John Irving had to tone down his characters' quirkiness to make them work onscreen

By Josh Wolk
Updated December 25, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, ...
Credit: Courtesy Miramax

The difficult job of paring down John Irving’s ”The Cider House Rules” from a nearly 600-page novel to a two-hour movie took the one person who best understood the book’s core: the author himself. ”As the writer of the novel,” says Irving, ”I could be much more radical with my own work than a well-meaning screenwriter who loves the book and wants to be faithful to all of it.”

Irving mercilessly trimmed ”Rules,” axing characters and compressing the plot so it took place over just a couple of years instead of the book’s 15. The result surprised the actors who were already fans of the novel. ”I would have liked to make the whole book,” says Tobey Maguire, who plays Homer, a teenager who leaves his childhood orphanage to discover the world. ”But I don’t think you could get people to sit in the theater for eight hours, and I don’t think the theater owners would be very happy, either.” Michael Caine, who plays orphanage head Dr. Larch (and has received a Golden Globe nomination for the role), couldn’t believe the edits, even though he read the novel AFTER the screenplay. ”I was reading the book and said, ‘There’s no way you can make a script out of this,”’ says Caine. ”But I knew you could, because it was there on my table and I’d already said I’d do the bloody thing.”

Irving had to curb his love of the quirky in this new, shortened form, and he toned down many of his characters for the script. ”One (problem of bringing a book to the screen) is the danger of a character’s bizarreness or outrageousness becoming the character him- or herself,” says Irving. In the novel, for instance, Dr. Larch was an ether addict, an illegal abortionist, and he abstained from sex — but for the movie, Irving decided something had to go, and since the addiction and abortion were integral to the plot, he showed Larch having a relationship with an nurse. ”I thought taking the step of implying he was sexually abstemious would push him over the top,” says Irving. ”I didn’t have the time to make him normal enough. If I saddled him with yet another eccentricity, he was just going to look like that trait.”

As for Caine, once he realized that the Dr. Larch of the novel was different from the one he signed on to play, he put down the novel without finishing it. ”Rather then getting information that would help me with my performance, reading the book was screwing up my head,” says Caine. ”I thought, You’d better stop reading this.” Well, at least that saved him some time.

The Cider House Rules

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 126 minutes
  • Lasse Hallstrom