I do not have a strong stance on movie adaptations of books. I feel like people expect me to, with my background in literature, but I don’t. Faithfulness to source material is relatively unimportant to me because I think different mediums call for different storytelling techniques. Still, what is the point of bringing a book to the screen if you fail to capture its essence, the heart of the work that makes it resonant in the first place?
When the reviews from TIFF for American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut started coming back mostly negative, I finally reached for my untouched copy of Philip Roth’s “masterpiece,” which a friend had recommended to me years ago. If I was going to experience this story, I wanted the source material–a Pulitzer prize winner, one of Time‘s “All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels,” perhaps Philip Roth’s most beloved work–free of the (possibly bad) interpretation of a novice film director.
Roth’s books are notorious for being hard to adapt, with their “boxes-within-boxes structure, their dense thickets of ideas, their soaring wordiness”, and once I had finished reading American Pastoral, I could see many obstacles in McGregor’s way that could easily have stumped even a seasoned director. Most of the novel is conveyed through an omniscient view of its main character’s, Seymour “The Swede” Levov (played by McGregor), inner monologue; elements of the story are brought together piecemeal and out of order, Swede dwelling on certain past moments repeatedly and reflecting inwardly on how these events look to the outsider. The novel’s main story is contained within a framing narrative and (in my opinion) could possibly be interpreted as the imaginings–in hindsight–of Swede Levov’s brother’s high school friend, now a writer.
Roth’s American Pastoral is about a man who has lived his entire life making choices based on what he thinks is the right thing to do. As a teenager, he can do no wrong, becoming a symbol of resilience for a community plagued by the consequences of war. As an adult, he continues to shoulder this burden, effortlessly making the best of whatever life hands him, believing that doing otherwise would be letting those around him down. His whole life revolves around personifying the American dream.
When tragedy befalls his family, the Swede works even harder to maintain a veneer of calm and perfection. The fact that Nathan Zuckerman, the writer in the novel’s framing device (played by David Strathairn in the film), has so fully bought into the image of the Swede as hero shows his efforts are not in vain, but a tortured inner life accompanies Seymour Levov’s surface serenity. Inside is a man who is desperately questioning how the world works and whether there is any purpose or meaning in it if even the most conscientious man can suffer as he does. Roth cuts to the heart of the 20th Century American consciousness and shows that there might simply just be emptiness and despair within. If that sounds heavy, it is, and I don’t expect any film to be able to dissect such a theme as thoroughly as Roth’s relentless, labyrinthine prose.
Still, when I saw the trailer for the film version of the book, I felt I had reason to hope. I usually avoid trailers if I can help it (although I’m certainly not having much luck with La La Land, it’s everywhere), but as I was already reading the book I was not so concerned about spoilers. I was incredibly moved by the American Pastoral trailer. I wish I could give credit to the editor.
The trailer opens with a bomb going off in the local post office. Already, the trailer understands what the film does not: the fatal explosion at the heart of the Swede’s community is not the climactic moment of the story, to be relegated to three quarters of the way through the film; it is a catalyst, the beginning of an honest examination of Seymour Levov, of the American psyche.
The trailer lingers on idyllic images of American countryside. We see a father whose daughter is everything to him, a daughter who grows into someone he can’t understand, on the other side of a generational abyss. The image of a self-immolating monk serves as a stand in for the entire Vietnam war, just as it serves as the germinating seed of dissent in Merry Levov (played by Dakota Fanning). As the trailer progresses, the audience gets only quick glances of various moments, the unraveling of a life, a man trying to grasp where it all went wrong. These quick glances imply a complex inner life, connect disparate moments together like the mind does when it remembers. By the end of the trailer, I feel as though I know all there is to know. I wish this short film was all there was.
With a melodic cover of Mad World adding a layer of meaning, the trailer does in 2 minutes what the film ultimately fails to do in 2 hours; it not only constructs an image of a perfect post-antebellum family so we can watch it fall apart in the midst of the Vietnam era, it lets us understand the stakes of the story. It makes it human, helps us know and feel for the characters, through only subtle implication.
Somehow, the film loses all this when it tries to flesh the story out. It was a fine film, though I cannot see it outside the context of its origin, but there is a leanness to it that asphyxiates its material. Roth’s book is a dissection of America; McGregor’s film is a photographic album of a single family, one I’m not sure I care to flip through.
The film prefers its characters flat; most of what we learn about them is purely surface. Motivations and internal doubts are ignored, the complex threads that connect one moment to another are left hanging, waiting perhaps for someone already familiar with Roth’s book to tie them together themselves (as seems to be expected in the kiss scene between the Swede and his 12 year old daughter; McGregor does not commit to the source material here, nor explain the Swede’s obsession with this moment, his guilt that this might be where it all went wrong).
The very same reasons I didn’t care for the film interpretation of Roth’s novel are the reasons why one could argue that the film cleverly works with Roth’s themes and explicitly demonstrates them. Only five minutes into the movie, I began to feel disconnected, put off by how constructed each scene felt, how one dimensional the Swede’s cliche American life is. But isn’t that the point? The over the top charm present in many of the film’s early scenes–Vicky, one of the Swede’s employees (played by Uzo Aduba) slyly admonishes the Swede, winking coyly through a glass door, the Levov family playfully tells stories in the den–manufactures the sheen of perfection that to the outsider characterizes the Swede’s life. Our inability to understand Swede’s inner life aligns the audience with his neighbours who concern themselves solely with appearances.
How is a primarily visual medium supposed to convey the vast river of thought that lurks beneath the surface of the Swede’s put together facade? Short of threading the film with Malickian voiceover monologues, McGregor has few options.
The film forces Roth’s novel to submit to a traditional movie template. Rather than playing with temporal order and using flashbacks to convey the Swede’s haunting meditations, McGregor unravels Roth’s complex narrative and flattens it out into a mundane chronology of events. When one looks back at the moments that led them to the present, the memory rarely provides an uninterrupted timeline with all the dots connected. The film ignores the power of the accumulation of hundreds of small, seemingly meaningless moments and brashly forges ahead.
The relentless pace of the film never pauses to let the audience consider individual characters and the personal consequences Merry’s actions has for each of them. Perhaps an in-depth reflection on the personal sorrows of a middle-class white man that America let down is not what the current movie climate calls for, but shying away from the rich interior experience of Roth’s Seymour Levov denies the audience a moment of empathy. McGregor, for whom the directing of this film fulfils a twenty year long passion to see it made, tells Roth’s story without communicating any of its truths.
While the movie itself is reductive, the casting is dead on. Jennifer Connelly is particularly well-placed as Dawn Dwyer, the Swede’s former beauty queen wife. Dakota Fanning delivers as the Swede’s daughter, exasperatingly self-righteous both as a glaring, ranting sixteen year old and as a reformed Jain putting on transcendent airs. McGregor, though sometimes delivering what feels like a self-aware performance, cuts the perfect figure of Seymour Irving Levov.
McGregor’s American Pastoral is simply a series of actions and direct consequences, an unsubtle consideration of the relationship between a man and his daughter. Like the newsreel footage spliced unimaginatively into the film, the story lacks context and depth. Ultimately, the film deliver s exactly what its tagline promises: a radically ordinary story.