Plenty of middling books have been turned into great movies. Few would consider The Godfather or Jaws great American novels; few would deny they became great American films. It's grappling with the literary masters that gives filmmakers fits. There are exceptions, of course, but the qualities that make a novel soar — interior voice, an intangible worldview, what have you — differ from the ingredients of movie magic.
And if you're adapting Philip Roth, as Ewan McGregor has done with his directorial debut American Pastoral, you might as well quit before you start. Some minor Roth books have been turned into solid films, including this year's Indignation. But the biggies — Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus, The Human Stain — were dead on arrival. They failed to conjure a cinematic language for Roth's mastery of tone and character.
McGregor had heard about the Roth curse, especially as he's done press for the new film. "I'm hearing it multiple times daily about how difficult it is," he says by phone. "I don't know. I thought his book was just full of detail, and I think that's good. You can't make a movie experience the same as a novel experience. You can't. I mean, it's just two different things."
American Pastoral is no minor Roth. The 1998 Pulitzer winner pops up on all kinds best-books-of-the-century lists. It's one of my favorite novels, a fact that generated two conflicting approaches as I went to see the film. The first: They'd have to really screw this up for me to hate it. The second: The smallest little misstep might send me into a tizzy.
It's a painful story about the American Dream and its discontents. Swede Levov, played in the film by McGregor, is a Jewish hero, a star high school athlete who marries a beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly), runs a successful business in his (and Roth's) native Newark, and dotes over his young daughter, Merry.
But that daughter (Dakota Fanning) resents her family's façade of perfection. She also hates the Vietnam War, and when she bombs the local small-town post office, killing a bystander, she goes into hiding (as so many mad bombers of the '60s and '70s did). Swede never recovers. His life, once a picture postcard, is now a nightmare of shame, obsession and second-guessing.
The novel integrates Swede's private torment with a wider view of crumbling national ideals. It has long been considered unfilmable. None of which particularly bothered McGregor. As a father, he connected to the story of a man and his daughter. As a filmmaker, he salivated over a rich story. He actually came to the story via the screenplay, by John Romano, rather than the novel. When he got to the novel he obsessed over it, listening to the audiobook read by Ron Silver in waking and sleeping hours. "I was just hoping it would sink in," he says.
Did it? Yes and no. The first half of the movie, detailing Swede's blinding optimism amid hints that the best has passed, is nearly perfect. McGregor is excellent as a man led to believe the world is his. But once the anguish kicks in, the movie stumbles. It grows overly literal. That haunting mix of delusion and reality, of personal agony and societal instability, gets diluted.
But I'm still glad it exists, and I'm still glad I saw it. When it works, it works as a movie, much as it later slips as a movie. As for our tendency to desire cinematic bliss from our favorite books-turned-films? That probably won't go away. It's a human failing, which is a subject American Pastoral knows plenty about.