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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

Appropriately, much of the attention the book has received -- both pro and con -- has come from its sexual politics. Cohen goes so far as to call the novel a Rorschach test: Many of the scholars who liked it saw it as an intelligent engagement with feminism, and a rare case of a male novelist writing from women's points of view. Detractors saw it as making a mockery of the idea of powerful women.

These days, Cohen and others see the novel as an attack on feminism and its claims. "Updike takes these supposedly empowered women, makes them witches, and has them fall in love with the same man -- who happens to be the devil," he says. "It's hard to see that as good."

The novel, set during the Vietnam War, also seems to mock "sisterhood" and the idea that female power is more benign than men's, since the witches quickly become spiteful and violent.

"Why," asks Cohen, "have the book where you hand an olive leaf to the feminists be the one where the powerful women are witches who go crazy and start killing people?"

Friedman, the show's executive producer, knows the book is considered notoriously sexist in some quarters. "The novel takes place at the end of the '60s," she says, "and it's about the social upheaval of the times, when women's roles are being redefined, and some traditional roles don't survive that."

Either way, "The book's ideas about women and social mores are not what the show's about." And not just the setting but the plot needed to change: For a program that might last five or more years, she said, "you can't have three women sleeping with the same dude. We needed a bigger world."

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Changes for TV

One thematic element that remains only hinted at in the novel shows how far the TV show will depart from Updike's worldview.

The novel's witches are all mothers, but you have to look closely to see their children: They barely show up, and the women don't seem very concerned about them.

This obliviousness has been seen as part of Updike's critique of feminism, and his view of the whole liberal culture of the '60s and '70s as based on selfishness, even narcissism, a flight from responsibility for the sake of momentary pleasures. In fact, critics interpret the novel's violent destructive conclusion as a reckoning for the "sinful" culture and values.

But the first episode of "Eastwick" shows one of the witches coming to the rescue of her daughter, who Friedman says will become a major part of the show. This may make the series work better -- it opens it up to more characters, for instance -- but it betrays one of Updike's lifelong themes.

"Something consistent about Updike's work," says Miller, "is that the kids get neglected while the parents are out having sex with each other, gratifying the impulses."

David Foster Wallace wrote in his well-known attack on Updike that "the young educated adults of the '90s" were "of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully."

Updike -- sometimes called the laureate of suburban adultery -- spent his entire career grappling with the breakdown of marriage and family, and it was a tension he never resolved. Miller calls the issue one he saw as "regrettable but inevitable," in a culture dedicated to pleasure and individualism.

All in all, then, this novel about the devil, morality and sin -- selfishness, narcissism, indulgence of the self -- changes drastically on its way to the TV screen.

To Friedman, the demands of a show projected for multiple seasons are very different from those of a novel or a film and take it out of any specific historical period.

"I think what's compelling," she says, "is the idea that all women have a fantasy about being a witch, and the idea of this mysterious person coming in who may or may not be good. These can play at any time."

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