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Novelist Irving lands movie role

Stewart Oksenhorn

Ten days after seeing “The Cider House Rules,” based on his 1985 novel, receive seven Academy Award nominations, John Irving came to Aspen’s Paepcke Auditorium Friday evening to speak about his part-time job in the movies.

Irving, who earned one of those nominations himself for the adapted screenplay he wrote, touched on the issues that almost inevitably confront a writer transforming a novel into a movie: cutting characters and scenes, the collaborative process, relinquishing control.

But the most insightful and funniest part of the hourlong talk, presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, had little to do with Irving’s movie business. To open the evening, Irving chose to talk about his mother, and her influence on the novel “The Cider House Rules” – a story, above all, of abortions and orphans.

Irving noted that his mother, who directed a New Hampshire family counseling service, was an abortion-rights activist decades before the Roe vs. Wade decision established a woman’s right to an abortion. “She also favored castration for two-time rapists. She was not an easy woman to have as a mother,” emphasized Irving, with a comic’s timing.

Irving illustrated his mother’s character with a story. Given his mother’s occupation, Irving recalled that condoms were a familiar item in his own childhood home, even if they were closeted most everywhere else at the time. In his early teens, Irving became intensely curious about condoms, and went to the neighborhood drugstore to investigate further. “I heard all about the virtues of a condom before I knew what one was,” explained Irving. “I had no plans to use it, but I just wanted to know what it was.”

The druggist detected no such innocent purpose. Recognizing the young boy, the druggist picked up the phone and called Mrs. Irving, informing her of her son’s activity. She said she would be right there.

“My mother asked the druggist what he did when boys came in for condoms,” said Irving. ” `If I know who they are,’ said the druggist, `I call their mothers.’

” `You asshole!’ ” was his mother’s reply, said Irving.

Outside the pharmacy, Mrs. Irving inquired how many condoms were desired. “But the concept of buying them in numbers …,” said Irving, recalling his bewildered state. “I said, `One or two.’ “

When his mother finally got around to asking John just what he planned to do with the condoms, Irving’s reply was completely innocent. “Nothing,” he swore.

“You asshole,” said his mother.

The other family member who influenced the story idea of “The Cider House Rules” was John Irving’s grandfather, Frederick C. Irving, a Boston obstetrician, professor of obstetrics at Harvard, and author of three books in his field. At the same time that he was discovering Dickens, Irving was also reading his grandfather’s trilogy: “The Expectant Mother’s Handbook,” “A Textbook of Obstetrics” and “Safe Delivery.”

“It showed me things I wasn’t getting from Dickens,” said Irving.

Having his mother and grandfather in mind, Irving began thinking about abortions and orphans as an idea for his sixth novel. Given his family history, there was a built-in preference in favor of abortions and against orphans.

“We heard that orphanages were a substitute for abortion rights,” said Irving. “It isn’t and it never was. Orphanages are not shopping malls. Orphanages existed, in the main, for children who did not get adopted and who never would be. And the novel became about that.” From novel to movie For Irving, “The Cider House Rules” also became about getting a movie made from the novel. Irving had seen his two previous novels, “The World According to Garp” and “The Hotel New Hampshire,” made into movies. Both were done largely without his participation; he did not write the screenplay for either movie. But for various reasons, “The Cider House Rules” would become Irving’s pursuit.

One reason was the insistence of the late film director Phillip Borsos, described in Irving’s recent memoir, “My Movie Business,” as having “a stubbornness of heroic proportions.”

The other reason Irving chose to work on the screenplay of “The Cider House Rules” was that, of all his novels, “it was the only one I saw as a movie,” Irving told the packed Paepcke Auditorium. “Unlike my other novels, it’s a symmetrical story: Boy leaves home, and boy comes back.”

So in 1985, just after the publication of the novel, Irving agreed to write the screenplay for “The Cider House Rules.” Had he known what might eventually be involved in bringing the story to the screen – four directors, countless drafts of the screenplay, and 14 years of time – he might not have been so agreeable. The time spent on the project cost him, he figures, two novels.

But the film has yielded its rewards. Apart from the seven Academy Award nominations – including those for Best Picture, for Lasse Hallstrm as Best Director, and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Michael Caine’s performance as Dr. Wilbur Larch – Irving, perhaps improbably, found satisfaction in the process. Much of that came from the control Irving negotiated: He had director approval, cast approval, script approval and the director of his choosing had his say over the final cut of the film. And Irving got along perfectly with his main collaborators, director Hallstrm and producer Richard Gladstein.

“To have a collaboration like this is, to me, remarkably seductive,” said Irving, who is at work on a film version of his eighth novel, “A Widow For One Year,” with Gladstein producing. “To have a conversation, every day, with two people, about a character … . And I miss it, now that the film is over.”

Irving said that he doesn’t see his writing changing much as a result of his success in the movies. He still refers to novel writing as his day job, and at age 57, having seen a novel or two consumed by the time spent on the film of “The Cider House Rules,” he seems reluctant to spend large chunks of time on movies. But one aspect of the writing process that Irving has always strongly believed in was confirmed by making the film.

“I believe in revision,” said Irving. “I am a tireless revisionist. It’s the process I like best. It made me go back as a novelist believing even more in the necessity of that.

“When you’ve finished the novel and you’re convinced that it can’t get better from changing one word – you’re wrong. And if you think you don’t like rewriting, don’t write a screenplay.”


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