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Adapting Philip Roth novels for film has been hit or miss

Logan Lerman as Marcus, with Danny Burstein and Linda Emond as Esther in "Indignation."
(Alison Cohen Rosa / Roadside Attractions)

The retired and revered American novelist Philip Roth probably isn’t surprised that his books are so rarely adapted into successful movies. Roth’s novels, which include some of the signature works of 20th century American literature, are full of counter-lives and deceptions, shifting shape many times over from beginning to end and throwing up roadblocks to convenient interpretation.

The movies cannot match their narrative momentum, nor their candor, and brand-name auteurs have seemed reluctant to try.

Undaunted, this year brings two ambitious Roth adaptations to the big screen, each the work of a first-time director. James Schamus’ “Indignation” opened last month to strong reviews — many critics called it the best Roth film adaptation ever — and actor Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” arrives Oct. 21.

Roth’s most challenging novels understand identity as a series of nested Chinese boxes. The stories we tell about ourselves never rest on stable ground. An intensely private person whose books are sometimes designed to resemble confessions, Roth is inordinately interested in the ways we — tragically, farcically — misrepresent and misunderstand one another.

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The epic monologues of Roth’s prickly, narcissistic antiheroes are preoccupied with the mess of male sexual desire, intellectual competition, the aging body and authorial self-reflexivity — none of which makes for the usual dramatic material of Hollywood movies.

Ross Posnock, a professor of the humanities at Columbia and author of the book “Philip Roth’s Rude Truth,” said he finds the earlier Roth films “mirthless” and “flat,” and chalks it up to “a fear of the pungency and richness, the outrage and excess, the over-the-top verbal intoxication” of the novelist’s work. “The films domesticate Roth, tame him.”

Roth’s first two literary successes were adapted into films starring Richard Benjamin as the young Jewish protagonist. The National Book Award-winning “Goodbye, Columbus,” Roth’s satirical 1959 novella about class, cultural assimilation and contraception, was made a decade later into a kind of companion piece to “The Graduate.” It’s a warm, entertaining movie, but it evokes none of the furor caused by the novella on its publication. In treating both urban and country club Jews as comic fodder, the volume was “considered in some circles to be my ‘Mein Kampf’,” Roth once said.

The mostly forgotten 1972 movie adaptation of the iconic “Portnoy’s Complaint” was an unmitigated disaster, rewriting the novel’s rollicking, carnal prose as a series of one-liners. Roth called it “unspeakable,” and Roger Ebert got to the heart of the matter, writing that “when you try to handle bad taste in good taste, you almost always wind up with something truly obscene.”

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After “Portnoy,” it was another three decades before another Roth adaptation made it to screens — though the author did write the screenplay for a long-lost 1984 TV movie adaptation of “The Ghost Writer.”

Robert Benton’s turgid 2003 film adaptation of “The Human Stain” might have been an even greater disappointment than “Portnoy.” Hampered by inexplicable casting — Anthony Hopkins as the light-skinned African American Coleman Silk, Gary Sinise as prolific Jewish author and Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman — the movie manages to whittle down a complex, historically resonant study of identity politics and America’s infatuation with “the fantasy of purity” into a stale, portentous melodrama.

In 2008, Spanish director Isabel Coixet adapted “The Dying Animal,” Roth’s brutally frank novella about mortality and sexual desire, into “Elegy,” a May-December romance starring Ben Kingsley as a professor who coolly seduces then obsesses over his student Penélope Cruz. The idea of a female filmmaker grappling with the pitiless self-interrogation of a compulsive misogynist sounded promising. But though Coixet is attentive to the details of Upper West Side intellectual life, her tasteful film never attempts to find a visual corollary for the book’s sordid, unruly impulses.

Though hardly a success, director Barry Levinson’s unlikely 2014 film of Roth’s late short novel “The Humbling” (which received some of the roughest reviews of the author’s career) at least gets its hands dirty. Shepherded to the screen by its star Al Pacino, it follows an aging Shakespearean actor’s emotional crack-up over the loss of his gifts, and his erotic reawakening in a Connecticut country house. The requisite May-December relationship joins Pacino with Greta Gerwig, and while they lack chemistry, the clash of performance styles generates a strange and not entirely unwelcome friction. The movie’s jittery humor never really transcends its masculinist pomp. Still, like its protagonist who takes a literal swan dive off the stage, it comes by its failures honestly.

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Young filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, whose acerbic, pitch-black comedy “Listen Up Philip” is openly indebted to Roth, has read enough Roth novels to understand the fool’s errand of adapting his work: “Part of what makes Roth’s work resistant to smooth cinematic translations is simply the overwhelmingly literary nature of the novels, which is to say, the sense that the writing and the tone and the spirit of his work is for the page and belongs on the page.”

So it’s a welcome surprise that Schamus’ “Indignation” works so well as a movie. Roth’s 2008 novel is especially well-suited to adaptation; the characters are psychologically legible, and the story, set at a small Midwestern university during the Korean War, moves in a straight line. Roth reveals the novel’s one major metaphysical wrinkle — that it is being narrated by its protagonist from beyond the grave — halfway through the text, while Schamus makes this information available to viewers at the outset. Otherwise, the film sticks close to the source text, preserving its ambiguities, and Schamus creates a slightly suffocating atmosphere that richly serves the material.

The upcoming “American Pastoral” could provide an even more difficult challenge. Widely considered one of Roth’s masterworks, “American Pastoral” is set on a broad sweeping canvas with more sweeping political and social meaning.

For Roth aficionados, it might be more pleasant to daydream about all the unrealized or half-imagined adaptations. In 2008, Jack Nicholson mentioned wanting to play the shameless, incomparably lusty Mickey Sabbath of “Sabbath’s Theater,” “because the hardest thing to find…is a sexual component for an older character.” And the great French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, whose overstuffed intellectual epics share some of Roth’s DNA, described a current writing project as a riff on a character from “Sabbath’s Theater.”

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But the director also knows not to overstep. Responding to a rumor that he was considering an adaptation of Roth’s impossibly knotty masterpiece “The Counterlife,” Desplechin sounded incredulous: “ ‘The Counterlife’? ‘The Counterlife’! How can … the first chapters of ‘The Counterlife,’ it belongs to literature. It’s impossible to put that on-screen.”

calendar@latimes.com


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