Novel/movie written by John Irving.

Brief Synopsis:

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has lived in the orphanage at St Clouds, Maine, all his life. Dr Larch (Michael Caine), who runs the place, treats him like a son and trains him to be his successor.

Homer has no proper education and is not sure that he wants to be a doctor. For one thing, he doesn't believe in abortion, which Larch performs illegally to help desperate pregnant girls who seek him out.

The film has two halves, St Clouds and the apple farm. When Candy (Charlize Theron) comes to see Larch with her boyfriend, Wally (Paul Rudd), who is on leave from the war - the year is 1942 - Homer goes away with them, leaving everything he has ever known. "I have never seen the ocean," he tells an incredulous Candy, daughter of a lobster fisherman.

Wally finds him work on his mother's apple farm, where he shares a bunk hut with itinerant labourers, headed by the formidable Mr Rose (Delroy Lindo). What of the rules? They are pinned to the wall, have been there for years, and have little relevance. "We make our own rules, every single day," Mr Rose says. "Ain't that so, Homer?"

This is only the barest outline of a story that encompasses the lives of so many. The performances are exquisite. Caine not only relinquishes his trademark accent, but absorbs the very essence of this lonely, compassionate man, who breaks every rule he pleases.

Maguire (Pleasantville, Ride With The Devil) underplays to perfection. Homer could have been an "Aw shucks!" innocent, with straw in his hair. Instead, he is a watcher, a listener, whose natural sympathy is strengthened by determination and intelligence.

Theron has brains as well as beauty and the children, especially little Erik Per Sullivan, as Fuzzy, the sick one, are an inspiration.

An excellent writeup describing the major plot points of Irving's novel/film The Cider House Rules has already been posted above by chromaticblue, so I won't rehash those details here. (Though I will discuss the features available on the DVD near the end of this writeup.)

Instead, I would like to use this opportunity to list (for those of you who haven't seen the movie) the actual Cider House Rules, the titular rules by which the men living in the Cider House were expected to abide. They were expected to follow this nicely typewritten set of rules, despite the fact that none of the workers could even read.

So the rules hung on a nail in the Cider House, ignored by all who lived there, until Homer Wells came to live and work with Mr. Rose and his team. In chapter 32 of the DVD (if you're using the handy Scene Selection feature), Homer finally recites the Cider House Rules at the behest of the workers:

1. Please don't smoke in bed.
2. Please don't operate the grinder or press if you've been drinking.
3. Please don't go up to the roof to eat your lunch.
4. Please, even if you are very hot, do not go up to the roof to sleep.
5. There should be no going up on the roof at night.
The response from the workers is understandable. "What do they think, go up to the roof to sleep?" says Peaches. "They must think we're crazy. They think we're dumb niggers, so we need some dumb rules, is what they think."

Says Rose: "That's it? It don't mean nothin' at all. And all this time I been wonderin' about 'em."

But Rose's father, after his years working the Cider House, has a different perspective. He sees the rules as the oppressive device that they are, and is rightfully offended. He says:

They outrageous, them rules. Who live in this cider house? Who grindin' up those apples, pressin' that cider, cleanin' up all this mess? Who just plain live here, just breathin' in that vinegar? Well, someone who don't live here made those rules. Those rules ain't for us. We are supposed to make our own rules. And we do. Every single day.
Muddy suggests Homer burn the rules in the stove, and soon the rules meant to govern the workers are gone for good. They've made their own rules up until now, and they will continue to do so.

Every single day.

As a postscript to this writeup, I thought I might point out the features available on The Cider House Rules DVD, since they're not discussed in the original writeup. The film, which won Academy Awards for both Michael Caine (Best Supporting Actor) and John Irving (Best Screenplay), is available on DVD as part of Miramax's Collector's Series.

The DVD includes all 125 minutes of the film, digitally mastered and transferred to disc. It also includes:

The disc is an excellent addition to any fan's DVD collection.

Playing God in The Cider House Rules

Warning: Mild spoilers! If you haven't read the book, you may not want to continue.

In The Cider House Rules, John Irving discusses the notion of "playing God," or interfering with nature and creation. Dr. Wilber Larch, resident obstetrician and abortionist at the orphanage in St. Cloud's, Maine, spent his life playing God: he performed abortions, interfering with the creation of a new life; and he revised the history of St. Cloud's, deleting people and events that existed and creating people and conditions that never did, in an effort to improve the world around him. Through the character of Dr. Larch, Irving suggests that it is morally acceptable to play God and take the lives of other human beings out of the hands of chance.

Larch the Abortionist

Dr. Larch's role as an abortionist was the clearest example of his tendancy to play God. Throughout his career, Larch regularly, consciously, and deliberately terminated the development of hundreds of fetuses and all the potential for life therein. If one takes the view of Larch's contemporaries, that babies are the handiwork of God, then by performing abortions Larch directly interfered with divine creation and took the responsibility of determining whether or not a life will begin upon himself.

Wilbur Larch, and through him, John Irving, argued that playing God in this manner is morally permissible and a way to right some of the wrongs of the world. Larch "was an obstetrician; he delivered babies into the world. His colleagues called this 'the Lord's work.' And he was an abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this 'the Devil's work,' but it was all the Lord's work to Wilbur Larch." Larch felt that "the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born;" he felt more of an obligation to the living women carrying unwanted children, victims of rape or incest or intolerable poverty who would avoid bringing the children to term by any means possible, than to the fetuses in their wombs.

Larch the Revisionist Historian

Larch played God more subtly by assuming the role of revisionist historian at St. Cloud's. At St. Cloud's, "no records were kept of the orphans' actual mothers and fathers. An orphan's history began with its date of birth." Larch erased evidence of the orphans' biological origins for what he felt was the orphans' own good: "How does it help anyone to look forward to the past? How are orphans served by having their past to look ahead to? Orphans, especially, must look ahead to their futures." Melony, an orphan who wanted to find her birthmother, felt that by doing this Larch was "playing God--he gives you your history, or he takes it away! If that's not playing God, what is?"

Larch also rewrote aspects of the histories of two orphans, Homer Wells and Fuzzy Stone, to suit his own purposes. Homer Wells was never adopted, and when Larch took him on as an apprentice, he came to see him not only as Galatea to his Pygmalion but also as a son. On the brink of World War II, when Homer was about 20 years old, Larch modified Homer's history to include a congenital heart defect, slight enough to allow him to live a normal life but significant enough to keep him out of war. "'I'm sorry, Homer,' Larch imagined himself having to tell the boy. 'I don't want you to worry, but you have a bad heart; it just wouldn't stand up to a war.' What Larch meant was that his own heart would never stand up to Homer Wells's going to war. The love of Wilbur Larch for Homer Wells extended even to his tampering with history." In the case of Homer Wells, Larch played God by creating a natural condition where none existed, and thereby forcing Homer's fate in a direction it may not otherwise have gone.

Fuzzy Stone was an orphan with severe respiratory problems that eventually cost him his life. Years later, faced with a board of trustees with a zealous desire to replace the aging obstetrician and secret abortionist, Dr. Larch deleted the record of Fuzzy's death and created him anew as the perfect replacement for Dr. Larch. He fabricated transcripts for Fuzzy at Bowdoin College and Harvard Medical School and wrote phony letters from "Dr. Stone" to Dr. Larch, in which iw was established that Dr. Stone was emphatically not in favor of abortions. "Wilbur Larch had created a replacement for himself, one who would be acceptable to the authorities...He had also created a perfect lie, because the Dr. Stone whom Wilbur Larch had in mind would perform abortions, of course, while at the same time--what could be better?--he would be on record for claiming he was against performing them. When Larch retired...he would already have available his most perfect replacement." The person Dr. Larch had in mind to play the part of Dr. F. Stone was Homer Wells, who, under the alias of Dr. Stone, would not need to attend medical school, and who, Larch supposed, would continue the St. Cloud's tradition of performing abortions. In effect, Larch gave birth to Dr. Fuzzy Stone, creating a life and a history that had never taken place. With respect to Fuzzy, Larch assumed the God-like role of creator.

Again, Irving uses Larch to assure the reader that playing God through revisionist history is an acceptable means of acheiving good ends. Larch wrote in his massive (and inaccurately titled) A Brief History of St. Cloud's, "Here in St. Cloud's...I have been given the choice of playing God or leaving practically everything up to chance. It is my experience that practically everything is left up to chance much of the time; men who believe in good and evil, and who believe that good should win, should watch for these moments when it is possible to play God--we should sieze those moments. There won't be many." Larch believed that it is every individual's responsibility to take control of events, when the opportunity to do so presents itself, and to shape the world according to what he or she believes is right. To put it another way, Larch believed in creating order from chaos. Larch's sole motivation in tampering with history was to make life better for himself, Homer Wells, and the orphans and mothers he was responsible for, and on the whole, he was successful. Larch took control of the circumstances he was placed in in an effort to improve the world; through him, Irving encourages the reader to do the same.

Irving, John. The Cider House Rules. Ballantine Publishing Group: New York, 1985.

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