Stephen King’s picaresque stories are usually factory-sealed with the kind of spooky special effects filmmakers love. John Irving’s fictional universe is no less jammed with extraordinary circumstance. But events unfold much more casually — and mythic ordinariness is harder to get right in movies.
In The Cider House Rules, Lasse Hallström calms Irving’s typically busy 1985 best-seller with a balm of the Swedish director’s typically soothing lyricism. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), raised in a Maine orphanage, assists with the abortions performed by his mentor, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine); leaves the orphanage during World War II to experience a larger piece of America; learns apple picking under the tutelage of a formidable migrant worker (intense Delroy Lindo); and takes a big bite out of fruit from the tree of knowledge.
The story slips tough and even incendiary subject matter into an old-fashioned coming-of-age yarn — there are few topics more fiery than abortion, and ”Cider House” comes out unwafflingly pro-choice — but Hallström’s signature style is to allow moments of moral drama to rise and fall without fanfare, while sustaining a gentle pace suitable to stories of vulnerable childhood. (After ”My Life as a Dog” and ”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” he’s got the delicately-strung-boy thing down pat.) This is, by the way, the first screenplay Irving wrote from his own book, and the job suits him.
Even better, Dr. Larch suits Caine, who, establishing the unorthodox rituals of a doctor committed to his own ethical rules (he huffs ether to tune out the world’s misery), locates the sadness and stubbornness behind the abortionist/child saver’s fervor. And pitched against such mellow world-weariness, Maguire acquires a new, leaner maturity. The 24-year-old, also currently in ”Ride With the Devil,” is one of the most natural young actors working today, but for the first time he’s also a man ready for a bite of the apple.