15 September 2016

Philip Roth: American Pastoral

American Pastoral is obviously a great book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. I decided to read the book when I heard that Ewan McGregor would make his directorial debut with the film adaption of the novel. I had never read any of Philip Roth’s work before, but knew that needed to change. As I mentioned in an earlier review of Chuck Klosterman’s new book, with an extensive body of work and a long list of awards, Philip Roth would be at the top of the hierarchy for American authors.

American Pastoral spends 423 pages reminding us that bad things happen to people for no reason, but we will spend our lifetime searching for a reason. The story is set in the 1960s amongst the Newark riots and the Vietnam war, and focuses on the Levov family. Swede Levov (the Swede) was the shining star of New Jersey’s high school athletics program, and now runs the family glove business. His wife, Dawn Dwyer, is a former Miss New Jersey who now works with cattle on the family’s farm. Their daughter, Mary Levov (soon to be known as the Rimrock Bomber) is bright and blond, but plagued with a stutter. Obsessed with the Vietnam war, Mary bombs a general store / post office to “bring the war to Old Rimrock.” The explosion kills a resident and Mary goes on the run. 

The majority of the book deals with the aftermath of Mary’s actions and the effect it had on her parents. Normally I would avoid talking too much about the movie adaptation in a book review, but in this case I think it is useful. Meagan and I went to TIFF again this year and attended the première of Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of the book. I remember when the trailer was released because Nick Newman of the film stage wrote, “It seems impossible, or maybe just stupid: adapt what is perhaps the most acclaimed novel by perhaps our greatest living novelist as your directorial debut, which you’ll also star in as a character with whom, based on the many and very critical descriptions from said most-acclaimed-novel-by-greatest-living-novelist, you don’t even have the greatest resemblance.” I agreed … but mostly only with the first part.

I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to adapt such a great novel into a film successfully. The mediums are just too different. (Unleash your complete disagreement with me in the comments section below, and give some examples ...) Essentially, I don't think you get everything you can from the book in this movie. This could be the result of a novice director, but I hesitate in suggesting that that is the only reason. I think the closest the movie comes to showing some of the power of the book is in Jennifer Connelly’s performance as Dawn. Her character has a nervous breakdown, and ends up in and out of psychiatric hospitals after the bombing. But even still, the reason she turns to cattle work is completely lost in the movie. TIFF is always an interesting experience because of the Q&A portion. We were lucky that we were at the première and had the entire cast, but honestly the director of the picture is usually all you need. One of my biggest complaints about the movie is that it excludes part of a pivotal scene early on in the book. In the novel Mary asks her father to “kiss me like you kiss mommy.” The Swede mimics her stutter (to his own horror) and tells her no. Mary gets very upset and the Swede feels so bad he ends up kissing her on the lips only to pull away quickly. For the rest of the book the Swede questions whether or not this kiss had anything to do with Mary’s future. The kiss on the lips is removed from the film adaption.
The question I regret not asking is, “why?!” It seems like such an important moment in the book but is not completely played out in the film. You can’t help but think this was excluded because it would make the audience uncomfortable. But I need a better reason than that. Someone in the audience asked if Roth had seen the movie and what did he think of the changes. John Romano, the screenwriter, said that Roth had seen the film and he approved of all the changes. In the end, I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to sound aggressively critical of the movie. I also understand that an adaptation should be treated as a new thing. And I have never been one of those people that demands the movie adaptation be identical to the source material. But you’re not going to understand why this is a Pulitzer Prize winning piece of fiction from the movie … you’re going to have to crack open the book.

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