John Irving recently published a book chronicling the process of adapting his novel, The Cider House Rules, to the screen. I haven't read it, but I intend to, because I want to see if the mental anguish I think this task caused him was as bad as I think it was. I mean, this movie cuts the text of the novel so severely that it bleeds. Having been caught complaining about the inordinant length of many films these days, I find that I wish The Cider House Rules were longer. I suppose that screenwriter Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom are being considerate to the audience by keeping this drama within a two hour running time, but it hurts the movie some.
The Cider House Rules tells the story of Homer Wells, who grows up in a Maine orphanage under the tutelage of the ether-addicted obstetrician/abortionist, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Larch has trained Homer in all of the medical knowledge he has and wants to groom Homer as his replacement. But Homer and Dr. Larch have a strong disagreement on a key matter of principal: Larch wants to guarantee that women who come to his orphanage can get an abortion if they want one and Homer refuses to perform them. One day, a young couple comes to the orphanage to obtain an abortion. This couple strikes up a friendship with Homer and Homer decides to leave with them. The man, Wally, is a pilot on leave (the film takes place during World War II). His family owns an apple orchard, and Wally offers Homer a job. Homer accepts and finds himself working along side a group of migrant apple pickers, headed by crew boss, Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose imposes his own rules on his people independent of the rules posted on the wall of the cider house. Meanwhile, Wally has returned to the war, leaving Homer with Wally's girl, Candy. Their relationship deepens precipitously. Between Mr. Rose and Candy, Homer is presented with a number of difficult moral choices that eventually decide his path in life.
The movie version of Irving's novel has the same problem as the book: it has an overt political agenda. Every so often, you expect to see a sign light up declaring: "AUTHOR'S MESSAGE!" Unlike the novel, the movie does not have the rich tapestry of characters to involve the audience in the story. It retains just enough of them to allow the story to function in more or less the same manner as it functions in the novel, but nothing more. It isn't a bad story, but it is so earnest in transmitting its political message that it fails to plumb the depths of the characters. This isn't helped by the cast. Tobey Maguire is adequate as Homer, I guess, but he doesn't relay the intelligence of the character in his delivery or his screen presence. Certainly, Charlize Theron's Candy is entirely too much woman for Maguire. Michael Caine is a strange choice for Larch. Caine delivers a pretty good performance, but the overlayering of a Maine accent on top of Caines cockney accent throws him a little bit off kilter. Only Delroy Lindo as Mr. Rose delivers the goods. His character is ten shades of gray moral ambiguity and his screen presence is overpowering. When he is on screen, you pay attention to him. All other actors in the movie, including two marvellous actresses in Kathy Baker and Kate Nelligan, are relegated to walk-ons.
Having said all of that, I should note that many of the formal particulars of the movie are excellent. It is impeccably shot and has a wonderful sense of place. The score fits the film perfectly. The composition of individual scenes is strong. The dialogue is excellent. It isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It is certainly the best adaptation of John Irving's work that has ever come down the pipe. But it isn't as good as it could have been, and watching it struggle with its own limitations is frustrating.
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