Philip Roth is among the greatest living American novelists, but the power of his books rarely survives the transition to the big screen. Film seems to flatten out or trivialize the thorny humanity just below the surface of Roth's characters and their words. The biggest of his novels to become movies, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint and The Human Stain, feel overly literal and tone deaf.
We'll have to wait until October to see how the great American Pastoral fares in the hands of director-star Ewan McGregor. In the meantime try the satisfying aperitif of Indignation. Roth's 2008 novel, cranked out during his remarkable run of late-career productivity, doesn't reside on his top shelf. But its modest scope is sharply molded by writer-director James Schamus, while its young star, Logan Lerman, seethes with the ill-fated passion of a young Roth hero.
Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a good if rather serious kid from Roth's stomping ground of Newark. The year is 1951, and Marcus and his friends keep one eye warily on the Korean War as they consider their future. The term "helicopter parent" wasn't around back then, but Marcus' dad (Danny Burstein) would more than qualify. Eager to escape, Marcus decamps for a small liberal arts college in Ohio.
That's where Indignation becomes an adroit character study worthy of Roth's gifts, guided as much by depth of themes - shame, identity, repression and displacement - as by narrative momentum. Roth, of course, can tell a story with the best of them. But it's what lies beneath and in between the lines that sets him apart. Indignation captures this subliminal, almost unknowable quality with more assurance than any Roth adaptation I've seen.
Once he arrives at Winesburg College, Marcus wastes no time butting heads with his roommates, among the only other Jews on campus, and with the blue blood dean of boys (played by the Pulitzer-winning Oklahoma playwright Tracy Letts). He also falls for a damaged blond beauty, played by Sarah Gadon, whose sexual advances send the sheltered Jersey boy into a sort of existential crisis.
Indignation is one of those films that creates the impression of little happening, when in fact Schamus, and Roth, are pulling levers of life-and-death importance. The character details are rich and complex. Marcus, for instance, resents the college's mandatory chapel attendance not because he's Jewish, but because he's an atheist. Schamus also takes the finality of the short novel and makes it even more devastating with an elegant visual flourish.
While well regarded, Indignation doesn't stand as one of Roth's defining novels. This works in the film's favor. Schamus has nipped, tucked and built upon a bold literary sketch, and emerged with a tightly told and deeply personal film. Soon we'll see if American Pastoral, a Great American Novel in every sense, can create its own movie magic. For now, Indignation has raised the bar on Roth adaptations.