The Triumphs and Follies of Adapting Philip Roth (A History)

roth-americanpastoral Some filmgoers argue over the historical accuracy and political efficacy of hot button movies like The Birth of a Nation. Most people argue over the canonic legitimacy and money’s-worthiness of pre-ordained blockbusters like Suicide Squad. I argue with myself over the adaptation of Philip Roth to the big screen.

Look: I’m a Tri-State Area Jew weaned on Allan Sherman and Saul Bellow. While I can’t say the work of Roth—who, though retired from writing, remains one of the greatest American authors of the past half-century—is absolute gospel, it nonetheless still personally resonates with me. It should also, I believe, resonate universally for its wry and unfiltered humor, its precise observations on sex and love, playful inversions of fictionalized autobiography, and sweeping overview of American history and, at times, global politics. Given, then, that younger generations may encounter Roth for the first time through the cinema, his writing should translate in visual terms all these themes and well as the writer’s artistic, linguistic sensibility.

This past weekend saw the release of American Pastoral, an adaptation of one of Roth’s most ambitious, challenging, and troubling novels. Its story concerns a former Jewish athletic superstar, Seymour Levov, aka the Swede, whose life—and whose understanding of life—is upended when his stuttering, radicalized teenage daughter Merry bombs a local store and accidentally kills a man in protest against the Vietnam War. Production of the film version was stalled for more than a decade, with John Romano’s script passing through several directorial hands until finally Ewan McGregor got behind the camera in addition to taking on the movie’s starring role.

Romano and McGregor’s American Pastoral is not only bad, but also problematic, and I’ll explain why in short order. First a round-up of six previous Roth adaptations, each of them providing lessons in how and how not to transform literature into cinema.

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Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Goodbye, Columbus initiated the adaptation of Philip Roth for the screen with modest success. The source material was ripe for the picking: Portnoy’s Complaint had become a literary sensation only a few months prior to Columbus’s 1969 release, but beyond that coincidence Roth’s debut novella offered a compact tale of young love ruined by passive-aggressive class conflict that didn’t need major surgery to survive the move to celluloid. Richard Benjamin makes for a satisfyingly sarcastic and wary Neil Klugman, while Ali McGraw is perfect as the spoiled, manipulative Brenda Patimkin, and when director Larry Peerce gets out of their way Columbus stands toe-to-toe with the defining screwed-up romance of its era, The Graduate. But when Peerce (whose credits also include a 1979 film adaptation of The Bell Jar) attempts to infuse Columbus with various New Hollywood gimmicks (haphazard zooms, slapped together montage sequences, peekaboo nudity, an ill-fitting psychedelia-lite soundtrack)… let’s just say that the film is, in places, more than slightly dated. Whereas Mike Nichols peppered The Graduate with unconventional compositions and camera angles for narratively strategic effect, Peerce jazzes up an as-yet unjazzy-Roth for no particular reason save fashionableness. In one inoffensive divergence from the novella, Brenda astonishes Neil by skinny-dipping in a pool adjacent to an outdoor party. Her hesitating movements amidst the nighttime silence need little in the way of stylistic adornment, but, unable to resist the prevailing trends of the time, Peerce adds soft focus slo-mo and a swelling orchestral score.

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Portnoy’s Complaint (1972)

Columbus almost achieves greatness: all things considered, the film’s strengths (abetted by seasoned novel-adapter Arnold Schulman’s largely faithful script) outweigh its flaws. The same cannot be said of the film version of Portnoy’s Complaint. A literary non-starter for adaptation, Roth’s Complaint is a book-long rant by the titular hero as he lies on his therapist’s couch, verbally spewing a lifetime’s worth of sexual neuroses, frustrations, desires, and disappointments. The character’s voice—punning, associative, digressive, hyperbolic, self-deprecating, exclamatory, lascivious—is the story. I’m not sure how Complaint would successfully translate to the screen, but any approach should oppose that of Ernest Lehman, writer/director of the inept 1972 film version.

Lehman was an extremely talented screenwriter, his credits including some out-and-out classics: The Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But Complaint was his first time in the director’s chair, and it shows. Alexander Portnoy’s remembrances of self-abuse while growing up in a frantic lower-middle class Jewish household (leaving the dinner table to masturbate in the bathroom, for instance) occasion some seriously woeful comic timing, the awkwardness amplified by Lehman’s odd decision to have Richard Benjamin (then age 34) play a teenager. Poor Benjamin: he’s serviceable if unremarkable in Columbus, but for the second time playing a Roth protagonist he’s completely miscast, lacking any of Portnoy’s barely restrained wildness. Perhaps nothing could have saved this film: when Lehman uses long takes to focus attention on Roth’s language—e.g., adult Alexander reciting a post-coitus monologue on onanism—the outcome is flat, stagey cinema. Yet when he dramatizes into conventional film scenes action that Roth filters through Portnoy’s unique patois, the result is sitcom-level mediocrity. Roth’s Portnoy is funny, weird, outsized literature; Lehman’s Portnoy is at best just another movie.

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Interlude (1973-2002)

Portnoy’s Complaint bombed just as Woody Allen’s career as writer-director-actor took off. Allen virtually cornered the market on movie representations of sexually hung-up and emotionally pretzeled Jews, and perhaps for this reason no adaptations of Roth—Allen has appropriated but never adapted anybody else’s work—appeared until The Human Stain in 2003. (The lone exception is PBS’s American Playhouse 1984 version of The Ghost Writer, adapted by Roth himself and starring Claire Bloom, Roth’s future ex-wife and nemesis. The American Playhouse  “Ghost Writer” is currently unavailable for viewing in any form.) By that time Roth had undergone significant changes as a writer. Though he never claimed to specialize in depictions of Jewish life (When She Was Good, his sophomore novel, contains no Semites), Roth nevertheless spent three post-Portnoy decades expanding his thematic and stylistic universe while remaining true to his cultural roots, venturing into Swiftian satire (Nixon takedown Our Gang), autocritique (the “Zuckerman Bound” quartet), and even postmodern experimentation (My Life As a Man, The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, all masterful). In the 90s Roth really swung for the fences, supersizing his id in Sabbath’s Theater and then tackling the history of 20th Century American sexual, racial, social, and cultural politics in a trilogy of critically heralded novels: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain.

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The Human Stain (2003) and Elegy (2008)

In short, by the early 2000s Roth had become—despite a controversial literary rep and personal life—a Major American Writer. No surprise, then, that the film versions of The Human Stain and The Dying Animal (the latter retitled Elegy for the screen) tackle Serious Roth, Important Roth. What is surprising is that both films were adapted by the same screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, and that one adaptation works while the other does not. Directed by Robert Benton, The Human Stain contains all the downsides of a Hollywood product reshaping a complex, labyrinthine novel into a generic three-act narrative: backstories are monologued, subtleties are melodramatized. (This was the first Roth adaptation with a superstar cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris. The Human Stain contains a lot of ACTING.) In the process Meyer cedes the power of Roth’s story about Coleman Silk (Hopkins, whose casting in the role was widely and probably rightly criticized), an African-American professor who must confront the secret of passing for Caucasian, to the isolated muted performance of (the actually multiracial) Wentworth Miller as the young Silk. Meyer also drains the humor and strangeness from The Human Stain—if you didn’t know the source material you would never suspect it was written by Roth. But he avoids these mistakes in Elegy, based on a short novel and thus more easily adaptable to the cinema. I wrote about Elegy at length for Reverse Shot upon its 2008 release, but suffice it to say here that beyond a tacked-on feel-better (if not feel-good) ending that Roth would never pen in a million years, the film honors The Dying Animal’s somber and bitter critique of the male fetishization of female beauty. It patiently stays with scenes both tender (Patricia Clarkson’s attempt to reach womanizer Ben Kingsley across the common ground of mortality) and uncomfortable (fellow womanizer Dennis Hopper’s last-gasp death-bed kiss with Kingsley) by trusting the strength of the source material as well as its actors’ subtle instincts. Perhaps Spanish director Isabel Coixet was the X-factor?

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The Humbling (2014)

It’s possible that those wishing to adapt Roth took note of Elegy and realized the author could be best done justice by taking on his shorter works. Enter The Humbling, the most adventurous Roth adaptation precisely because the sparse source material proves amenable to extensive reimagining. In the first place, director Barry Levinson and screenwriters Buck Henry and Michael Zebede transform a fairly straightforward narrative into a Repulsion– or Persona-style psychodrama in which the protagonist increasingly confuses fantasy and reality. Second, they take one of Roth’s stark, bleak late novellas (from the “Nemeses” quartet) and render it a tragicomedy. The first strategy works by amplifying the novella’s scrutiny of its protagonist’s crisis of artistic performance, aging, and masculinity into a case of self-absorbed martyrdom. By exaggerating the age difference between Al Pacino’s Simon Axler and Greta Gerwig’s Pegeen Mike, and by deepening Axler’s conflation of romance with paternal longing (as well as emphasizing his substitution of playacting for authenticity), the filmmakers turn what might have been another doomed May-December romance into a self-aware tragedy of male egomania and misperception. But the second strategy fails because the script just isn’t funny: jokes center around a wounded cat, a medically doped-up Pacino, and, worst of all, a homicidal psychiatric patient whose desire to murder the husband who molested her child is played for broad laughs instead of menace. Perhaps such feeble humor was meant to further deflate Roth’s atypical self-seriousness in The Humbling, but it also mitigates the poignancy of Axler’s breakdown by cheaply jabbing at an old man whose slipping grasp deserves greater empathy, if not reverence.

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Indignation (2016)

Indignation would seem to offer prospective adapters a better opportunity to capture the lighter side of Roth—the novella features the funniest material of the “Nemeses” quartet even though it ends just as brutally as the other three books. All of which makes James Schamus’ film version especially disappointing. While it retains the humorous dialogue of late Roth—particularly in a riotously Kafkaesque philosophical debate between freshman Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts)—Schamus’ Indignation plays it totally safe in visually and dramatically portraying the stifling Korean War-era atmosphere of a fictional Midwest college. Schamus is best known as the producer of boundary-pushing films by Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, and Ang Lee; Indignation, however, is his feature-length debut as a director, and the film’s blandness as a film speaks to possible first-time jitters, to the fear of losing Roth at the expense of cinematic expression. Contrast such pussyfooting with the approach of Levinson, whose visual and dramatic gambits in The Humbling (a toy train that snakes through Axler’s New England country house, lighting schemes that noirishly depict Axler’s dual nature, hallucination sequences that raise the drama to the level of Greek myth) may not always work but nevertheless convey the firm grasp of an on-set veteran.

Indignation also contains an egregious punt. The Human Stain fails despite having the easiest job of all existing Roth adaptations of condensing narrative information, wisely dropping the novel’s silly plot thread involving an academic rival of Silk and her pathetic attempts to exact revenge on him. Indignation, on the other hand, jettisons an episode that is absolutely vital to the novella’s thematic and emotional core. In Roth’s novella the hero’s downfall at the hands of institutional puritanism is paralleled by a “panty-raid” at Winesburg College in which the male student population expresses its repressed sexual energy in comically juvenile and yet also frighteningly aggressive terms. This never materializes in the film, which ends abruptly. Without Roth’s climactic symbolic violence, Indignation fails to provide a counterpoint to Marcus’ futile attempts to circumvent absurd and benignly disguised authoritarianism.

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American Pastoral (2016)

Which brings us back to American Pastoral. What to keep and what to excise from one of Roth’s greatest achievements, a sprawling novel that traverses post-WWII American history, especially the calamities of the Vietnam era, through the haunted consciousness of a small town hero turned failed paterfamilias? Let’s start at the end, where the film reduces the novel’s concluding, approximately 150-page set-piece—a Watergate-era barbeque amongst hypocritical bourgeoisie—to a couple of minutes. Giving Romano and McGregor the benefit of the doubt, I imagine they wished to translate to the screen one of the most virtuosic displays of writing in Roth’s entire oeuvre (in which the writer threads the protagonist’s thoughts, memories, and imaginings through the complex narrative action) and were either told by producers to keep to a sensible runtime or else realized themselves that the scene would have to be truncated for the purposes of conventional streamlining.

Yes, Romano and McGregor can also be commended for the original material they retained. Case in point is the bizarre and disturbing scene in which the Swede is invited to a hotel room by Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), a young militant who appears to possess information of Merry’s (Dakota Fanning) post-bombing whereabouts. Rita simultaneously seduces and mocks the Swede, offering herself to him in the most ostentatious manner possible. She concludes her advances by tasting her own vaginal juices while saying “You know what it tastes like? Want me to tell you? It tastes like your d-d-d-daughter.” It’s an extremely uncomfortable moment, and McGregor does well to rhyme it with earlier scenes conveying a barely pubescent Merry’s Elektra-fixation on her father. Indeed, the film, like the book, invites a reading of the unresolved Freudian dynamics of the American nuclear family as the cause of its dysfunction. (The book actually goes farther than the film in having the Swede briefly reciprocate young Merry’s plea for a kiss. He then later wonders if all the hell his daughter unleashed thereafter was due to this original sin.)

The problem with McGregor’s rendering of this scene, however, is that it presented as really having happened. In Roth’s novel everything past page 88 (hardcover edition) is presented as the imagining of the Swede’s life by Nathan Zuckerman, a thinly veiled fictional stand-in for Roth who challenges his own initial assumptions about others with a fantastical “counterlife” that throws into relief the subterranean emotional and psychological currents governing people’s inexplicable actions. The only factual information Zuckerman (and therefore the reader) learns about the Swede’s post-collegiate existence comes from Jerry Levov, a character presented as jealous and anti-social in his early years in response to his older brother’s preternatural successes and then as an angry, arrogant, cynical grown man who is absolutely certain of the reasons for his sibling’s undoing (acquiescence, complacency, naiveté—“Your kid blows your norms to kingdom come, Seymour, and you still think you know what life is!”). Roth never provides an understanding of the Swede and the tragedy that befell his family that is not filtered through another character’s perspective, thereby embedding into the very structure of American Pastoral the theme that “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Most wrong of all, of course, is the Swede—not in terms of people’s misperceptions of him, but in terms of his continual inability to grasp reality. As interpreted by Zuckerman, the Swede firmly believes that propriety and subservience to the American Dream (athletic heroics, patriotism, filial duty, beautiful wife, financial wealth, liberal politics, moderate morals, a bucolic small town sanctuary) automatically lead to happiness and order despite all of the contradicting evidence provided by his daughter’s destructive activities. After five years pass after Merry’s post-bombing disappearance, the Swede is given one last chance to confront reality as it is and adjust accordingly. Out of the blue Rita sends a letter with Merry’s address (the film has the Swede run into Rita through a preposterous coincidence), which happens to be near the Swede’s glove factory in a bombed out section of Newark, a city gone to hell after the 1967 race riots.

When the Swede reunites with Merry he is shocked at what she has become: having renounced all forms of violence as a converted Jain, Merry lives as an emaciated wreck in a cesspool of an apartment. Merry’s current existence—as well as the journey to it, which involved twice being raped and three more times killing people with bombs—is so inconceivable that Roth suggests Merry’s reemergence as more apparitional than real. Merry insists that she has no knowledge of Rita Cohen and that the Swede found her “because you have been looking. I never expected not to be found by you. You sought me out because you must seek me.” But if Merry symbolizes the return of the repressed—just when the Levovs were moving on with their lives, as represented by wife Dawn’s new plastic surgery-enhanced face—the Swede nonetheless cannot abide it. In a grotesque scene that inverts the graphic temptations of Rita’s seduction, the Swede throws up on Merry after he smells her fetid breath while performing a close-up examination to determine if she really is his daughter. “Who are you?” he vomits into her face. A decaying city, room, and daughter: faced with the obverse of the pastoral he has tried throughout his life to foster, the Swede cannot accept the ghoul he sees before him and blots it out with a self-imposed exorcism borne of visceral revulsion. None of this occurs in American Pastoral the film, which presents its story, and therefore the motivations of its characters, as entirely unambiguous in content and origin. It makes no attempt to replicate or even approximate the novel’s self-reflexive meditation on mythmaking and storytelling, nor its phantasmagoric blurring of reality and delusion, idyll and nightmare.

Author, Philip Roth, revisiting areas where he grew up in Newark, standing at hamburger stand.  (Photo by Bob Peterson//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Finally, beyond minimizing Roth’s meticulous examinations of post-WWII Jewish intermarriage and assimilation, post-industrial capitalism, white flight, and bourgeois malaise, American Pastoral the film holds up the Swede as a pillar of paternal devotion all the way up to a ludicrously mawkish final funeral scene. (The Swede’s affair with Merry’s speech therapist is completely erased from the movie—only Dawn has an affair, as if to further martyr the protagonist.) While Roth at times also depicts his hero as noble, more frequently he illuminates the factors (pride, delusion, fear) that inform the Swede’s fateful decisions to err on the side of reticence and resignation. This is one of the great Rothian themes—the thin line between self-mastery and self-repression on one hand and self-expression and self-indulgence on the other. But McGregor’s Swede has no interior world—no self-doubts, no boiling anger, no sense of outrage and shame and bewilderment—to hide behind the veneer of rectitude and ordinariness since the film has no interior worlds to reveal itself. The film, in short, fails to give the Swede a voice.

If I’ve gone on at length about an artistic failure others will most likely chalk up to a simple case of “Not As Good As the Book,” it’s because after rereading American Pastoral for the first time in more than a decade I find it just as relevant as ever to issues concerning Americans’ conflicting and possibly irreconcilable ideas of ethical virtue, ethnic identity, and political responsibility. For once a work of art earned the right to an “American ___________” title, usually the telltale moniker of a glorified and pretentious “State of the Union” address (American Beauty, American Hustle, American Sniper, American Honey, etc.). In this sense Romano and McGregor’s reduction of American Pastoral to a bland “death of the American dream” fable is a damn shame. Whatever poignancy the film possesses resides strictly in the past—Hollywood’s newsreel-montaged, Buffalo Springfield-scored Sixties—rather than the present. Nothing would have been better cinematic tonic in the weeks leading up to the most macabre presidential election in American history than a movie exploring in exciting and exacting cinematic form, as Roth famously put it at the beginning of Pastoral, “the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—the indigenous American berserk.” Instead we got, once again, just another movie.

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