John Updike likes things on the surface. Though he knows how to build fiction in layers -- as in his novel ''The Centaur,'' for example -- he often works right in the open, wielding his tricks and ploys as visibly as his grammar and ideas. His stories are like transparent watches: no matter how complicated, you can see the works ticking away right before your eyes.
This is especially so in his tales about the Maples, a married couple as ordinary as their name, whose marriage dissolves slowly and without fuss over the course of about 250 pages. They are basically nice people, who can't understand why they exasperate each other so. Most of the stories are also nice, or at least gentle, reflecting the inner decency of the main characters while frankly chronicling their failings.
The movie version of the Maple stories, Too Far to Go, was first shown on television. It flopped, apparently because competition was too stiff on the other channels. But it caught the fancy of Francis Coppola, who is now distributing it to theaters.
Directed by Fielder Cook, it's a good-hearted film that reflects the straightforward intelligence of the original tales, as well as the muddled dignity of the main characters. True, it lacks the best Updike touches when it reproduces a superior story like the last in the series, ironically titled ''Here Come the Maples.'' Yet the emotional underpinnings of that particular yarn come through with impressive power in the last minutes of the picture.
Updike's fiction got off to a poor start in the movies, with the messy adaptation of his breathless ''Rabbit, Run'' several years ago. ''Too Far to Go'' marks a turn in a much better direction.