In the Cider House Rules, we see, behind the curtain of controversy and hot-button issues, a discussion about a very foundational part of human social life: rules. When are they good? When are they harmful? Can they be abandoned or broken in order to bring about good (or, what seems to be good)? The film considers all of these questions, but posits very few clear answers.
I must admit, it is hard to take a very critical stance, especially one in opposition, to the message that the film makers may be trying to send. The cinematography and sound track (though not ground-breaking or innovative) are gorgeous and really lulled me into feeling the warmth of the Maine countryside or the cold stench of physician’s ether. The vivid scenery, delicate music and lively actions of the children at St. Cloud’s severely contrast the wretched internal conflicts taking place in each character. Much of it, I would say, centers on the question of rules: when may they be broken, when must they be followed? In the case of Dr. Larch, following the rules is not a real concern. Abortion is illegal, but he performs many abortions in order to bring about what he thinks is good, the ability for women to choose if they want to have a baby. (Now, all reading should know that I find this sort of mentality deeply disordered and wrong. All life has value, not just ‘convenient’ life; still, the debate is not about abortion but rules.) Dr. Larch found it all right to ignore the rules because, as he says, “What has the law done for anyone around here?” To Dr. Larch, everything is about utility. Whatever is around must be useful, must provide some useful function. To him, Homer was a useful assistant and useful student to train in medicine, because no one was ever going to adopt him. The rules, for Dr. Larch, are optional.
We can see a similar trait in Arthur Rose. Arthur, the leader of the apple-picking crew, questioned the rules posted in the cider house. In fact, no one ever cared to look at the rules, and Rose never knew what they were until Homer read them aloud. The cider house workers, upon hearing the rules read by Homer, were either appalled that such common sense was written down, or amused that they had already broken other rules every day. For Arthur, cider house rules made by people who do not live in the cider house are nonsense. The workers will make their own rules each day, not somebody from outside trying to take control.
Dr. Larch and Arthur have much more in common, however: both are afraid of facing personal pain. Dr. Larch, when Fuzzy died, changed the story for the young man digging the grave: Fuzzy was adopted, and that is what we must tell everyone. In Dr. Larch’s mind, it would be far too difficult for the children to face the reality of death, so twisting the truth becomes the only option. Again, consider when he forges Homer’s medical resume: it would be too difficult to face a change in leadership at St. Cloud’s, so dishonesty is chosen instead. In Arthur’s case, having his daughter prosecuted for the death of her incestuous father would be too much trouble and too disgraceful; instead, Arthur changes the story to make it seem that he committed suicide.
I understand the position from which these people are making dishonest choices against the law, but I still cannot agree with them. I disagree not so much because “it’s illegal” or “against the rules,” but because breaking these rules requires the characters to sweep a lot under the rug. Arthur says, “Sometimes you gotta break the rules to set things straight.” Yet, is life set straight by keeping secrets? Is acknowledging the truth, even though it may be painful, not a better option than constantly covering one’s own tracks? It is true that Lt. Wally may never find out about Candy and Homer’s affair, but does that erase it from history? These characters must face the truth about themselves, that they mess up at times, and that not everything can be covered up and hidden away. Honesty is the best policy, and I really think that, while bearing many good intentions, the characters in Cider House Rules lack that key quality.