Novel by John Irving

Film Directed by Lasse Halstrom. Screenplay by John Irving.


A poem by my friend, the late Geoff Holloway, ended with the exhortation, ‘ask the right question’.

Failure to do this prevented me, for a long time, for finding anything useful to say about the novel to film adaptation of The Cider House Rules. I came to John Irving’s long and complex novel after having seen the Lasse Halstrom film. I suspect that this was a good avenue of approach. Two or three of my favourite films have turned out to be, quite unexpectedly, Lasse Halstrom creations, and they have been adaptations too.

What held me back from writing about The Cider House Rules adaptation was the lack of that ‘right’ question. I was overwhelmed by the scale of the changes that had been made, that had needed to be made. It was obvious that such a large story would have to be radically altered to fit it into the reels of a one hundred and twenty minute film. Irving’s story covers a lifetime, Halstrom’s film concentrates on a season. I have seen adaptations of other long novels. Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain comes to mind. That adaptation, in the dvd ‘specials’, is referred to as ‘streamlining’ the story. Certainly a lot of detail, and a major sub-plot, has been stripped away.

The Cider House Rules is more than ‘streamlined’. It is compressed, re-worked, and sanitized. The book is full of embryos and medical horrors. The film, considering its subject matter, is remarkably free of such details. Although we see the enamelled pot being emptied into the orphanage furnace, we are left to imagine what it contains. The hero of the book grows to maturity, and has an adult relationship. He moves through, and away from, an adolescent one, which he is able to review in later life. The movie takes this adolescent relationship, subverts it, strips out the element of abuse from it, and uses it to provide the protagonist with a conventional romantic happy ending when he returns to his point of origin. The protagonist in the novel takes a much longer, grittier, and ultimately more tragic route to a place that is only superficially the same.

If all this sounds to you like a hatchet job by some faceless studio executive eager not to offend a potential audience of middle of the road conservative movie-goers you might be surprised, as I was, to realise that Irving himself wrote the screenplay. It was discovering this that gave me the ‘right’ question.

C.S.Lewis’s comment about a story ‘being a net to catch something else’ helped me here. Was Irving out to catch the same prey in his retelling of his story? He appears to have reconceived it in its entirety. What evolved as the background concept to my writing about adaptations was the belief that it is context more than anything else, apart from the strictly economic or technologically practical, that influences changes made in the process. Almost always these changes are associated with the time lapse between tellings, with ideas that have come into or gone out of fashion, with speculations that are no longer viable in the light of hindsight, or in the aftermath of subsequent events.

The time lapse here, around fifteen years, was perhaps long enough for the author to have had second thoughts, but as a story set in the historical past, would that be enough to see a radical change in perspective? In fact, the view of the past is not the major change. What Irving has re-written, is the sequence of events, within the broadly similar framework of Homer Wells leaving his abortion-practising orphanage, and returning to it, changed by his experiences in the outside world, in order to take up the mantle of his late mentor.

These bare essentials, common to both, suggest to me that in both cases Irving was after the same prey, but that he was hunting in a different medium. Was it his perception of how differently those media operate that guided the changes he made?  Here I find being brought together two strands of interest that I had not realised converged, for I find myself wanting to describe The Cider House Rules, film version, in terms of the short story, whereas the novel is, quite clearly, a novel, and a longish one at that.

Exploring the difference between these two literary forms seems to give me an explanation for why the film is like it is, and of why the novel needed to be so radically re-constructed. Novels are complex. They have many characters, whose experiences and actions, in the form of subplots and internal stories, parallel or contrast with those of the main protagonist. In this way the novel gives us a multi-faceted view of the story, with alternatives to its thrust. Characters and situations can be compared, options can be considered, different outcomes can be offered. Parallel stories can appeal to us on our own levels, in social and economic terms. We have a choice of characters to identify with.

A short story tends to be more direct, with fewer characters, and a single story thread, a single sequence of events. Parallels and loops, and internal stories are not necessary. We follow the main story, and the main character, to a single outcome.

The film of The Cider House Rules is very much in this format. The protagonist leaves home, has an encounter, and returns. He learns a lesson or two, but we the viewers learn an awful lot less than we do from the novel. The great issues of abortion, the challenges of mis-placed and dis-placed love, the tragedy of sacrifice, and the high price of coming to terms with the past, are largely skated over in the film version, and so is much of the medical detail, and of the issues surrounding the seasonal workers, and the society into which they are intruding. A good deal of twentieth century history in the novel is simply excised, with the years it involved, in the film.

Novels, unlike films, are provided with lots of places, usually chapter endings, where we can stop and consider what we have read, and speculate about what will come next. Unlike films they demand, and allow, an intermittent engagement with story, over days, perhaps weeks. Novels, unlike films, offer us the possibility of great detail, of large named casts, of asides and explanations, of supporting information, philosophical rumination, and political diatribe. From the novel, The Cider House Rules, unlike the film, I learned more about abortion, and the practices associated with it than I have ever read anywhere else, and in the author’s notes at the back, there is even more information, on the history and usage of the drugs and techniques involved.

Films, like short stories, are to be consumed at a sitting. With dvd technology they are even more like short stories, in that they can be stopped and turned back. Short stories, in that they are read in one go, are like films, and when they are listened to in performance, without the chance to re-read a passage, they are even more like films.

Would it be too fanciful to suggest that in writing his screenplay Irving has re-written his novel as if it were a short story?

Studying this particular adaptation has led me to a comparison not just of two tellings of a single story, but to a perception about the connections between two distinct art forms. The right question, by the way, was ‘what can I learn from Irving’s re-writing of his own novel as a screenplay?’ Whether the answer is of any use is an entirely different matter.