"The Cider House Rules"

In adapting his novel for the screen, John Irving wanted the story to be trimmer than in his book -- as long as he was the one wielding the knife.

Published October 27, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Cider House Rules"
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Starring Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, Kathy Baker, Delroy Lindo, Erykah Badu
Miramax; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Theatrical trailer, TV spots, making-of featurette, deleted scenes

In the short making-of documentary that accompanies the DVD of "The Cider House Rules," Delroy Lindo says that the film is about the conflict between life in theory and life in practice. That's about as good a summation as any of what lies at the heart of Lasse Hallström's film of John Irving's novel, and a perfect description of why the film is far less conventional than it appears.

Not that conventional is a bad thing when you're working on the level of craft that Hallström and his exquisite cast do here. "The Cider House Rules" is a piece of classical Hollywood filmmaking, in a league with pictures like William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives." The tears that it provokes aren't gotten by cheap manipulation but earned honestly through our emotional investment in the characters. (This is nowhere more evident than in Hallström's treatment of the host of orphans who populate the film. He realizes they're adorable; they don't have to be made adorable.) And like that great Wyler drama of the post-World War II home front, "The Cider House Rules" is quietly subversive. It says that no moral rule is worth honoring that doesn't take into account the realities of people's lives.

The specific ground the movie plays out that drama on is abortion. Without making any speeches or becoming self-righteous, "The Cider House Rules" is a fiercely pro-choice movie, "choice" being the operative word. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine, in one of the great performances of a great career) heads an orphanage in rural Maine. For Larch, caring for his charges doesn't mean neglecting their mothers. He doesn't subscribe to the homily that there's a place for every child brought into the world, though he dreams that his surrogate son, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), will find his own place stepping into Larch's shoes. But Homer dreams of seeing the world, and when he takes off with Wally, a young Air Force flier (Paul Rudd, whose scrubbed, all-American face stands for the idealism of the young men who went off to fight in the '40s), and Wally's fiancée, Candy (Charlize Theron, never more heart-stoppingly beautiful), the movie deposits Homer smack-dab in one of its gentle ironies. The world he enters as an apple picker in the young flier's family orchard is as circumscribed as the place he has just left. And as at the orphanage, there's no escaping hard choices, which here are the same thing as love.

The story of how Irving whittled his large-scale novel into a 125-minute film without losing its essence is itself a tale of hard choices and love. Irving had worked on the script for 15 years with several different directors before Hallström signed on to the project. In the DVD's accompanying documentary we find out that Irving kept insisting that the filmmakers tell less of the story than his novel did. Stephen King, among those interviewed, says that Irving was free to make those cuts precisely because he was the one doing the cutting. It's less painful, King explains, for a writer to decide what his material can stand to lose than for someone else to make those choices. What's essential is that the core remain intact.

It's easy to see why a touching, accessible movie like "The Cider House Rules" becomes beloved. But accessibility and the ability to move an audience to tears shouldn't be confused with coziness. The movie is a loving evocation of the '40s, but it's not bound by nostalgia. It has enough respect for its characters and its audience to take into account the way we live now.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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