this adaptation of John Irving's novel better than either of them, and better than the other two I watched subsequently. I haven't read the source novel, but years ago, I did read all of Irving's fiction up to, and including, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP -- somehow failing to continue beyond THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE -- and this film feels closely, warmly allied to all the feelings I derived from reading him, which are very specific qualities to his universe, so it must be a very good adaptation.
Tobey Maguire stars as Homer Wells, a foundling raised in an orphanage who, never adopted, is trained to assist the resident doctor, the kindly but ether-addicted Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), in his duties, which extend in this wartime story to performing safe abortions and saving the lives of young unwed women who have gone to less qualified practitioners or tried to do the job themselves. When a young lieutenant (Paul Rudd) arrives with his pregnant girlfriend Candy (Charlize Theron) in tow, Homer -- now an adult -- asks them for a lift when they leave, recognizing his opportunity to see a bit of the larger world outside the orphanage. They take him to the lieutenant's family's apple orchard in Massachusetts, where he becomes the only white, college-level-educated member in a team of apple pickers. He finds happiness there, as well as love, once the lieutenant is recalled and Candy finds her unoccupied way into his awkward, receptive arms. Naturally, life in the apple garden doesn't last forever.
The symbolism may be obvious, but it's applicable to a wide array of interpretations; it occurred to me afterwards that Homer's arc could be read as metaphorical of a man's extramarital affair. Whether taken at face value or on a deeper level, the story is given the narrative weight and gravity we associate with the great standards of literature. Strong performances abound, particularly those of Caine (his eyes like wet bags filled with decades of pain), Theron (world-wise and seductive) and Delroy Lindo as an orchard picker whose avuncular character takes a turn when he's discovered to have gotten his daughter (Erykah Badu, also good) pregnant. Maguire exudes his usual amiably gooey brand of innocence that's ripe for testing, and there is perfectly cast support at the orphanage from Jane Alexander and Kathy Baker. One of the most charming scenes shows the orphans gazing wide-eyed at the projection of an orphanage-owned 16mm print of KING KONG (complete with the "peeling" scene that was long lost and only restored to the film sometime circa 1973-74, probably thanks to the discovery of an old print like this), followed up by Homer's admission to the worldly Candy that he loves movies but that KING KONG is the only movie he's ever seen. Thankfully, Beauty doesn't quite kill the Beast in this story, but she takes a fair enough shot at it.
Viewed via Netflix.