Stop Making Film Adaptations of Philip Roth Novels

As the pieces of the upcoming 'American Pastoral' movie fall into place, Ewan McGregor's casting isn't the only oft-repeated mistake this movie is making. Now seems as good a time as any to remind everyone that Philip Roth novels make for horrible movies.

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As the pieces of the upcoming 'American Pastoral' movie fall into place, Ewan McGregor's casting isn't the only oft-repeated mistake this movie is making. Now seems as good a time as any to remind everyone that Philip Roth novels make for horrible movies.

Today, we learned that Scotsman Ewan McGregor will play the lead Swede Levov, which makes sense because the Swede is blond, American, and Jewish and McGregor is none of those things (acting!). Oddly enough, McGregor even starred in a movie called The Ghost Writer, but it wasn't based on the Roth book of the same title.

So will the distillation of a 400-plus page tragedy about the tumult and failed promises of postwar America make for good movie? Definitely not. And not because McGregor doesn't have the chops either. Adaptations of Roth books have often attracted considerable talent. Consider that Ewan McGregor will join a rarefied list of Roth protagonists that includes Sir Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Human Stain), and Serpico alum Al Pacino (in the forthcoming The Humbling).

No, the reason they fail is because nearly all Roth books are populated by particularly complex figures with ideologies and interiorities that cannot be coaxed out in celluloid. Films may succeed in making the unlikely marriage of realism and postmodern artifice possible as Roth works have done. A scintilla of Roth's wit may squeeze through. But the results are usually horrible.

The Roth characters that drive the books (rather than plot) are impotent shells of themselves onscreen. American Pastoral's Levov is a simple and forbearing character on the page, but he gets swept away by the entirety of the 1960s. There is no aside or montage that could faithfully represent the laborious historical and psychological contexts that Roth devotes pages to developing. American Pastoral will be no different.

Here's the sad history:

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Probably the best adaptation of a Roth book. Few people seemed to see it or remember it. Technically, Goodbye, Columbus should be disqualified because it's based on a novella (in Roth's first book, no less) and hewed closely to it. For its faithfulness, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Moving the setting from New Jersey to the Bronx did the film no spiritual favors, but Richard Benjamin, playing Neil, and Ali McGraw, playing Brenda, did well enough. The smaller characters suffer though.

Portnoy's Complaint (1972)

The book is 274 pages. More than 274 trees could be slaughtered before they'd be enough pages to list what a chintzy, disaster this movie was. Here's a bit of Roger Ebert's review:

Jewishness was at the heart of Roth's novel, but the movie has no heart and little apparent sympathy with its Jewish characters; it replaces Roth's cynical and carefully aimed satire with a bunch of offensive one-liners, and it uses the cover of a best seller to get away with ethnic libels that entirely lose their point out of Roth's specific context."

The Human Stain (2003)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was a treatise on race, self-delusion, and late-1990s political correctness and piety. Critics and audiences alike rightly panned this flailing, discursive homage which, despite being well-acted, actually cast Nicole Kidman as an illiterate janitor in New England.

One telling example: Ed Harris delivers a good performance as Les, Kidman's cartoonishly terrifying, Vietnam-scarred ex-husband. In the book, there's an episode in which Les painfully endures the simple act of eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, trying to holster his rage at anyone resembling a former enemy. It's fifteen pages in the book and a minute on the screen.

Elegy (2008)

Based on Roth's The Dying Animal (another novella so...), this Isabel Coixet-directed effort had the best shot at making something interesting happen. It didn't really. Ben Kingsley (as Professor David Kepesh) lusts after Penelope Cruz (his student), but it only registers as a shopworn Hollywood trope on the screen with a high polish. Also, the ending sucked.

If you read the book, you'd know why Kepesh's son actually hates him. In the movie, Peter Sarsgaard's hatred for his father Kingsley seems millennial arbitrary and distracting.

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All this evidence notwithstanding, if one Roth novel could be ably made into a film, it should be Sabbath's Theater. The story exists enough in a narrow enough frame with a zany enough lead character that something good could be fashioned from it. It's also the one movie that Roth says he would want made. And, according to legend, Roth would want Jack Nicholson to play to arthritic, solipsistic, perverted hero Mickey Sabbath.

Apparently, the feeling is mutual. When asked in 2008 if there was one role Nicholson hadn't played yet, but wanted to, here's what he said:

I keep meaning to re-read Sabbath’s Theater. It’s another Philip Roth book. I read all the Roth I could get my hands on while I was doing About Schmidt. The hardest thing to find, both in literature and scripts, is a sexual component for an older character and I know the guy in this novel has some crazy relationship with a Hungarian woman. The Human Stain [based on another Roth novel], which Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins did, has it also."

It's too bad both men have retired.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.