Will There Ever Be a Great Philip Roth Movie?

On Film / The Daily — May 24, 2018

For years—no, decades—two major disappointments have pestered admirers of the work of the great American novelist Philip Roth, who died this week at the age of eighty-five. The first is that he was continually passed over for the Nobel Prize for literature. The second is that filmmakers never seemed to be able to successfully adapt his books—perhaps, that is, until now.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, is currently working on an adaptation of Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America as a six-part mini-series. On Tuesday night, Simon tweeted confirmation that he’d met with Roth “just a few months ago” to discuss the project and found the writer “more precise and insightful, more intellectually adept and downright witty than most any person of any age.” Not long after that meeting, Charles McGrath interviewed Roth for the New York Times and noted that “he said he was sure his novel was in good hands.”

The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh is elected President of the United States and launches a program to relocate Jewish families out west, has an undeniable resonance with the current moment. Lindbergh, for example, was a spokesperson for the short-lived America First Committee, an isolationist group founded in 1940 in opposition to the country’s entry into World War II, and of course, at his inauguration, Trump bluntly summed up the M.O. of his presidency with two words: “America First.”

Roth rejected any direct comparison between Lindbergh and Trump, but the echoes are chilling, and The Plot Against America will likely play well on television in 2018 (or 2019). But there’s quite a bit in Roth’s other novels that today’s audiences would find unsettling. At a time when American culture is processing the deep impact of a centuries-old, predominantly white patriarchy and its offshoot, toxic masculinity, Roth—who McGrath calls “the last of the great white men” in his NYT obituary—is not a writer many are eager to turn to, however masterly his prose. One of his great themes was male lust, “which in his books is both a life force and a principle of rage and disorder.”

2016 was a watershed year for assessments of just what it is about Roth’s work that makes it so difficult to bring to the screen. John Romano had written an adaption of one of Roth’s essential novels, American Pastoral from 1997, and the project was eventually given to Ewan McGregor to direct (and you can listen to Romano discuss the challenge he took on in an episode of the Los Angeles Review of Books’ podcast). Reviews were not great. In the Guardian, John Patterson suggested that one of the film’s many problems is that, in general, “writers are anxious not to step on Big Phil’s toes, so they tend—as happens here—to load scads of the author’s exposition into a voiceover, which is then boomingly intoned as if it’s unamendable holy writ.”

James Schamus’s Indignation, also appearing in 2016 and based on the 2008 novel, was more warmly received, but even so, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote that “Schamus cuts or adulterates everything in the novel that’s an audacity of form or a leap of vision.” Talking to Jay A. Fernandez in Signature, Schamus explained why writing the movie was no easy task. Reading Roth, one experiences the frisson of “the gap between an astringent or removed voice that’s narrating on the one hand, and then the actual narrated events of the characters. . . . You don’t have those tools in cinema . . . . I really did have to strip away one of the great identifying markers of what makes Philip Roth Philip Roth.”

The first feature adaptation of Roth’s work, Larry Peerce’s Goodbye, Columbus (1969), was based on the novella that appeared as Roth’s first book in 1959. In the Los Angeles Times, Akiva Gottlieb calls it “a warm, entertaining movie, but it evokes none of the furor caused by the novella.” 

Portnoy’s Complaint, based on the 1969 novel, was written and directed by none other than Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter behind such classics as Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Reviewing the film when it opened in 1972, Roger Ebert wrote: “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 bestseller to get away with ethnic libels that entirely lose their point out of Roth's specific context.”

Decades would pass before the next feature adaptation in 2003. “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,” wrote Michael Joshua Rowin in Brooklyn Magazine. Rowin thought better of Isabel Coixet’s Elegy (2008), suggesting 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 [2001] somber and bitter critique of the male fetishization of female beauty.”

In the New Yorker, Leo Robson has argued that “the best Roth films have been acts of homage, not faithful renderings.” Among the examples he cites are Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2014), “comedies about the pitfalls of the writing life,” and especially the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose references to Roth’s oeuvre have been both covert and overt.

In a 2014 piece for the Atlantic with the straightforward title “Stop Making Film Adaptations of Philip Roth Novels,” Adam Chandler proposed that “if one Roth novel could be ably made into a film, it should be Sabbath’s Theater [1995]. . . . It’s also the one movie that Roth says he would want made.” Roth evidently wanted Jack Nicholson to play Mickey Sabbath, but unless a rumored English-language remake of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann actually sees the light of day, Nicholson has, for all practical purposes, retired.

For the time being, then, our one true hope of seeing the first solid adaptation of a work by Philip Roth lies in the hands of David Simon.

For more on Roth, turn to the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review, which have put together guides to reviews and essays that have appeared in their pages over the years.

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