I’ve never read any John Updike before. I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize. I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two. In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books. This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back. Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches. There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first. Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen. In this case up that will mislead you.
The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie. They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert. The movie tells, in other words, a very different story. Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause. Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie. A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself. No fear of sacred places here.
The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either. A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead. In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way. I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh. This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version. Both novels and movies are stories. When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted. My personal preference is for the film to present the same story. It can’t always be done, of course. In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer. Since the stories are so different, the questions remain. I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.