In the days when John Irving thought he was going to be a professional athlete, his wrestling coach, Ted Seabrooke, told him: “Talent is overrated. That you’re not very talented needn’t be the end of it.” In the 30-odd years since he was given such backhanded reassurance, the dyslexic Irving has become one of the few American writers to consistently produce bestsellers – including The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany – that have been hailed as literary classics. And, like many of his characters, he still wrestles.
It is no surprise that Irving’s books appeal to film-makers. Garp, Hotel New Hampshire and most recently The Cider House Rules have all been adapted for the screen. But while the richly developed characters, heartbreaking stories and sense of humanity are a gift for a director, the broad Dickensian sweep of a typical Irving novel is more daunting. How do you tie up all those convoluted plotlines, or make characters who do terrible things seem sympathetic, when you don’t have the luxury of 500 pages to explain their situation?
The Cider House Rules is typically epic. It gives equal billing to the story of Dr Larch, an ether-addicted obstetrician in 1940s Maine who runs an orphanage and performs illegal abortions out of a sense of moral duty; and Homer Wells, the orphan he treats as his son who flees his work as a doctor at the orphanage to build a new life in an apple farm community. It takes in Larch’s life, from a teenage encounter with a prostitute that led to a severe case of the clap and a lifetime commitment to celibacy, and that of his ward’s, from four failed attempts to leave the orphanage, through his involvement with the migrant black apple-pickers who stay at the cider house, to his eventual return to the orphanage 15 years after leaving it.
No film could contain all that. So how do you do it? Irving’s solution was to adapt his novel into a screenplay himself. Plans to make the film began as early as 1986, soon after the book was published. The death of the intended director, Philip Borsos, put an end to futher developments for nine years, when Wayne Wang took up the mantle; then Michael Winterbottom, and finally Lasse Hallstrom, who completed the film with Irving’s co-operation last year. The 15-year timespan of the book is compressed into 15 months, to help Irving reduce his original nine-hour draft into something more manageable.
“The most radical decisions about what to include in the story were made by me in the first draft, 13 or 14 years ago,” Irving says. “What so often goes wrong in movies made from novels is not what is left out, but characters becoming marginalised, thereby having less of an emotional effect on an audience than they should have. So early on I had the intention that the principal characters must have the same power. That you feel Mr Rose to be a sympathetic man, even though he’s doing some highly unsympathetic things; that your sympathies are entirely with Dr Larch, despite the fact that he’s a moral bully.”
It is the film’s treatment of Larch and Rose – the black migrant worker the audience gets to like and respect before discovering he is having an incestuous affair with his daughter – that is the key to its success. Michael Caine’s Larch could have been made a heroic pioneer who fights for a woman’s right to abortion; Delroy Lindo’s Rose could have been demonised, but it is through their being fully-formed people rather than symbols that the book’s spirit shines through.
“The story isn’t about the politics of abortion, it’s about a period in history when abortion was illegal, and the consequences of that,” says Irving. “It would have been too easy to make Mr Rose unsympathetic, and it’s an argument that the pro-lifers use if you ask them if abortions should be allowed to victims of rape. You know, ‘Well obviously, that’s all right’. So to demonise Rose, and to simplify the situation like that, would have been wrong. Mr Rose is a likeable man doing a highly unpleasant thing.” In the book, Rose also keeps his daughter in line by cutting her constantly and by not teaching her to read, even though he can. “We cut those from the film,” says Irving. “When you get an actor of Delroy’s class you want to help him a bit. It would have been too much to ask of him to make people like this man if we included that too.”
Larch has also been toned down. The manic, controlling doctor of the book has been replaced by Michael Caine’s gentler, more normal patriarch, who flirts with the nurses and screens King Kong for the orphans with a tired resignation rather than a furious raging against the world beyond his own. “Again, there wasn’t time in the film to explain Larch as he is in the book,” says Irving. “If you asked the audience to accept this man who goes around shouting at everyone, is sexually abstemious, and is addicted to ether, then you’ve got a character who can be written off as a comic eccentric. And he had to be likeable: if we made a picture of this old guy yelling at this hesitant kid everybody would hate him.”
Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells is the real star of the film. Maguire, familiar from The Ice Storm and Pleasantville, portrays the orphan as a gentle innocent with a look of detached bemusement. “The choices we made on what to include from the book made Tobey the star of the film,” says Irving. “Homer is passive, he doesn’t talk much, so his facial characteristics have to say everything. The most important moment for Homer is when he stands up to Mr Rose who, he discovers, has got his own daughter pregnant. He makes the most of the visual language film relies on, with expressions that tell everything you need to know about him. It’s the point in the story where he becomes a man, and Tobey said everything with the right expression.”
The pruning of the book that made a working film out of it saw the loss of Homer Wells’s nemesis, the incredible Melony. A fellow orphan, Melony is a furious, heavy-boned tough who seduces the adolescent Homer by showing him a photograph of a woman with a horse’s penis in her mouth; tears down a derelict building with her bare hands; and embarks on a search for Homer after he leaves the orphanage that sets a pace for the rest of the book.
“She went in the first draft of the screenplay. She’s just too overbearing for this quiet little kid,” says Irving. “Homer’s decisions are being formed by these two dominant men; to throw her into the equation might have wiped him out completely. But I went to a stage adaptation of The Cider House Rules that kept Melony in, and it was like seeing an old friend once more. She’s a character that nobody forgets.”
The Cider House Rules is the most successful film of Irving’s books; the director of My Life as a Dog is, after all, the perfect choice for a tale about the flowering of a young man out of step with the world around him. George Roy Hill’s film version of The World According to Garp kept that book’s epic scale but substituted quirky humour for one-liners; Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire was overtly camp. Hallstrom’s film moves the audience in the same way as the book moves the reader, despite the changes in plot and timing.
After such a happy creative partnership, and with another novel, A Son of the Circus, already in production with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange signed up, it would be understandable for Irving to be tempted away from the solitude of novel-writing, but he remains true to his craft. “I like my day job better. I like it that for three or four years the only person who knows what I’m doing is my wife. But what we had on Cider House is unusual. Lasse, Richard Gladstein [the producer] and I had total creative control, and we had a rule that if two of us agreed on something, then the third would have to yield. But it never happened. That must be rare for a film.”
The Cider House Rules won best adapted screenplay for John Irving at last month’s Oscars