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John Irving’s The Cider House Rules – the Book Versus the Movie

John Irving

Over the past two weeks, I feel as though I have lived and breathed The Cider House Rules. I have spent hours of each day diving into rural Maine with the characters I have grown to know and love reading, The Cider House Rules. Finally, after reading the entire novel, the next day I went down to my local video store and rented the movie. I sat down excited, anticipating the characters and stories of The Cider House Rules coming to life before my eyes. As I watched the movie, I discovered it was not quite what I had expected. Although the film version of The Cider House Rules accurately depicts many of the most touching moments of the novel, it changes the focus of the story. While the theme of the literary version revolves around love, focusing on the many different forms and how complicated it can be, the film is more of a coming of age story, focusing on tough life lessons and finding one’s place in life.

There are some similarities in what is presented in both forms. For example, the concept of abortion is presented the same in both the novel and the film. It shows Homer’s initial opinion as he is growing up, that the fetus has a soul, and that he does not want to give abortions. He does not disapprove of abortions; he simply does not want to be the one performing the operations. Dr. Larch feels that it is necessary to give abortions. When women come to St. Cloud’s orphanage, he simply gives them what they want, an orphan or an abortion. In the book, these contrasting opinions are shown over the course of many pages, and dispersed throughout the story. In the film, the opinions remain in tact, but are expressed through a series of letters exchanged between Homer and Dr. Larch while Homer is away. The letters are read, via voice-over, while the action in each of their lives continues. This was a very effective way of conveying the issue with the same spirit as the novel.

The event that finally leads Homer to decide he will perform abortions is also the same in the film, as a young girl is the victim of an incestuous relationship and does not want to have the child. In the film, the scene where this takes place is touching. As the camera focuses in on the surgery tools, the dark backlighting really gives the sense that it is the first time Homer has performed the operation, which you don’t really know up until that point in the movie, although you do in the book. Homer gives her the abortion, and his opinion of abortion is forever changed by this experience.

Another aspect of the story that remains in tact in the film is Dr. Larch’s devotion to the orphans. The film shows how he does everything he can to help Fuzzy Stone with his health problems, creating the breathing machine and generally just caring for him. When Fuzzy dies, you really sense Dr. Larch’s genuine sadness. Although the movie does not go into the great detail of Dr. Larch’s life and history that the book uses to show what a compassionate, caring person Dr. Larch is, this same result is achieved in the movie through the scene when Fuzzy dies, and through other smaller sketches, such as how he reads to them each night, and the significance of his nightly benediction, “Good night you princes of Maine. You kings of New England!”
While the movie does keep these aspects in tact, they are among the only concepts of the story that remain unchanged. The literary version is primarily about love and how complicated it can be, yet the film loses this concept, almost entirely. The film merely scratches the surface of this topic, focusing on many other topics equally.

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How the concept of love is portrayed in the book is primarily through relationships. The relationships in the book are very real in that they are deep and multi-faceted connections. A prime example of this is the relationship between Homer and Dr. Larch. In the film, Dr. Larch does mention in a letter that he loves Homer, but in the book, it is much more than mentioned. Dr. Larch’s love for Homer, and Homer’s returned love, is obvious in all of their actions. Homer loves Dr. Larch like a father, and Dr. Larch loves Homer like a son. The father-son relationship is obvious throughout the story, and when Homer finds out that Dr. Larch has died, his devastation is equally obvious. The literary version of the story exhibits the theme of unconditional love, the type that is shown only between a father and a son. The film lacks this theme.

Another relationship that is missing in the film is the relationship between Homer and Melony. In fact, Melony’s character is missing entirely from the film, despite the fact that about a quarter of the book is devoted to her story. Many of Melony’s character traits become entwined with another character, Mary Agnes, in the film, but it is not the same character, or even close to the same story. In the literary version, Melony loves Homer, and although it is a rather untraditional form of love, it is one of the only forms of love Melony has ever known. She spends much of her life searching for him, because she thinks she loves him, and when she finds him discovers that he is not who she thinks he is. This relationship causes readers of the book to ask the question, “Exactly what is love?”, and many readers can resonate with Melony’s disappointment in what she finally discovers.

Finally, the most important relationship missing from the film is the complicated triangle between Wally, Homer, and Candy that is outlined in the novel. The situation is so complicated, and so detailed, in the book, that it is hard to summarize it in just a few words. Basically, in the book, the war has not yet started when Homer meets Wally and Candy, and Wally and Homer live together with Wally’s family on the apple farm for a great deal of time before Wally leaves for the war. By this time, Homer and Wally have developed a very close friendship, and are practically like brothers. By this time, Homer also knows that he has feelings for Candy, but has not done anything about it, because of his love for Wally. When Wally leaves, Homer and Candy still do not consummate their love for each other, until they think that Wally is dead. The movie shows this relationship as almost the exploration of a forbidden love, but this is really not the case in the book, because they think that Wally is dead. The situation becomes more complicated when Candy gets pregnant with Homer and has the child, only to find out a short time later that Wally is not dead and will be returning home from war paralyzed. The movie does show his paralysis, but the pregnancy and the child are not part of the movie at all. In the book, their Candy and Wally marry, and Homer lives with them with Candy and Homer’s child, only it is under the pretense that the child is a baby that Homer has adopted.

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The depth of love and the complicated relationship that is displayed in this situation explores the theme of love, and devotion, and a sense of duty. We see the friendship form of love that exists between Wally and Homer, and we see that, while Candy romantically really loves Homer more, she feels a sense of devotion and duty to Wally. It also further explores the theme of unconditional love, as the three of them really raise the child together. Everything that they do, the pretense that they hold on to, is really all because of their unconditional love for the child.

The book is truly all about love, in all of its different forms. The film, however, explores different concepts. It is about growing up, learning the tough truths of life, and each character finding where they fit in life.

The most obvious lesson in the movie is that Homer really learns how the other side lives. Now, it may seem that Homer should be of the other side because he is an orphan, but he was raised by Dr. Larch with a dignified life, and has trained to become a doctor. He is intelligent, he is well brought-up, and most importantly to the time period the story is set in, Homer is white. In the movie, unlike in the film, Homer does not live with Wally’s family; he lives in the cider house with the migrants, the migrants being the black people who have come to pick apples. For the first time in his life, Homer experiences hard labor. While he was always “of use” at the orphanage, the work Homer does at the apple farm as a picker is much different.

Primarily, what Homer learns in the cider house, is the differences between being black and being white. Homer does not exhibit racism, but he definitely learns that the way of life for these people is different, mainly because of the limits society has imposed upon them. He learns that they cannot read, and that their intelligence is of a different kind. He also learns that there is a sort of pecking order for their people, and that they essentially make their own rules. It is the only way that they know. In the movie, the scene where a revelation of this sort takes place, is the second time that the migrants ask Homer to read the paper on the wall that lists “The Cider House Rules.” The first time they had asked him, he had begun to read, but had been stopped by Mr. Rose who simply says something along the lines of, “We make our own rules.” At this point, Homer doesn’t really understand what this means, but the second time they ask, this time just after Homer has given the abortion, they let him finish reading all of the rules, and then it is apparent that Homer understands. When they tell him to take down the rules, and burn it in the furnace, Homer does just that. The scene ends with a great shot of the dancing flames burning up the paper, and it creates the effect of showing that Homer’s innocence has been burned up along with it.

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In conjunction with this loss of innocence, the movie is about Homer finding his place in life. Homer has grown up training as a doctor, and his short time (in the movie, it is not short at all in the book) at the apple farm serves as a break where Homer figures out that where he really belongs is at St. Cloud’s, and what he really wants to be doing, is being the doctor there.
Other characters in the book also find their places in life, as Candy accepts that she will be Wally’s partner, taking care of his as a paralyzed man, and Mr. Rose essentially finds his place when his daughter kills him, which seems to be just reward for his incestuous relationship with her.

Although the movie was enjoyable, reading the novel holds a much deeper, more emotional experience. It is interesting that John Irving not only wrote the book, he was also responsible for the Academy Award winning screenplay as well. The screenplay used for the film was not the work of another writer adapting John Irving’s novel, but John Irving himself really just conveying something different by telling a similar story. It is not that the movie just falls short at portraying something that the book conveys; it merely portrays something different, conveying different messages.

In all fairness, what is conveyed in the book would actually be almost impossible to convey in a film. The length of the film would be ridiculous; it would almost have to have been a mini-series. Plus, the time span covered in the book, from Homer’s birth to middle age would be extremely difficult to believably portray in one feature-length film. Besides all of this, the beauty of the book truly lies in the words, hundreds of beautifully descriptive words that are more felt than seen. The only suggestion I can make, is that the love triangle between Wally, Homer, and Candy, and the family relationship with Homer and Candy’s child, would make for a great sequel.