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Bewitched again by John Updike

His 1984 novel, 'The Witches of Eastwick,' has been praised, panned and hotly debated. It's also hard for Hollywood to resist. ABC is the latest to adapt it, with its relaxed version 'Eastwick.'

September 20, 2009|Scott Timberg

It started out as a dark satire of the late '60s and its shifting morality, then became a big-haired '80s horror-show dominated by special effects and Jack Nicholson's eyebrows.

And now, it's on its way to entering the world again as an easygoing television show, set in the first decade of the 21st century, about women's friendship and aimed at the "Desperate Housewives" crowd. (It's even shot in the old town square from "Gilmore Girls.")

That's a pretty rich afterlife for a novel considered somewhere between an anomaly for its author and a misogynist classic. But there's something about John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick" that makes people come back to it. (Updike himself even returned to the setting and characters in last year's "The Widows of Eastwick," one of the late author's last works.)

To "Eastwick" executive producer Maggie Friedman, the adaptation is a natural, and not just because of the contemporary fascination with witchcraft, which provides much of her personal connection.

"Men and women and sex are a big part of the show," Friedman says of "Eastwick," which stars Lindsay Price, Jaime Ray Newman, Rebecca Romijn and Paul Gross, and kicks off Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. on ABC. "And there's always a lot of interest in that."

The novel -- about a coven of divorced women in a seaside Rhode Island village and the wealthy, devilish figure who moves to town and captivates all three of them -- has been called both the author's angriest, most violent novel and "Updike with his shoes off."

"In so many ways it's not characteristic," says Sam Cohen, a professor of contemporary literature at the University of Missouri. "Not just not one of his best, but not at all typical, either."

Quentin Miller of Suffolk University, a rare scholar who deems it among Updike's major novels, nonetheless considers "Witches" an unlikely choice for a televised adaptation. "It would have to depart a lot from Updike's vision to work," he says. Miller, author of "John Updike and the Cold War," calls the novel the writer's "darkest book."

"And his books are incredibly layered, very intricate -- the conversations are informed by philosophy and theology. And television isn't famous for capturing that kind of intricacy."

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Updike's prime time

When "The Witches of Eastwick" came out in April 1984, "Updike had waned a bit in the popular imagination," Miller says. But he was still in the prime of his career: "Rabbit Is Rich" had come out in '81, and "Rabbit at Rest" would appear in 1990; both novels won Pulitzers. Reviews, generally, were good: Margaret Atwood, in the New York Times Book Review, praised "Witches" for "the skill and inventiveness of the writing," as well as the way the witches embodied America's fantasy life.

Influential literary critic Harold Bloom -- who had famously called Updike "a minor novelist with a major style" -- came around on this one. Still, today the novel is not written about or assigned much in academia: The four era-spanning Rabbit Angstrom novels, and probably Updike's short stories, are generally the best regarded and most studied of his work.

And though the typical Updike novel or story has a few characters falling in and out of love in a New England village, "Witches" fit superficially but otherwise broke the mold.

Its supernatural plot developments -- some saw them as derived from the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- were an odd move for a novelist who made his name with a minutely observed domestic realism he had stuck with even after it became unfashionable.

This departure from realism makes the novel an awkward hybrid, Cohen says. "The magic in Updike's writing came from his writing about the everyday, as he turned it into something transcendent or beautifully illuminating."

The novel was a departure in another way: Critic William Pritchard, in his book "Updike: America's Man of Letters," was struck by the uncharacteristic "violence, death and extreme suffering," calling it "Updike's most mischievous novel" and "the cruelest book he has produced."

The film, from 1987, and starring Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher, took the violence and supernatural events even further over the top.

Helmed by "Mad Max" director George Miller, the film made money and got mixed reviews -- some found it silly and broad. Although it brought Updike renewed attention, the movie wasn't universally admired by fans of the novel, partly for its many changes to the story.

Updike himself said the film "became Nicholson's movie and dissolved into special effects."

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Differing views

"Perhaps," Updike said after the novel's publication, "my female characters have been too domestic, too adorable, too much what men wished them to be." For a writer who'd been accused of not getting women, then, this was a novel, he said, "about female power, a power that patriarchal societies have denied."

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