From The Page to the Screen: A Brief History of Philip Roth’s Cinematic Adaptations

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With Ewan McGregor’s cinematic adaptation of Philip Roth’s harrowing novel American Pastoral finally hitting screens late October, Logan Lerman at the helm of Roth’s Indignation next summer, and rumors of Sabbath’s Theater possibly being picked up, the renowned (and retired) Jewish author is experiencing yet another wave of his prolific novels coming to life on the silver screen.

This is nothing new for Roth, his first novella Goodbye, Columbus was adapted for the screen by Arnold Schulman and starred a pre-Love Story Ali MacGraw in her film debut. Freshly plucked from the Barbizon Hotel for Women, MacGraw was cast as the beautiful and wealthy Brenda Patimkin. Goodbye, Columbus earned accolades, however Vincent Canby of the New York Times felt director Larry Peerce reduced supporting characters to “overstuffed, blintz-shaped caricatures”. The film also fell behind in the box office to Mike Nichols’, The Graduate.

Three years later, Roth’s controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint hit cinemas at the peak of the sexual revolution. The novel, which was declared a prohibited import in Australia, deals largely with male masturbation and the Jewish identity. Portnoy’s Complaint was Ernest Lehman’s directing debut, but it did not do well with critics. Roger Ebert lambasted the film, in particular Lee Grant’s performance of Sophie Portnoy, the protagonist’s mother.

In 2003, Nicholas Meyer produced a screenplay adaptation of Roth’s 2000 novel, The Human StainStarring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, and Gary Sinise, the film divided critics. A.O. Scott of the New York Times claimed the film lacked the heart of the novel, while Roger Ebert praised the bravery of the characters and Kidman and Anthony’s portrayals.

My first brush with Philip Roth’s bibliography was when I picked up a copy of his novella, The Dying Animal from a bookstore in Holland, Michigan prior to my sophomore year of college. The novella follows David Kepesh and his love of Consuela Castillo, a former student. In 2008, in what I deem to be a largely underrated and beautifully made film, The Dying Animal hit theaters as Elegy starring Ben Kinglsey, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, and Patricia Clarkson. The brilliant Isabel Coixet directed the film, and under her tutelage Kinglsey, Cruz, and Clarkson give stirring performances that bring Roth’s novella to life.

In 2014, Greta Gerwig starred opposite Al Pacino in an adaptation of his 2009 novel, The Humbling. The film, directed by Barry Levinson, follows an aging actor suffering from bouts of dementia as he pursues an erotic friendship with his friend’s daughter; it was received by critics with mixed reviews.

However, among all these page-to-screen adaptations, the elusive white whale of Roth’s work has been his 1997 novel American Pastoral. The highly anticipated cinematic adaptation marks Australian actor Ewan McGregor’s directing debut. The screenplay was adapted by John Romano, the writer behind such films as Intolerable Cruelty and The Lincoln Lawyer. The trailer, set to yet another cover of Gary Jules’ nihilistic anthem “Mad World”, promises all the carnage and surrealism that abound in the world of Seymour Levov. We can only hope McGregor’s adaptation captures the heart of Roth’s work.

Also in the pipeline, Roth’s 2008 bildungsroman, Indignation starring a sour-faced and rebellious Logan Lerman in the famously plot-twisty campus life novel, aims to bring in a new generation to Philip Roth’s literary universe.

While Philip Roth may be retired, his prolific bibliography can assure us that Hollywood isn’t done with him yet.