The other night, a kind friend of mine was good enough to invite me over for a screening of the The Swimmer, the 1968 film adaptation of John Cheever’s short story of the same name. It stars Burt Lancaster, using his iconic screen image to great advantage. I suppose it’s hard to imagine today, but it must have been quite shocking for an audience who grew up watching the youthful, handsome Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, Trapeze and The Rainmaker (just to name a few) to see him suddenly exposed as an aging, hollow phoney. The film has a few weak spots (notably a slow motion scene that seems to be a stand-in for a sexual encounter), and while it adds a few subplots to the original story it certainly manages to convey the essence and feel of the original. Each scene or house that Lancaster encounters has it’s own distinct quality and, except for Julie Ann (a character added for the film), is separate from the others. The film blends realism and surrealism in much the same way as the short story does, leaving the audience feeling unbalanced and not quite sure what happened, yet still quite able to make sense of it. I think perhaps the most difficult thing about the film for an audience is that none of the characters are likeable. Even our hero seems a shallow cad and heel and while that can work in a short story, I think it’s tougher to get away with that in a film.
“The Swimmer” has been referred to as one of the greatest and most complete short stories ever written (I might give that honor to “Sonny’s Blues,” but then I go back and forth over things like that) and if you haven’t read it you can do so here. Cheever’s story make wonderful use of time, light and nature as metaphors for the main character’s descent. It seems to take place in one afternoon, but then again, perhaps it’s the entire adult life of the main character, Neddy Merrill. He starts out youthful and promising and in the end, much like his home, he is empty, abandoned and neglected.
I’ve also seen Cheever’s story compared to The Odyssey with Neddy Merrill’s journey home viewed along the same line as Odysseus’s journey. It’s an interesting take, but I see too many thematic differences in those works to compare them in that way. Odysseus learns from his journey and returns to restore his household and recognize his wife as something of his equal. Neddy does no such thing; in fact, it’s his refusal to face what he sees along his journey that adds to his downfall.
Read the story and, if you can track down a copy, watch the movie. It’s not perfect, but it’s a thoughtful, caring adaptation of Cheever’s story. Every author should be so lucky. And, don’t forget, watch for Cheever in a cameo!