantled. The Cider House Rules seems content to think, for instance, that class differences have more to do with superficial misunderstandings than real exploitation and racism. If you have a good heart, the film suggests, things will work out.
Set in the 1930s and ‘40s, The Cider House Rules has a typically Irving-ian sense of scatter: the years sort of drift by, characters are sundry, and themes are vaguely related to each other. It could be that the film is concerned with the chronically troubled relations between parents (or their substitutes) and children, or racism, or with the traumas caused by class inequities in the ostensibly class-mobile U.S. Or it could be that the film is about the cheeseball power of love, whether between boys and girls or between family members, that is, the love that binds and (in fiction, anyway) empowers people at the same time. Or maybe it’s about the ways that people learn to repress their most fervent desires in order to take care of those who need them, and how such sacrifice leads to resentment and rage, or just numbness.
Numbness is pretty much where you end up at the end of The Cider House Rules , which can accommodate most any of the above thematic possibilities. This lack of focus is surprising, actually, since Hallstrom’s earlier movies (My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) demonstrate that he has his own subtle sensibility and psycho-social preoccupations, for instance, alienation, growing up under duress, the emotional and spiritual costs of social expectations and restrictions. And given his rep for quirky movies, you might imagine that he’d be an ideal guide through the uneven waters of Irvingness. But there’s always the dreaded problem that Irving identified in Garp as “the undertoad,” the mysterious force that will suck you down and destroy you. Call it ignorance.
Surely, for Irving’s characters, self-knowledge is crucial to ethical emotional development. But The Cider House Rules belabors the obvious makes the basic story line seem cluttered where it might have been interesting, or at least lean. The film opens in an orphanage in the teeny rural town of St. Cloud’s, Maine, where Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) oversees his young charges with admirable compassion and devotion (he calls them “princes,” which says something about his gender-focus), while also performing abortions for young women and girls in need. The good Dr. Larch struggles with three essential dilemmas. First, abortion is not only illegal but severely condemned by most folks; second, he’s developed a nasty and debilitating ether addiction; and third, he never quite gets the hang of this Maine accent, occasionally lapsing into something that sounds almost…Cockney.
Dr. Larch’s principal assistant at the orphanage is an orphan himself, the significantly named Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire). (Most of the characters have hyper-meaningful names.) Though Homer learns all the medical procedures that Wilbur knows and delivers babies like a pro, he refuses to perform abortions, based on his sense of propriety. The orphans who include the adorable Buster (Kieran Culkin), the always-wheezing (read: coughing like the doomed Camille), Fuzzy (Erik Sullivan), and Mary Agnes (Paz de la Huerta) and the resident nurses Edna (Jane Alexander) and Angela (Kathy Baker) form, with Homer and Wilbur, a solid family group, pained each time one of their members leaves, or, as they recite in ritual on these nights, has “found a family.” This ritual is really about feeling lovable, of course, and while everyone wishes their suddenly absent companions well, they also can’t help but resent their by-definition good fortune. (Mercifully, perhaps, no one seems to know exactly what happens once a child leaves.)
After way too much background time in the orphanage, the film finally lurches into the 1940s and the next part of its plot, meaning, Homer falls in love with Candy (Charlize Theron, looking glamorous in period sweaters and skirts), a girl who comes to have an abortion, accompanied by her flyboy boyfriend, Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd, as superficially sweet as he’s ever been). The couple befriends Homer, and they invite him to come work at the Worthington family’s orchard, run by mama Olive (Kate Nelligan), and where Candy also works, in a secretarial capacity. It does sound exciting, picking apples and watching Candy keep the books: who could resist?
Hurt and angry that Homer wants to leave, Wilbur pouts in his room and won’t say good-bye, but the nurses and the kids all hope out loud that Homer has at last “found a family.” He has in fact, he’s found a couple of them, intertwined but divided by race and class but both are dysfunctional to the point of debilitation and treachery. To start things off, the relations among the three friends become complicated when, while Wally’s away at war, Candy and Homer start an affair, supposedly intense, but never generating much heat on screen. When Candy learns that Wally’s been wounded and is coming home, she has to decide how she wants to spend the rest of her life. Homer, being the accommodating fellow and friend of Wally that he is, awaits her decision, all the while building a reserve of resentment at the girl’s apparent carelessness concerning his feelings.
Meanwhile, in a subplot, Homer’s working with a migrant apple-picking crew headed up by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo, mesmerizing as always). It’s in this situation as a laborer and only white member of another makeshift family that Homer comes to understand just how dysfunctional families can be. Mr. Rose’s crew includes Peaches (Heavy D) and Muddy (K. Todd Freeman, recently Mr. Trick on Buffy), as well as Mr. Rose’s daughter, the also significantly named Rose Rose (Erykah Badu, in a lovely performance). Rose soon reveals to Homer that she’s pregnant and unhappy about it, for completely harrowing reasons. That her crisis becomes his is not a little disturbing, as the film focuses on Homer’s decision-making: will he or won’t he use his abilities as an unlicensed obstetrician and as-yet-untested abortionist to help Rose out of her awful situation?
So here’s the irony: after all his chasing rainbows with the beautiful (and let’s admit it, ominously named) Candy, Homer’s lessons come courtesy of this righteously angry, self-sufficient, and resourceful crew of migrant workers. The lessons would seem to come most acutely in Rose’s own determination and dignity. This woman, with Homer he believes he has so little in common (he thinks she has a solid family unit, a loving father, and secure sense of herself, and sees himself as parentless and timid), proves to be the most effective model for moral behavior in sight. At least, as long as she’s in sight. That The Cider House Rules hardly knows what to do with her is demonstrated when, as soon as Rose’s dilemma is revealed and more or less “dealt with,” she’s evacuated from the text. She leaves a note and leaves town.
Rose’s disappearance underlines the movie’s most distressing irony, that its most potent character and situation serves as backdrop for poor Homer and Candy, who will never get it. Instead, Homer is protected by the film’s general political and historical myopia, such that the lesson he gleans from all his experience seems to be more reactionary than reasoned. Given his name, his return “home” is probably inevitable, but the route he takes to his version of “fatherhood” is a reversal rather than a resolution.