The Ether Addict The plot of The Cider House Rules is far more complicated than the compressed version of the story and its characters that I adapted as a screenplay (over a thirteen-year period, and for four different directors). In the novel, I began with the four failed adoptions of the orphan Homer Wells. By the end of the first chapter, when Homer returns for the fourth time to the orphanage in St. Cloudís, Maine, the orphanage physician, Dr. Wilbur Larch, decides heíll have to keep him. Dr. Larch, an obstetrician and (in the 1930s and í40s) an illegal abortionist, trains Homer Wells to be a doctor. This is illegal, too, of courseóHomer never goes to high school or to college, not to mention medical school. But with Dr. Larchís training and the assistance of Larchís faithful nurses, Angela and Edna, Homer becomes an experienced obstetrician and gynecologist. He refuses to perform abortions, however. The second chapter of the novel describes Larchís childhood and medical-school years, his first internship in Boston, and the experiences that have made him ìa patron saint of orphansî and an abortionist. The history of Homerís failed adoptions and Larchís background are not developed in the screenplay. Larchís ether addiction is developed in both the book and the film, but his sexual abstemiousness, a feature of his eccentricity in the novel, was never in any draft of the script; instead, in the movie, I strongly imply that Dr. Larch may have had (or still has) a sexual relationship with Nurse Angela. I wanted to make Larch more normal. There is less time for character development in a film than in a novel; a characterís eccentricities can too easily become the character. In the movie, I thought Larchís addiction to ether was eccentric enough. In the screenplay, as in the novel, it is both Homerís conflict with Larch over the abortion issue and Homerís desire to see something of the world outside St. Cloudís that make him leave the orphanage with Wally Worthington and Candy Kendallóan attractive couple who come to St. Cloudís for an abortion. But in the book, Homer spends fifteen years away from the orphanageóin that time, Wally and Homer become best friends, Homer falls in love with Candy, and Wally and Candy get married. The passage of time, which is so important in all my novels, is not easily captured in a film. In the screenplay, Homer stays away from St. Cloudís for only fifteen months, Wally isnít Homerís best friend, and Candy is the sexual aggressor in her relationship with Homer. And in the novel, Homer and Candy have a son, Angel, who they pretend is adopted. Wally, out of love for all of them, tolerates this obvious fiction and his wifeís infidelity. In the screenplay, there is no child and Wally never knows about Candyís transgressions. Developing sympathy, not unlike developing character, takes time; in the movie, I tried to make Homer more sympathetic by making him less responsible for the affair with Candy. I made less of the affair, too. But in both the novel and the screenplay, what precipitates Homerís return to the orphanage, where he replaces Dr. Larch as the obstetrician and the abortionist in St. Cloudís, is his discovery of the relationship between a black migrant apple picker and his daughter. Mr. Rose, the picking-crew boss on the apple farm where Wally gives Homer a job, impregnates his own daughter, Rose Rose. In the novel, it is Homer and Candyís son, Angel, who falls in love with Rose Rose and first makes this discovery, but since I eliminated Angel from the screenplay, I made Homer find out about Rose Roseís pregnancy directly. When Homer acknowledges that he must perform an abortion on Rose Rose, he realizes that he can no longer deny that procedure to other women who want it. All the time Homer Wells is away from St. Cloudís, the aging and ether-addicted Dr. Larch has been plotting how Homer can replace him; in the end of both the novel and the film, Homer accepts the responsibility Larch has left to him. The doctorís young apprentice becomes the orphanage physician. Left out of the movie was the book-length character of Melony, an older girl who befriends Homer as a young orphan at St. Cloudís. Melony is also the source of Homerís sexual initiation, and she extracts from him a promise he will breakóthat he wonít leave her. But I eliminated her from the screenplay; she was simply too overpowering a character. Over and over again, the limitation imposed on the length of a movie has consequences. The novel of The Cider House Rules was more than 800 manuscript pages longóitís more than 500 book pages. The finished screenplay was a mere 136 manuscript pages. It pained me to lose Melony, but I had to do it. It helped me that thereíd been a precedent to losing Melony. In several foreign countries where the novel was translated, I lost the title. (Of my nine novels, The Cider House Rules is my favorite title.) In some languages, The Cider House Rules was simply too clumsy to translate. In France, cider is an alcoholic drink; in German, ìcider house rulesî is one word. I forget what the problem was in Finnish, but the Finns titled the novel The Hero of His Own Lifeófrom the beginning of David Copperfield, which Dr. Larch reads and rereads to the orphans at St. Cloudís. Homer Wells takes the opening passage from David Copperfield personally. ìWhether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. The German title, Gottes Werk und Teufels Beitrag (The Work of the Lord, the Contribution of the Devil), imitates Dr. Larchís manner of speaking in code to his nurses. (The French made a similar choice for the title: LíOeuvre de Dieu, la Part du Diable.) This is Larchís way of indicating to Angela and Edna whether he is delivering a baby or performing an abortion. The point being that, in Larchís view, it is all the Lordís workóeither he is delivering a baby or he is delivering a mother. (In the film, Dr. Larchís willingness to give abortions is established in the montage over the opening credits. Homerís reluctance to perform the procedure is expressed in the first scene of dialogue between them.) I felt that a man who takes on the enormous responsibility of life or no life in an orphanage in poor, rural Maineóa man like Dr. Larchówould be deeply scarred. For this reason I made Larch an ether addict. Ether was first synthesized in 1540 by a twenty-five-year-old Prussian botanist. People have been having ether frolicsóand later, laughing-gas partiesóever since. In the proper hands, ether remains one of the safest inhalation agents known. At a concentration of only 1 or 2 percent, it is a light, tasty vapor; some forty years ago, hundreds of cases of cardiac surgery were done with ether and partially awake (even talking) patients. Some of Dr. Larchís colleagues would have preferred nitrous oxide or chloroform, but Larch developed his preference for ether through self-administration. You would have to be crazy to self-administer chloroform. It is twenty-five times more toxic to the heart muscle than is ether, and it has an extremely narrow margin of safety; a minimal overdose can result in cardiac irregularity and death. Nitrous oxide requires a very high (at least 80 percent) concentration to do the job, and it is always accompanied by a degree of what is called hypoxiaóinsufficient oxygen. It requires careful monitoring and cumbersome apparatus, and the patient runs the risk of bizarre fantasies or giggling fits. Induction is very fast. Coleridge was a laughing-gas man, although the poet was certainly familiar with ether, too. It was unfortunate for Coleridge that he preferred opium. Ether is a kinder drug addiction to bear. But no drug addiction is without riskóand no self-administered anesthesia is safe. After all, in both the novel and the film, Dr. Larch accidentally kills himself with ether. When I first thought about the grounding for Dr. Larchís character, I kept one principle foremost in mind: he goes to extremes. In the novel, he has sex just once, with a prostitute who gives him gonorrhea. He starts taking ether to numb himself to the pain of the gonococci; by the time the bacteria burns itself out, Larch is addicted to the ether. I thought that he should be no less extreme as a doctor. In the movie, Larchís onetime experience with the prostitute, his case of the clap, and his subsequent sexual abstemiousness are gone. What remains is his ether addiction; without a history, it seems more desperate, more extreme. Homer defends Larchís reasons for taking ether by saying that Larch needs it to help him sleep (ìHeís too tired to sleepî), but the ether numbs Larchís overall pain. He takes it to relieve his angst, his Weltschmerz.
Excerpted from My Movie Business by John Irving. Copyright © 2000 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.