With the news that Andrew Davies, “who is to TV adaptations what Michelangelo was to ceilings,” was going to make a sanitized version of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy for television that made Rabbit “less off-putting” to a female audience, Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor for The Herald (Scotland) responded with anger.
“What next—Moby Dick without the harpoons? Flashman turned Quaker? To be fair, Davies is on Updike’s side, though I’d have preferred him to abandon the project when pressured to tone the books down.”
Goring writes, “If Updike were still with us, he would no doubt repeat what he always said of his spectacularly flawed creation: ‘My intention was never to make him—or any character—lovable.’ That people cannot read books or understand literary invention is bad enough. Even worse is that today’s female viewers—old as well as young—are clearly presumed incapable of understanding why a person is portrayed the way they are. How is it that the writers on Mad Men can create monsters of misogyny without being charged with sexism, yet Updike is assumed to be a woman hater for depicting an intensely believable, nuanced American Everyman? Why can Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace be hailed as a work of genius without her being confused or conflated with her fictionalized murderer, while Updike—and indeed Philip Roth and Saul Bellow—are castigated as chauvinist for showing us the unvarnished male?”
Rabbit, as Goring observes, is “not an unfeeling man. In some ways, he is oversensitive. So I’d like to know in what way bowdlerizing Rabbit, and recalibrating the books, helps today’s women? Have we really become so squeamish or snowflake that we cannot bear to see men behaving badly—as they undoubtedly did and still do? And do we honestly think it acceptable to accuse an artist we have never met of being a mirror image of his sometimes deplorable but mesmerizing character?
“Softening the books in any way is insulting and patronizing. The BBC’s editorial team might as well come straight out and say that they think women cannot tell fact from fiction. What a devastating indictment, especially since #MeToo’s credibility relies upon women hoping and needing to be believed. If we are not thought capable of making a fundamental distinction that children learn by the time they are two, why would our accusations against alleged abusers be taken seriously?
“Updike was no self-censorer. He revelled in being explicit and expressing unpalatable truths. To think that his magnificent, rambunctious, thought-provoking, occasionally shocking work is to be sandpapered to make it acceptable for our vanilla times is really rather pathetic. How much better if we were given a version completely true to the original. Davies should stand up to the revisionists who want to rewrite literary history, and give us Rabbit Resists. After all, if we can’t cope with fiction, what hope do we have in real life?”
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