Philip Roth’s 2004 dystopian alternate-history novel, “The Plot Against America,” has become an HBO miniseries, created by “The Corner,” “The Wire” and “Generation Kill” collaborators David Simon and Ed Burns. Like Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 “It Can’t Happen Here,” whose title Roth quotes, and the series quotes in turn, it’s a speculative tale of creeping American fascism in the run-up to World War II — which is to say, tailor-made for 2020.
The novel, which takes the form of a historical memoir — its central character is Philip Roth of Weequahic, a neighborhood in Newark, N.J., the writer’s own hometown — imagines a world in which the aviator Charles Lindbergh, put forward as an antiwar candidate by Republicans, is elected president over incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Lindbergh, like his friend Henry Ford (who becomes his secretary of the Interior here), was historically anti-Semitic — Roth supplies Lindbergh’s own writing in an appendix as proof — and at the very least tolerant of Hitler and warm to his views on race.
The desire to put it on screen is understandable. (Simon’s politics are easy to read, if you follow him on Twitter, and it’s difficult not to read this as a memo to Trump.) In so many ways — the surprisingly rapid erosion of social norms and contracts, xenophobic isolationism, political-celebrity cult worship — the material is a remarkable fit for the current political climate.
At one point, the broadcaster Walter Winchell, a character in the novel and the series, asks, “How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching underneath the sign of the cross and the flag?” You could tweet that any day of the week and it wouldn’t feel anachronistic at all. And in a line that seems particularly apt to this coronaviral moment, Roth describes Lindbergh, facing an emergency, as “a chief executive and commander in chief who hadn’t yet bothered to acknowledge that anything like a state of emergency existed.”
Still, it’s not an easy book to adapt, and Simon and Burns have not had an easy time of it.
As is not unusual, the screen version, which premieres Monday, both streamlines and expands upon the novel, creating scenes from sentences, dialogue from narration, in order to turn a structurally complex literary work into a conventional, chronological drama. Azhy Robertson plays young Philip, living an all-American dream in a suburban Jewish neighborhood with brother Sandy (Caleb Malis), an art prodigy; mother Bess (Zoe Kazan), a figure of reason and comfort, and later worry and (righteous) anger; and father Herman (Morgan Spector), an insurance salesman on the way up. (Their name has been changed from Roth, at Roth’s own request to Simon and Burns.) After Lindbergh’s election, things begin to change, subtly at first, with an Office of American Absorption and a program called Just Folks that sends “city boys” — Jewish ones — to the country to learn the ways of the Gentiles. It will get worse.
Factoring out the speculative aspects of the story, one is left with a moderately diverting drama of a family under pressure, arguing about whether what looks like trouble is really trouble. (It really is.) David Krumholtz plays self-interested, successful Uncle Morty (“He knows everything,” says Philip’s father, adding, “too bad he doesn’t know everything else”). Winona Ryder is Philip’s unmarried aunt, who falls in with John Turturro’s misguided and ambitious Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a Lindbergh courtier.
The series’ one (mostly) invented storyline belongs to Alvin (Anthony Boyle), Philip’s older cousin and something of a black sheep — if a complicated one. As the story’s avatar of unattached virility, we follow him into wartime exploits and an occasional (modest) sex scene Roth never wrote, as well as ... let’s call it an “operation” meant to explain something the book leaves a mystery; it plays as almost laughably pat. Additionally, Simon and Burns give us a more ambiguous ending than Roth’s, suggesting, as Frank Sinatra sings “The House I Live In” (“The children in the playground, the faces that I see/All races and religions, that’s America to me”) that enfranchisement is fragile, and fascism ever just a match away.
The performers are palpably committed, though, interestingly, the women and children fare better than the men, who are given to bursts of anger that make the production feel theatrical — all the more so because of the accents and period posturing. (On the other hand, Turturro seems so intent on finding the reasonable person in his collaborating rabbi that he barely registers at all.) Kazan does lovely work, and the kids are all very good, including Jacob Laval as Seldon, the strange child downstairs, and Graydon Yosowitz as Earl, Philip’s fellow stamp collector and mild bad influence. And I am always happy to see Ryder at work.
Although the production is fairly naturalistic — kudos to the production designer, location scouts, auto wranglers, hair stylists and costumers — “The Plot Against America” does have the air of fiction, a TV series with one foot planted in melodrama. (It’s surprising; Simon productions typically feel pretty authentic.) Much of what makes the book affecting is, on the one hand, the poetry of Roth’s prose, rendered in the adult voice of his young protagonist, and, on the other, the dispassionate historical context, real and imagined: Action comes in context, with ideas attached. Spoken aloud, and loudly, Roth’s (and Simon’s and Burns’) political points can come across a little too explicitly, obviously, heavily. Perhaps it’s just dystopia fatigue — we have seen so many dark alternate histories by now — but what is disturbing on the page becomes less so given life on the screen.
Nevertheless, as the Holocaust and the Second World War fade out of living memory, “The Plot Against America” is something to be grateful for. It’s good to be reminded — even through the campy, compromised form of Amazon’s recent “Hunters” — that Nazis are bad and that millions of Jews (and yes, not just Jews) were murdered in a genocide a certain portion of the modern world is pleased to consider, what’s the term, fake news. One seemingly incredible scene, set at Madison Square Garden, in fact re-creates almost exactly a 1939 rally by the German American Bund, a Nazi organization whose goal was a “white, Gentile-ruled United States … free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”
“They’ve always been here,” one character here says of these American anti-Semites, “but now they have permission to crawl out from under the rocks.” Would that those words sounded less familiar.
‘The Plot Against America’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)