John Irving adapted his own novel into the screenplay for The Cider House Rules. And there are moments in which it's hard to decide whether his story is a tender and melancholy look at the plight of orphans in the cold Northeast, or if it's a searing piece of propaganda for the cause of abortion rights. Coming of age during World War II, lifelong orphan Homer Wells grows up under the kindly, albeit controlling hand of Dr. Wilbur Larch, a resident doctor at an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine. He turns into an apprentice of sorts as Larch teaches him the skills of obstetrics. He also teaches him how to perform abortions (a procedure that Larch not only condones, but carries out regularly). Homer grows up and leaves the confines of the orphanage, but never quite escapes the confines of his upbringing. His quest for manhood and experience serves only to lead him back to his roots, both physically, emotionally and morally.
Positive Elements: Dr. Larch and his nurse aids care deeply for each and every young child in their charge. They bestow love and medicine with equal vigor. Larch reads to them every night and becomes a father to each one. Homer goes out of his way to help build up the self-esteem of his fellow orphans. He lives his life with a simple forthrightness that's refreshing, yet makes his ultimate life decisions even harder to take. The simple pleasures and beauty of the outdoors, hard work and deep friendships are all treated with respect.
Spiritual Content: A nurse prays over her girls at the orphanage before they go to sleep each night. On the other hand, Larch comments that they have no need for Christians in their work.
Sexual Content: Homer and Candy dive head-first into a sexual relationship after Candy's boyfriend goes off to war. They are shown having sex on a couple of occasions (once fully clothed in the woods, another time naked indoors). A lingering shot of Candy lying naked on a bed is especially disconcerting. A male migrant worker is shown nude after taking a shower. Nothing is depicted onscreen, but Mr. Rose's habit of having sex with his daughter, Rose, is central to the plot in the second half of the film.
Violent Content: Mr. Rose fights with one of his apple pickers (he is cut on the hand when the confrontation escalates to a knife battle). [Major plot point revealed] Mr. Rose stabs himself to death after Rose runs away. Dr. Larch also commits suicide by overdosing on ether.
Crude or Profane Language: About a dozen mild profanities and misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content: Quite a few of the characters smoke. There's a running joke about smoking in bed. Dr. Larch puts himself to sleep each night by inhaling Ether.
Other Negative Content: "Breaking rules" is central to the story, suggesting that the way to mature in life is to break as many rules as you can, then see what the fallout is. One character implies that breaking rules is actually a good way to make things right. At best, viewers are led to believe that many of life's "rules" simply don't (or shouldn't) apply.
Summary: As Homer grows up, he and Dr. Larch conduct a running argument about whether abortion is right or wrong. Larch is convinced it is not only right, but his duty to carry it out. He believes that he is doing his young patients a favor, bettering their existence and possibly saving their lives. He attempts to convince Homer (and moviegoers) that legitimizing abortions is necessary to give women the right to choose and to protect them from injury and death when—as everyone knows—they will inevitably try to end their pregnancies themselves. Once, when a young woman dies after botching her own abortion, Larch says she "died of secrecy and ignorance." As a teen, Homer isn't convinced, he argues that if his mother had had an abortion, he wouldn't exist, he would have been "taken out to the incinerator" (one of his chores as a child is to carry aborted babies out to the trash).
Sadly, as Homer "matures" he loosens his grip on the "ideal" and resigns himself, as Larch did before him, to the "fact" that abortion has a rightful place in our culture. While picking apples with Mr. Rose and Rose, he learns that Rose is pregnant with her father's child. She is desperate for a solution, so he aborts the baby for her. Then, after Larch's death, he returns to the orphanage, presumably to pick up where his mentor left off.
Still, The Cider House Rules does not simply stand up and preach immorality and "women's rights." It's more complicated than that. The repercussion of wrong decisions is vividly displayed. Dr. Larch can't even sleep at night without chemical aids, and he eventually, after a lifetime of devaluing life, takes his own. Candy and Homer bear the brunt of guilt and shame for their fornication and deception when Candy's man comes back from the war, paralyzed from the waist down. Rose runs away, leaving her father to kill himself in shame.
This film feasts on dichotomy, and it's the notion that an orphanage doctor would endorse abortion that most fully illustrates the filmmaker's intentional use of disparity as a dramatic tool. From one perspective, the movie flails its fists in the air decrying human degradation, murder, incest and lust. From another, because Homer chooses to carry on the murderous work of Larch, it asserts that abortion is necessary even if it hurts those who participate.
While individuals will differ on the ultimate effect of the film, director Lasse Hallström admits a specific agenda. "I wanted to be as gentle and tasteful as possible without backing off from the message," he said. That message, plain and unvarnished, is that women should have the right to kill their unborn children.
In the end, The Cider House Rules breaks far too many to find a place in the hearts of most discerning families.