Turning a novel into a film is a tricky process and, more often than not, what gets lost in the translation is precisely what made the novel so appealing in the first place. Stripped of its narrative complexity and texture, the story can come off as run-of-the-mill and trite, and this can happen even when a novel is carefully reduced and repackaged by the author.
The Cider House Rules, lovingly adapted by John Irving from his sprawling 1985 novel and directed with crisp precision by Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog), isn’t an unsatisfying film, merely a comfortably predictable one. This coming-of-age tale, set in Maine during World War II, hits all the familiar notes as it plays out the surrogate father-son relationship between Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) and Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire).
Dr. Larch is the paterfamilias at the massive hilltop orphanage in St. Cloud, lording over the premises with equal amounts of smug self-satisfaction and genuinely touching compassion. Taking in unwanted children and performing abortions with similar zeal, Larch views himself as a kind of missionary in an unforgivingly puritanical America. Homer has grown up in the orphanage and finds himself in the uncomfortable role of Dr. Larch’s designated successor.
When he leaves St. Cloud in the company of Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd), a gregarious pilot who brought girlfriend Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) there for an abortion, Homer is prepared to see the whole wide world outside. He ends up working in an apple orchard owned by the Worthingtons alongside a close-knit group of black migrant workers led by Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo). But, of course, life in the cider house isn’t quite as simple as it initially appears.
The Cider House Rules, a well-made if conventional morality tale, finds John Irving proudly displaying his sentimental streak. Homer’s life lessons involve confronting dilemmas far outside his limited frame of reference, but he discovers his own reservoir of old-fashioned Yankee decency (the kind epitomized by Dr. Larch) just in time to realize that there’s no place like home.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].