The Cider House Rules
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hollywood producers have long turned to the printed page for material, and there are an especially large number of film adaptations right now.
SPOKESPERSON: This trial is unfair. Your father would have written about that in his statement.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Snow Falling on Cedars” was adapted from the book by David Guterson.
SPOKESMAN: I loved having my dad to myself in the morning. I loved his stories where motor cars and planes went underwater, submarines flew up in the air, and polar bear wrestled with elephants on the moon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Angela’s Ashes,” from Frank McCourt’s best-selling autobiography.
SPOKESMAN: Thomas Ripley lived a solitary life, until a wealthy man offered him an extraordinary opportunity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was made from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. One writer with a lot of experience seeing his creations come to life on screen is John Irving. Four of his ten novels have been made into movies. His highly-praised 1978 best- seller, “The World According to Garp,” became a film in 1982, a dark comedy directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams. The novelist himself played a very minor role in Garp, as a wrestling referee.
ACTOR: The bear was on his last legs.
CHILDREN: But they were the only legs he had. (Laughter)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Two years later, director Tony Richardson took Irving’s story of a family of innkeepers, “Hotel New Hampshire,” to the screen.
SPOKESMAN: The doctor’s proclaimed Simon a miracle. But he was quick to remind any of us if we forgot.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Simon Birch,” released in 1998, was loosely based on Irving’s novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
SPOKESMAN: In other parts of the world, young men leave home and travel far and wide in search of a promising future.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And “The Cider House Rules” is in theaters now. Irving spent 14 years getting this novel to the screen. He wrote the screenplay and worked closely with director Lasse Hallstrom in every aspect of the production, including helping choose the actors who brought the novel’s characters to life.
ACTOR: Are you so stupid you imagine you’re going to find a more gratifying life? What you will find is people like the poor people who get left here, only nobody takes care of them half as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: “Cider House Rules” tells the story of Homer Wells, an orphan raised by an eccentric doctor at a Maine orphanage. The plot touches on abortion rights, family values, and incest, among other issues. The 57-year-old Irving chronicled his experiences in the film industry in a book titled “My Movie Business,” which was published late last year. I spoke with him last week in Los Angeles.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, John Irving.
JOHN IRVING, Novelist/Screenwriter: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s taken 14 years, as I understand it, from the time you started the screenplay until “the Cider House Rules” is actually in the theaters. Why? Why did it take so long?
JOHN IRVING: I think the presumption is that the abortion subject was such a potential controversy that people were reluctant to make the picture, but although I presumed that that would be the case, that was never the case. What took so long was my insistence that I not only write the screenplay, but that I have director approval, cast approval, and that the director have final cut of the picture. These are not things, generally, that a writer is afforded, and it took a while to find the right people who agreed to those terms. Miramax, once they were involved, never questioned those terms, so that the director, Lasse Hallstrom, the producer, Richard Gladstein, and I– just the three of us– made all the creative decisions.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did you insist on those terms? Was it because, in the prior experiences with your other films, you weren’t as pleased as you might have been?
JOHN IRVING: No. I feel, unlike a number of novelists, I don’t feel that a novel is in any way incomplete if a film is never made from it, nor do I feel that a good film… a good novel could ever be damaged in any serious way by a not-very-good film or a bad film. I don’t take that protective view of my books. I’ve been happy in the past to let some of them go. In this case, the medical-historical nature of the research I needed to do before I wrote the novel really precluded anybody else being the screenwriter. Unless Philip Vorsos, the first director, had been fortunate enough to find a retired obstetrician, who else could have done it, you know?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah. How’d you do it? The manuscript for the novel was 800 pages, right? The novel was over 500 pages. Your screenplay was, what, 130- something?
JOHN IRVING: 136.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you… I mean, I have read the novel, I’ve seen the film. You leave whole characters out. You actually make new characters for the film. How’d you make those decisions, the condensation?
JOHN IRVING: Your word “whole characters out” is the correct one, because I decided early on that if you can’t do emotional justice to the principal characters in the story, you should leave them out; in other words, you want your principal characters to have the same emotional effect. The outcome of what happens to them must feel the same to an audience as it felt to a reader, and if you start marginalizing characters, I think that’s the mistake. It’s better to lose them altogether. And so the most radical decisions of what to not use from the novel, I made those decisions in the first draft of the screenplay, long before I worked with any of the four directors associated with the project.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How different is it writing a screenplay compared to writing a novel? I’ve read that you actually start your novels with the end of the novel– you have to know exactly what happens at the end before you even start. What about a screenplay? Is it a really different process?
JOHN IRVING: Well, that’s one aspect of a screenplay– that is, knowing the ending before you begin.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah, you already know.
JOHN IRVING: Because that makes it easy, right? I do write novels that way, and so that aspect of knowing the ending before I begin was probably the only comfortable ground I felt I was standing on. I think what’s key in writing a screenplay is to recognize that, as the writer, you’re principally providing scaffolding for a building that someone else is going to make, that someone else being the director. I say repeatedly that when I feel like being a director, I write a novel. You have to realize in the case of a screenplay that you are making each scene as open and available to a director’s manipulation as possible. What I mean by that is, you should never write a scene that traps the director into using all of it or none of it. You should write a scene in such a way that a director can choose to begin the scene at three or four different junctures in the scene, he can find an exit from the scene in three or four different places, so that he can shoot the scene long and cut the scene short, if he chooses. If you paint the director into a corner, if you make the scene too complete– which is your responsibility as a novelist, to make it very complete– if you write with that kind of exactitude when you’re writing a screenplay, you leave no room for the director to direct the picture.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did you do when you disagreed with the director? I mean, you were having to okay the actors, everything. There must have been moments when you disagreed. How would you resolve disagreements?
JOHN IRVING: Well, we had a very simple agreement, Richard Gladstein, Lasse Hallstrom, and I. We agreed to agree. And in the case where one of us strongly objected to what the other two wanted, the other two agreed that they would yield and find another way. And what was remarkable was not that we came to such an agreement, but there was no big moment of any disagreement between us. There was… There were differences of opinion, surely, but none of them so strong that any one of us at any time exercised the option each of us had, which was to say no to the other two. It just didn’t happen.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you really like the film, don’t you, which I must say, it surprises me because you create a whole world in this novel. I mean, this world is so complex and so interrelated, and just the town that the orphanage is in is very important to it, and the film can’t do a lot of that. It just can’t, it’s so condensed. But you love this film, don’t you?
JOHN IRVING: I feel as proud of this film as I am of any of my novels. It’s a surprise to me that I feel as attached to it as I do, but it really is emotionally faithful to what happens in the story. It is politically faithful. It is unequivocally a pro-choice film. The politics of abortion were never compromised or blunted, I think, in any way. But more important, in terms of its effect, I think, on audiences, when that orphan, that unadoptable orphan decides to become the replacement physician at the orphanage and returns to the orphanage where he was born, you see that kid come back through the eyes of the other unadopted orphans. And that has the same emotional weight as that character coming back at the end of the novel. That was the most important thing to me. It has to feel the same, emotionally.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is a very emotional film, I should say. As I told you, I needed a large handkerchief throughout the whole thing. Tell the story you tell in the book about the moment when you see the migrant workers. Part of the film takes place in a cider mill and an apple orchard, and you see the migrant workers that you’ve imagined in your mind. You see the actors playing them, sitting at a table, being them. Tell that story.
JOHN IRVING: It’s hard to paraphrase it in brief, you know, but there was a day on the set when everyone was in costume and we were just having a lunch break, and all the actors playing the black migrant pickers from the South, you know, their last scene had finished, and they all sat down to eat first. And for a moment there was no one with them, and I recognized that very soon, you know, the cafeteria would fill up and everybody would fill the tables around them, and I was about to go sit with them myself when suddenly they seemed inviolate. They seemed that they were the people from the page and on the page, and that no one should join their company because they existed where they first existed, sort of as I imagined them. They seemed to me at that moment that perfect, and the entire black cast in “the Cider House Rules” is perfect. But most important of all, Delroy Lindo’s performance as the father who impregnates his own daughter is an extraordinary, not just piece of acting, but an extraordinary example of courage on the part of an actor to undertake a role, to be a sympathetic man who has done a deeply unsympathetic thing. I mean, what a challenge that is for any actor. I think without, you know, the astonishing success of Delroy’s performance, without Mr. Rose being a sympathetic character, it’s not a sympathetic film.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mm-hmm. I agree with that. Well, thank you very much for being with us.
JOHN IRVING: Thank you.