Sunday, July 26, 2015

THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999): John Irving and Abortion

The recent surreptitious taping of an interview with a senior medical director, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, of Planned Parenthood, demonstrates that the debate over abortion is far from over.  In the 160 minutes of taping, nearly no subject regarding abortion remains untouched – including references to donations of body parts from the aborted fetus in the advancement of medical science. The interview resulted in outrage by abortion opponents and apologies by the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

To my knowledge, there has only been one Hollywood film that directly addresses the subject of abortion and that is The Cider House Rules. Admirers of The Cider House Rules (both novel and movie) claim the theme it is not about abortion but rather the consequences of living in a morally repressive society.  Indeed, the film suggests there are a number of written and unwritten rules better off ignored, but in the movie these rules conveniently concern subjects deservedly receiving disapproval such as rape, incest and racism.  Abortion is the subject making this movie noteworthy.

In the film, Doctor Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) directs an orphanage back in the 1930s and occasionally performs abortions on the side.  One of the orphans in his charge, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), goes through the adoption process a number of times but returns again and again to the orphanage.  Dr. Larch ends up raising Homer like he was his own son.  Dr. Larch, other than his attempts to seduce every nurse, his habit of inhaling ether, and his practice of performing illegal abortions, is a saintly fellow.  The orphans and the staff adore him.  Homer wants to be like the doctor in almost every respect – except that Homer is morally opposed to abortion.
Homer one day leaves the orphanage and this breaks Dr. Larch’s heart.  Homer ends up on an apple farm as an apple picker, and falls in love with a girl named Candy (Charlize Theron).  He also witnesses acts of racism aimed at other workers on the crew.  Homer becomes acquainted with Rose, the daughter of the chief of the apple picking crew.  After her own father rapes Rose, Homer helps Rose terminate the pregnancy by performing an abortion.  Soon after, Homer learns that Dr. Larch has died.  Homer, now older and wiser, returns to the orphanage and takes up where Dr. Larch had left off.  We assume this includes performing abortions.

Ignoring the New England accent, Michael Caine is good, though not great, as Dr. Larch.  He’s convincing as the knowing old man who has seen too much and breathes ether to ease his troubles.  Tobey Maguire plays Homer like any other character played by Tobey Maguire; that is, he displays ignorance that we are to suppose is innocence.  Homer lecturing Dr. Larch about scruples is like a failed seminary student demanding penitence of a mafia family head.
The Cider House Rules tries to present the subject of abortion in the most dignified light.  So badly does it seem to want to suggest to a large audience that abortion is necessary in a free and open society that it barely touches on any other point of view.  Author and screenwriter John Irving apparently believes presenting us the isolated case of a woman impregnated due to incest is the end of the subject.  The movie addresses the concerns of the mutilation of women and girls as a result of back alley abortions.  

Irving makes the case in the film that any women, when allowed access to abortion, are free from being shunning when carrying an unwanted child.  And by setting much of the movie in an orphanage, Irving is stating that the practice of abortion could eliminate the need for such institutions.  The movie fails to suggest there could be any intelligent disagreement on the issue of abortion. As there have already been thousands of pages written regarding the pros and cons of making abortion readily available, it would be almost impossible to cover all the many facets of abortion in a 125-minute film, but I would admire the movie more if there was such an effort.  Unfortunately for Irving, abortion is not the type of subject matter ripe for the sentimental treatment delivered in the film.  This does a disservice to the audience.  

John Irving is an outspoken atheist.  He says that he’s comfortable with the politics of his native New England, but he is uncomfortable with its Puritanism.  He refers to those on the religious and political right as “f___ing morons.”  And he speaks of the practice of abortion as if it was a sacrament.  Irving ties opposition to abortion with prudery and intellectual knavery.  

Irving wrote the screenplay and accepted an Oscar on its behalf.  For a writer who favorably compares his own writing to Dickens, Hardy and Hawthorne, posturing in front of Hollywood’s elite must have been humiliating.  And by engaging in writing the screenplay for The Cider House Rules, he suddenly had to take the editorial advice of agents, lawyers, actors and others whose opinion he probably did not value.
Irving, like Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, learned his craft after accepting a professorship at a prestigious university.  Irving is more primitive and therefore a better writer than Updike or Oates.  However, these skills are not apparent in his screenwriting efforts. 
Because Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom fail to speak forthrightly about this controversial topic, the movie fails to deliver any message.  I have no problem with Irving defending abortion in any means he sees fit.  But he would have made a stronger case to me if he remained the artist rather than a propagandist who is too sure of himself.  The Cider House Rules is a heavily awarded movie because it gingerly touches upon a controversial subject – not because of the manner in which it addresses the subject.

© Robert S. Miller 2015