Essay on The Cider House Rules: A Rite of Passage, with Dickensian Sympathies

Essay on The Cider House Rules: A Rite of Passage, with Dickensian Sympathies

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It doesn't take a cryptographer to decipher the meanings in John Irving's sprawling picaresque allegories. But a reader who wants to savor them must be willing to suspend a psychoanalytic view of human nature descended from Freud through Oprah and surrender to an imagination that is more Dickensian than Freudian. Once you give up those expectations, a visit to the world according to Irving is a little like touring a parallel universe where fate is determined not so much by abusive parents as by wondrous tragicomic events beyond the realm of psychology.

I can't think of a better filmmaker to guide us through that world than Lasse Hallstrom, the director of ''My Life as a Dog'' and ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape?,'' two grown-up movies that share Mr. Irving's adult-child sensibility. In Mr. Hallstrom's lovely adaptation (with a screenplay by the author) of Mr. Irving's sixth novel, ''The Cider House Rules,'' the author's fantastical world of wonders and the director's tender-hearted compassion mesh into what is easily the finest film realization of an Irving novel.

The movie is really only a fragment of that novel, scaled down to conventional movie length, with numerous characters discarded and the story's time frame compressed from decades into a couple of years. The novel's exhaustive examination of abortion (both its moral and medical aspects) has been greatly softened.

What's left is a gentle, beautifully acted fable about a young man's journey into the world, his loss of innocence and his acquiring of values that reflect the lessons learned on his journey. The movie is also a blatant homage to ''David Copperfield,'' brief passages of which are read aloud to the children in St. Cloud's orphanage, the Maine institution...


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...d ambiance that is so intense you can almost taste the sour-apple pungency of the orchard air. That ambiance, along with the idealized romance of the gung-ho daredevil flyer and his honey-blond sweetheart, gives the film a slightly mythical quality that harmonizes with Mr. Irving's subtly literary screenplay and the director's soft-hearted child's-eye vision.

The need to be of use, the discovery that the official rules and real-life rules of how to behave rarely coincide -- these and other life lessons that our innocent hero learns may sound like the tritest of homilies. But ''The Cider House Rules'' gives them the depth and emotional weight of earned wisdom.

''The Cider House Rules'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has sexual situations (including father-daughter incest), scenes of abortions being performed, some strong language and violence.

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