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John Updike at the Movies

John Updike at the Movies

Hollywood and John Updike, who died today at the age of 76, never made

for the easiest of bedfellows. In 1970, the underrated director Jack

Smight took an admirable stab at filming Rabbit, Run,

the first in Updike's tetralogy of novels about the disaffected former

high-school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. But the flm was

taken away from Smight by writer-producer Howard B. Kreitsek, recut,

shelved by the studio (Warner Bros.) after unsuccessful test

screenings, and ultimately dismissed by Updike himself in a 1973 New York Times interview.

Seventeen years later, Mad Max director Grorge Miller's film version of Updike's The Witches of Eastwick,

starring Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson,

was a hit, spawning a stage musical and two unsold TV pilots in its

wake. But it also took drastic liberties with Updike's 1984 novel and

was described publicly by Miller as the worst creative experience of

his career. "[It] "had a beautiful cast but intruded on the world of

the witches. It became Nicholson's movie and dissolved into special

effects," Updike told USA Today last fall, upon the publication of the book's sequel.

Indeed, the best and most faithful film adaptation of Updike came on the small screen, in the form of Fielder Cook's superb Too Far to Go

(1979), which used Updike's series of short stories about Richard and

Joan Maple (played by Michael Moriarty and Blythe Danner) as the basis

for a devastating portrait of modern marriage from "I do" to "I'm

leaving you." So impressed was Francis Coppola with the film that he

decided to give it a theatrical release via his Zoetrope Studios in

1982. After a long period of unavailability, Too Far to Go has recently been issued on DVD. I urge you to see it.

Meanwhile, our own Chuck Wilson, writing at his Flickers blog, recalls a lovely passage about moviegoing from Updike's century-spanning 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lillies,

the first part of which concerns one Clarence Wilmot, a New Jersey

Presbyterian minister who loses his faith and becomes an encyclopedia

salesman -- as well as a fanatical movie buff.

Updike writes:

During the summer Clarence took his own defeat indoors,

deserting the sunny harsh streets of door-to-door rejection for the

shadowy interiors of those moving-picture houses that, like museums of

tawdry curiosities, opened their doors during the day....When Clarence

had paid his nickel -- one of the brand-new Indian-head nickels, with a

buffalo hulking on the reverse side -- and settled into his hard chair

in the dark, carefully placing his leather salesman's case upright

between his ankles, it was as if his eyes drank a flickering liquor.

The passionate, comical, swift-moving action on the screen, speckled

with bright scratches, entered him like an essential food which he had

been hitherto denied.

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