Cider House Rules translates well onto screen

Published February 1, 2000

“Good night, princes of Maine and kings of New England” says Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), to the boys of St. Cloud orphanage after he reads their bedtime story.

The Cider House Rules, adapted by John Irving from his novel of the same name, takes place in Maine in the 1940s.

Directed by Lasse Hallstram, this film features extraordinary performances by children as the orphans. It is, in some ways, too sunny a place for an orphanage, with Dr. Larch and his nurse assistants creating a large extended family protected from the cruelties of the world outside.

But the outside world comes into the orphanage in two ways: with parents coming round to pick out a child like one would choose a puppy, and with young women who come, seeking an abortion. Dr. Larch delivers babies or abortions, as requested, a fact which offends the orphan Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) who has to take the fetuses’ remains to the incinerator to be burned.

[pullquote] The Cider House Rules is Homer Wells’ story. He’s a teenage boy in the orphanage, he’s worked as Dr. Larch’s assistant; without formal medical education he’s delivered babies and comforted many young mothers who have chosen to give up their children for adoption. But he draws the line at abortion – he will not perform one, even though Larch has taught him the procedure.

Larch argues that if he does not perform an abortion, young distressed mothers will go to someone unskilled who will harm them. Homer dislikes the pressure of his role and wants to get out and see the world. When a soldier and his fiancee come to St. Cloud’s for an abortion, Homer arranges to leave with them.

Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron) befriend Homer. Wally’s family runs an apple farm and Homer joins the Rose family who live in the cider house and work the farm. While working on the farm, Homer discovers more of the complexity of life, his ethics change, and finally he decides to return to St. Clouds, to follow in the steps of Dr. Larch.

The Cider House Rules is the most successful adaptation of Irving’s work to date; Irving himself is the screenwriter.

The performances are all very fine and Hallstram’s direction, particularly with the children, is inspired. What touched me most about this film were three benedictions offered by orphanage staff to the children at bedtime. When a child had been chosen and left the orphanage, the staff at bedtime would say to the children, “Let us be glad for (the child’s name) tonight.”

It’s a touching phrase, repeated as the children adjusted to changes in their lives. Dr. Larch’s “Good night princes of Maine and kings of New England” is also deeply affecting, offering self- esteem to abandoned children.

But it’s nurse Edna’s (Jane Alexander) prayer with the girls that I found most moving. To hear the lovely prayer of John Henry Newman, “Lord support us all the day long of this troublous life…” was a treat. This prayer, a treasure of Anglican liturgy, finds a resonant chord in the context of a story of the troubles of life and of the work that we are called to do.

For the Cider House Rules is about finding your place in the world, and working there with compassion and grace – a theme that touches the heart of the gospel and the mission of the church. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


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