American writer John Irving’s books lend themselves easily to film adaptations. Five of his novels have been turned into movies, with their sprawling scope, a multitude of fleshed out characters, and a sharp sense of the passage of time. And while Irving shot to popularity with The World According to Garp, published in 1978, it’s his novel about the life of orphan Homer Wells, The Cider House Rules, that best captures the quiet drama that gives his writing such cinematic appeal. The film adaptation, released fourteen years after the book’s publication, starred Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine, and won Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Even though it was published over three decades ago, The Cider House Rules remains surprisingly relevant with the questions it raises about love and morality. The story, set in rural Maine, follows Homer, the oldest unadopted child at the St Cloud’s orphanage, whose founder, Wilbur Larch is an ether-addicted obstetrician. As Homer strikes up an unusual friendship with Wilbur and begins to apprentice with him, he finds out that the doctor also performs abortions if the women wish. “Do you think there are largely happy histories for the babies born here?...But do I resist? I do not. I do not even recommend. I give them what they want: an orphan or an abortion,’’ Wilbur shouts in a heated showdown between master and apprentice.
As Homer leaves after their fallout and upon striking up a friendship with a young couple who visit the orphanage, a love triangle emerges, set against the backdrop of World War II. Infidelity, loss and betrayal all play a role in the novel that impressively resists taking a side in the complex web of ethics and morality played out between all the characters. But the book’s most lasting legacy remains its unflinching and detailed portrayal of abortion.
“The story isn’t about the politics of abortion, it’s about a period in history when abortion was illegal, and the consequences of that,” Irving said in an interview with The Guardian in 2000. But in an America that struggles with legal hurdles still being places in front of women seeking abortions, those politics remain as vivid and striking as when Irving first wrote the book.
Published in 1985.