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Book Report: The Cider House Rules

Your Humble Blogger is interested in how books are made into movies. Or at least, how novels are made into screenplays. It’s such a strange thing to do, and it seems so difficult. There are a few movies I think do a great job, and of course many which do a lousy job. I happen to think that it’s a better idea to take substantial liberties.

Of course, there are some movies I like that are quite close to the book, such as Cold Comfort Farm, The Princess Bride (in a sense), and, um, I’ll think of another one in a minute. The Maltese Falcon. But more usually, it’s likely to be fairly dull, and since books are long and movies are short (and long movies are too long, and still short compared with books), the movie is likely to be thin and disappointing. In addition, unless the adaptors really are inspired by the book, there’s a sort of sterility that comes from making somebody else’s ideas. It’s often better if the moviemaker comes up with his (or her) own inspiration, and riffs off the book, rather than filming it. Frankenstein is a marvelous movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a dull one. Field of Dreams is a marvelous movie, in part because its themes are its own, so the plot of the book has a totally different meaning. Blade Runner is, well, whatever it is, and it demands to be taken on its own terms, and not as an adaptation.

Anyway, I saw and enjoyed the film The Cider House Rules five years ago, and I finally got around to reading The Cider House Rules. The book is amazing. It’s brutally depressing, and nasty, and great. The movie, on the other hand, is just quite good, without being either brutally depressing or even nasty.

One amazing thing about the book is how well Mr. Irving ties in the abortion argument to the plot. Ultimately, the story of the book is the story of how Homer becomes an abortionist; I can’t talk about it without talking about the moral choices surrounding abortion. And, of course, Homer thinks that abortion is morally wrong, and is more or less equivalent to infanticide. However, convinced that it will happen whether it is legal or not, he ultimately agrees to perform them, based on a logic that is ultimately similar to his mentor’s. Anyway, if I’m going to discuss the logic and morality of abortion, I’ll need to do a lot more preparation, but the book raises lots of questions, and answers them, and makes the reader agree or disagree with those answers. And all more or less within the context of the plot.

Other than that, as a fairly inattentive reader, it’s nice to have Major Themes pointed out to me in no uncertain language. Look! A condom! Mr. Irving says, That’s a theme! And don’t forget about the photo of the woman blowing the pony! And apples! and I remember them and spot them when they come back, as they do, and they do. It all makes for about as clear a delineation of writer’s craft as this particular narrative-focused reader can take.

Um, where was I? Oh, yes, the book and the movie. Well, and the movie script is, upon reflection particularly remarkable. It takes a complex novel, more than ordinarily complex, and hones it relentlessly, cutting out two thirds or more of the novel’s subplots and at least as much of its symbolic lexicon, telescoping the century of the novel’s scope into a few years, and making a simple, pure movie about a young man and an old one, and a choice. It's possible to talk about the movie without thinking deeply about the moral issues around abortion. And with all that, it has enough of the scent of the novel to be challenging enough, for a movie. It’s fascinating, and I’m keen to read Mr. Irving’s description of how he did it.

Did any of y’all read the book first, and see the movie shortly thereafter? I’ve spoken to people who read the book when it came out, and the movie when it came out fifteen years later. All of them liked the movie well enough, as do I, in retrospect, but I’m still curious.



I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie. One interesting thing to me is that I think the terms of the abortion debate changed to some degree over the 15 (?) years between book and movie; the movie said and did some things that might've had more force 15 years earlier.

But I could be wrong about that.

Anyway, just a thought.

I think many of the successful screen adaptationsof John Irving's deliciously complex books take a similar approach. The movie Simon Birch was roughly the first third of the book A Prayer for Owen Meany and I'm told that the current movie A Door in the Floor is approximately the first third of his novel A Widow for One Year. Hotel New Hampshire and World According to Garp, on the other hand, tried to cover the whole book and were, in my opinion, less successful. I felt that character detail was sacrificed to make time to cover more plot elements in those two movies.

I sometimes end up reading a book after seeing a movie specifically because I liked the movie and I'm sure there'll be even more detail in the book. I'm about to read The Hours for just that reason. Though the movie was quite satisfying, I'm convinced the book will fill in more of the backstory of some of the characters. I've been meaning to read The Hours for a while, but I felt I should read Mrs. Dalloway first.

I suspect, though, that my views on all this may be heavily influenced by whether I read the book or saw the movie first. If I hadn't read Hotel New Hampshire or World According to Garp before seeing the movie, I might've liked the quirky movie characters and been delighted to find out more about their backstories in the books.

I've never seen the movie of Hotel New Hampshire, but I agree with you about Garp. It was a fun movie, and I liked its fast pace, but it didn't make much sense.

I'll have more to say about this soon, by the way.


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