The Cider House Rules

(Lasse Hallström, USA, 1999)


Why must every best-selling novel become a big-budget film? Often there is no good reason at all, beyond the market calculation that enough people will want to see a story they already know and love replayed on screen, with name-actors giving body to the characters.

There is a particular kind of bestseller that translates especially poorly to screen: the vast, middlebrow novel that paints an epic tale with a kitsch overcoating of poetic lyricism, like The Horse Whisperer (1998) or Snow Falling on Cedars (1999).

Even when the novel in question has undeniable literary qualities – as with The English Patient (1996) or Oscar and Lucinda (1997) – the film adaptations tend to drag the material down into the same middlebrow soup. This is especially so when their narratives can be pulped into a wishy-washy mosaic-of-life, from the cradle to the grave, spanning several generations.

John Irving is, in my opinion, a lousy, utterly middlebrow writer. In the non-fiction book My Movie Business that accompanies the release of The Cider House Rules, Irving complains long and hard about the film industry, and the number of times his own work has been betrayed on screen. My Movie Business is one big whine from a precious, second-rate novelist who understands little about the art and craft of cinema.

Irving has managed to maintain a controlling influence over the screen adaptation of The Cider House Rules – much to its detriment. This lazy, ponderous, self-righteous film mixes gooey sentimentality with outdated, liberal-humanist sermons on abortion, individuality, responsibility, racism, family and compassion. The overrated Lasse Hallström, of My Life as a Dog (1985) fame, here signs his worst film.

The camera gazes endlessly at the sombre, wise, wrinkled visage of Dr Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), dispensing moral vision, good cheer and help to all in need: My Life as a God, although Larch does have an obligatory, drug-related fatal-flaw. His apprentice is Homer (Tobey Maguire) – Irving again indulges his fatal weakness for symbolic names – who eventually must leave Larch’s sheltered world to love, learn and make his own mistakes.

Irving structures his script around a single, heavy-handed theme: rules. The title refers to an absurd set of strictures pinned to the wall of the hut where a group of black workers (and, incongruously, Homer) live. "Them rules ain’t for us. We makin’ our own rules, everyday," growls Mr. Rose (Delory Lindo). Just as Larch made his own rules in relation to medicine and law within a humane code of ethics.

So far, fair enough. Then the film diverts itself into a gruesome subplot involving its black characters. Within this subplot, breaking the rules of civilised conduct is no longer seen as a good thing – on the contrary, it registers as tragic and inhuman.

So, on balance, the film preaches that keeping to rules is good sometimes, and that breaking rules is good at other times. In other words: stuff happens, so deal with it. This empty lesson could be used as the final sentence of virtually every Irving story that pompously surveys a vast panorama of birth and death, good and evil, joy and pain.

MORE Hallström: Chocolat

© Adrian Martin January 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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