Cider House Rules: Best Film of John Irving Novels, Starring Michael Caine and Tobey Maguire

Lasse Halstrom’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel turned a critical literary work into a middlebrow classic and more of a mainstream picture, which might explain its critical and commercial success, both benefiting from Miramax’s undeniable fierce and aggressive Oscar campaign. (See below).

In the process, Hallstrom suffered, because people perceived the movie as a John Irving’s triumph. The last time one of John Irving’s best-sellers was made into a movie, the results were so unfortunate that the author tried to remove his name off the project and had the book’s name removed as well–which is how “A Prayer for Owen Meany” became “Simon Birch.”

This time around, Irving didn’t take any chances, claiming, “Nobody else could have done this screenplay. I’d already done all the homeworkI spent 18 months researching gynecological surgery in the 1930s and 1940s to write the novel. Who are you going to find to turn that into a script A retired gynecologist” Along with writing the adaptation, Irving demanded and got director and cast approval.

The 500-plus-page WWII-era historical novel had to be trimmed for the screen, but its basic misfit (orphan-out-in-the-big-wide world) plotline survived Irving’s treatment.

Not many novelists could streamline their own expansive work in a two and half hour movie, fewer still would come up with such an shapely elegant result. John Irving is the only writer to adapt his own work–a feat that has not yielded a win in nine years.

The movie is a tender, rather engaging coming-of-age of the parentless Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), who came into the world utterly alone. Torn between gratitude and desire to experience the world on his own, Homer undergoes agonizing trials, and a journey towards self-discovery, before discovering what’s really important in life.

The story begins in St. Clouds, Maine in the early 1920s. Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), a wry doctor who has found no comfort in the world, arrives at a remote orphanage to care for the children and perform illegal abortions. After Homer is born, adoption fails him, but Dr. Larch is smitten, taking him unwittingly under his loving wings and treating Homer like the son he never had.

Twenty years later, Homer is still around. By default, he has become a young doctor under Larch’s tutelage. However, never having wanted to practice medicine, he seizes upon an opportunity to leave. Everything is new and marvelous for this impressionable young man. He finds a job in the apple orchard owned by a new friend on his way to war.

Melodrama kicks in when Dr. Larch finds out he is to be ousted from the orphanage. He wants Homer to come back to replace him, but Homer, reveling in freedom and a passionate if tumultuous romance (with Charlize Theron) won’t leave his new life. Or would he It takes some shocking, gut-wrenching revelations and hard-earned experiences for Homer to make the difficult decision about the direction he wants his life to take. Larch’s motto becomes Homer’s: “Good night princes of Maine, kings of New England.”

The acting is superb. Maguire’s wide-eyed Homer becomes our window into a new world, where the “right” answers will never seem clear-cut again. Jane Alexander is the orphanage’s Nurse Edna, and Michael Caine puts on his first American accent to play Dr. Wilbur Larch. Michael Caine told E.W.: “Its the hardest accent I’ve ever had to do. You have to concentrate like a laser beam. If you get one little word wrong, you sound completely phony.”

As noted, “Cider House Rules” subversively wraps the white-hot issue of abortion in the warm blanket of classic storytelling and humanist sentimentality, resulting in a graceful, rather insightful look into human nature.

The film was virtually shut out of the Direcor Guild nominations and top prizes from key critics groups. But the timing of release was right–December 10-positing is as Oscar contender. Miramax spent out big bucks for print and broadcast ads that sold the film as a grassroots sleeper.

Oscar Nominations:7


Picture, produced by Richard N. Gladstein
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Screenplay (Adapted): John Irving
Supporting Actor: Michael Caine
Art Direction-Set Decoration: David Gropman; Beth Rubino
Original Score: Rachel Portman
Film Editing: Lisa Zeno Churgin

Oscar Awards:2

Screenplay (Adapted)
Supporting Actor

Oscar Context

In 1999, “The Cider House Rules” competed with four films for the Best Picture: “American Beauty,” which won most of the important awards, including Best Picture, “The Green Mile,” “The Insider,” and “The Sixth Sense.”

This was Michael Caine’s second Supporting Actor Oscar; the first was in 1986 for Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”