Why so few movies from Updike’s books?

A large proportion of literary novelists could complain that their work has not been translated in a satisfying way to the screen.   But with an author whose career was so long-running and productive as that of John Updike, who died last week at 76, the paucity of adaptations seems downright head-scratching. For a guy […]

Last Updated: February 1, 2009 @ 9:04 PM

A large proportion of literary novelists could complain that their work has not been translated in a satisfying way to the screen.

 
But with an author whose career was so long-running and productive as that of John Updike, who died last week at 76, the paucity of adaptations seems downright head-scratching. For a guy with dozens of novels, and several hundred short stories, it’s an embarrassing batting average. The only recognizable film made from one of his books is George Miller’s "The Witches of Eastwick" (1987).
 
Part of what made it hard for Updike’s work to translate to film was style: His writing is so visual, at the level of image and metaphor, it’s almost redundant to put it into a visual medium.
 
Similarly, as Troy Patterson wrote in a recent Slate appreciation, "Updike’s most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence…. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era: meticulous, crystalline, and luminously hyperrealist, his opulent language hanging on austere forms. Even his bad writing — and the consequence of his three-pages-per-day prolificity is that there’s no shortage of it — sparks with phrases that send the heart skittering." True, true, but again, hard to put on screen.
 
The writerly goal Updike describes for himself in the foreword to "The Early Stories" — "to give the mundane its beautiful due" — is not something American cinema has often done that well.
 
The substance of Updike’s work was also an impediment: The "American small town, Protestant middle class,"  as he described his milieu, has not been of very big interest, personally or cinematically, to the Hollywood establishment. Many of his characters shared his temperament and Silent Generation background —  "too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels," as Updike wrote in one story. 
 
These are lives and settings, then, very far from the usual dramatic material of the Hollywood movie. (Though it’s hard not to wonder what a director like, say, Eric Rohmer could have done with it.)
 
The only really successful Hollywood adaptation of an Updike work is "The Witches of Eastwick," with a classic Updike setting in post-Puritan New England. But look past the novel’s church steeples and sexed-up villagers — here played by Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and, ah, Cher — and its supernatural premise actually makes it among the least typical of this realist writer’s novels.
 
It’s a decent, if largely silly, movie, but it’s really about Jack Nicholson’s scenery chewing and eyebrows as well as, in the words of Updike, who didn’t much like it, special effects.
 
Updike’s output stretched from a novel about a terrorist to post-nuclear war science fiction. But the territory he really carved out as his own was small-towns and suburbia, beginning in the 1950s.
 
Since Hollywood seems capable only of caricaturing the ’50s and early ’60s —  and has treated suburbia in cartoonish terms even in a celebrated work like "American Beauty" — much of Updike’s early work (like that of John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and other writers who did their best work in the period) is too subtle and gentle to fit. Pump it all up a little bit, as Rick Moody did with his ’70s-themed novel "The Ice Storm," and you’re getting warmer — closer to a good Hollywood film.
 
It took Richard Yates’ "Revolutionary Road" — with its complex portrait of postwar suburbia — 47 years to get to the big screen, and that involved Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio signing on to a project kick-started by a British production company. Updike’s "Rabbit" books have no such high-profile champions. The 1970 James Caan-starring film of "Rabbit, Run" — Updike’s breakthrough novel and still perhaps his most famous — has remained obscure.
 
It’s often said that the concision of short stories makes them more suitable to film adaptation than novels.
 
Fitzgerald’s slight tale of Benjamin Button has produced a more successful film than anything made from his far more substantial novels such as "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender is the Night." Updike, of course, wrote dozens of stories, and was considered by some the greatest American story craftsman since Hemingway. Several of his tales — "The Music School," "Pigeon Feathers," the workshop classic "A & P" — have been given TV or short film treatment.
 
Scott Foundas in the L.A. Weekly recently wrote that "the best and most faithful film adaptation of Updike" was the 1979 television film "Too Far to Go," just released on DVD, based on Updike’s stories about the two-decade marriage of the Maples. The stories, he said, become "the basis for a devastating portrait of modern marriage from "I do" to "I’m leaving you."
 
If only more of the writer’s work — of which there was no shortage — had found such sympathetic treatment.
 

Scott Timberg is a Los Angeles-based culture writer who has contributed to the New York Times, GQ and Slate. For six years he was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where he covered music, the arts and books. He is also co-editor of "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles." He blogs about culture high and low at http://scott-timberg.blogspot.com/