First a novelist, now a screenwriter

John Irving looks glum on the jacket of "My Movie Business," his breezily written memoir about turning his novel "The Cider House Rules" into a film.

Happily, the photo is pure Hollywood illusion. Irving was dressed for a tiny part he played in the movie - "the disapproving stationmaster" - but behind his dour expression he felt "elated" when the snapshot was taken.

Shooting of the film was about to wrap, ending what for Irving had been a 13-year effort to bring this story to the screen. It's now in theaters, and Irving was the opposite of glum as he strode into a lower Manhattan restaurant for our interview.

Although two of Irving's nine novels have been translated into high-profile movies before now - "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire" ("Simon Birch" was only a loose adaptation of "A Prayer for Owen Meany") - the decision to write his own screenplay for "The Cider House Rules" was a first. He embarked on it partly as an "experiment" and partly as an effort to "protect" the story's historical and scientific details, which he had painstakingly researched. In addition to penning his own screenplay, he struck a deal with Miramax Films guaranteeing that all "creative decisions" would be made by director Lasse Hallstrm, producer Richard Gladstein, and himself.

Like the novel, the movie has two main characters. One is Wilbur Larch, an aging physician (Michael Caine) who runs a rural Maine orphanage where many women seek his help either to put their babies up for adoption or to terminate their pregnancies. He regards such decisions as entirely personal to the women who make them, and sees himself as a public servant who gives each patient "an orphan or an abortion," depending on her choice.

The other main character is Homer Wells, a young man (Tobey Maguire) who grows up in the orphanage and becomes Dr. Larch's protg, until he makes his own decision not to perform abortions. He then leaves home for a very different kind of life among the African-American laborers on a New England apple farm. There, new experiences teach him lessons about life that prompt his eventual return to the orphanage and Dr. Larch's legacy.

Irving sees the novel and film as "political" works conveying a clear set of ideas. Yet he hopes they're also perceived as richly emotional tales in the spirit of Charles Dickens, whose books inspired him to become a writer when he was in his middle teens.

"It's didactic, but it's not a harangue," he says of the story. "I never imply that there's anything about the decision [to have an abortion] that is or should be easy. It seems to me this is among the most morally complicated and conflicted decisions that any woman or couple might need to make. But precisely for that reason, it's not a decision that should be legislated. It's not a decision that someone else should ever make for you."

Irving approached his screenwriting task with mixed feelings about the movies. He rarely goes to theaters anymore - "It drives me crazy when people talk!" - but he enjoys videocassettes that allow him to indulge his favorite tastes. One reason he felt "The Cider House Rules" would make an effective film is that the plot reminded him of old-fashioned westerns.

"Homer is a young man trained to be a physician," Irving explains, "even though he doesn't want to be one. He's like the gunfighter who wants to hang up his gun, and he goes through three-quarters of the film saying, 'I'm not a doctor!' But there comes a time when he has to do what he's been trained to do. There's a sense of [destiny] here that comes from my adolescent love of films like 'Shane' and 'High Noon,' where somebody's trying to quit something, but it's just the wrong time."

Another reason for trying the movie business was Irving's desire for a temporary break from the solitude of a novelist's life.

"I'm not complaining," he says. "I've liked being alone since I was a kid ... and I like my 'day job' better than writing screenplays. But when your working life is circumscribed by a four- or five-year cycle - which is what a novel represents to me - and in that working life you share what you're doing with no one, other than reading an occasional chapter to your wife, there's something very beckoning about the idea that you could have a successful collaboration. I just loved the friendship of it!"

He also enjoyed sharing responsibility for the final outcome. "When you write a novel," he says, "the exactness of the detail is everything.... There is no such thing as too much specificity. That's what language [in a novel] is: With every door you open, you're responsible for closing it.

"But when you write a screenplay, you're not the guy who gets to close and open the doors.... The exactness of detail comes from the camera and the director, instead. In my [memoir], I liken this to merely putting up the scaffolding for a building someone else is going to build. You're not the builder, the director is."

Irving expects more screenplays to pepper his career - he's already written a film version of his latest book, "A Son of the Circus," which should go into production soon - but he'll always think of himself as a novelist first, and it's likely that Dickens will always remain his primary inspiration.

"A novel by Dickens never tries to persuade you intellectually," he says with admiration. "You are persuaded emotionally or not at all.... A piece on 'Cider House' in The New York Times said, 'The film's tenderness occasionally verges on sentimentality.' I would say, 'The film doesn't verge. It is sentimental!' So get over it, and stop thinking that's a bad word!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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