Adapting Philip Roth
What could possibly go wrong with a film adaptation of a Philip Roth novel? If history is anything to go by, not much ever goes right. The difficulties of translating Roth’s psychologically dense and culturally nuanced prose for the screen have been well–documented, to say nothing of the author’s own aversion to pop culture in all its televisual forms. The recent release of Indignation, adapted from Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, doesn’t inspire much confidence that anyone will ever quite nail it.
Indignation, in both its literary and cinematic incarnations, is the story of Marcus (Logan Lerman), a Jewish butcher’s son who leaves home (Newark) in 1951 for the idyllic Winesburg college in Ohio. Fleeing from the twofold nuisances of the Korean War draft and the smothering solicitude of his parents, Marcus arrives on the Midwest quad with no greater desire than to study hard and get into law school. Mandated chapel services and a cohort of fellow Jewish students peddling fraternity fellowship, however, keep running up against his scholastic determination and atheistic convictions. As these types of stories tend to go, only the rapturous beauty of a woman can rouse Marcus from his singular focus on his studies.
Olivia (Sarah Gadon), the object of Marcus’s affection—or is it infatuation?—hides a troubled past behind a poised and polished exterior. Is her background to blame, as Marcus initially supposes, for the taboo-breaking sex that transpires in a cemetery and subsequently emboldens Marcus to take a stand against his moralistic oppressors? Debatable. Is that same sexual encounter to blame for the series of unfortunate events to befall Marcus, including his eventual expulsion and finally his death in the war he had desperately tried to avoid? We’re left to ponder that along with Marcus, who narrates the film from beyond the grave.
In book form this story is at least faintly compelling, but how does it fare as a movie? Writer-director James Schamus uses subtle filmmaking techniques—the direction of periphery actors’ facial expressions, the staging of scenes and props, some well-timed shifts from steadicam to shakycam—to streamline many of the elements of Roth’s novel. But who besides the most cinematically literate of us would even notice? The slow pacing of early scenes verges on sheer dullness, in no small part because Indignation is visually about as thrilling as a Brooks Brothers back-to-school style catalogue. That said, the stately period costumes, themselves quietly indignant of the malcontents wearing them, are a consistently piquant focal point when all else fails to captivate.
Though the unfussy mise-en-scène threatens to put us to sleep, it’s at least well-suited to the relative simplicity of the movie’s plot. I say “relative” because Indignation the book tells a far murkier story than Indignation the film does. The novel is distinguished by the nearly insufferable narration of Marcus, a psychologically conflicted 19-year-old male with all the most tiresome characteristics of a typical 19-year-old male. In print, the familial and cultural paranoia that motivates Marcus’s exodus from his Jewish homeland to heathen Ohio is palpable; but so too are all the worst qualities of the narrator, whose self-righteous self-centeredness all but evaporates onscreen.
If the filmmakers’ understandable desire to render the book more marketable is partly to blame for the flattening of Marcus’s character, Logan Lerman is at least as much responsible for transforming the character into a vaguely more likeable protagonist. Lerman is excellent at conveying, in body language and changes in register, his inner state. He and Sarah Gadon also have tremendous chemistry, and it’s applaudable that the film gives Olivia (and thus the talented Gadon) the chance to speak for herself. Freed from the shackles of a lascivious first-person narrator, Olivia’s heartbreaking fragility is the product of a real human being with her own history and agency, as opposed to the byproduct of an anxious male’s obsessive fantasies of one.
We find ourselves rooting for—or, should I say, the film is designed to get the viewer to root for—Olivia and Marcus in spite of a pair of bookending scenes that spell out the tragic end to their relationship. All fair and good for an hour-and-50-minute-long movie. Yet there’s a significant consequence to all this sanding down of edges: namely, that the point of Roth’s story is dramatically altered.
We see this most clearly in the one scene that remains virtually unchanged from the book. In a tensely-shot, 15-minute-long centerpiece, Marcus confronts his dean (a ravishing near-cameo by Tracy Letts) and lets his indignation at the school’s intolerable moral code erupt. In the book, Marcus is petulant and arrogant here, if not entirely incorrect about the dean’s slights to his secular Jewishness; it’s a classic case of the gray area between heroes and villains. In the movie, the simplification of the story surrounding this scene effectively renders Marcus a martyr.
The perpetrators of his crucifixion? Naturally, the hypocritically “intolerant” Christians who refuse to tolerate his atheism and, implicitly, his illicit love—or “at least,” as he tellingly reflects later, “I think that’s what it was”—for Olivia. Heaven forbid the conflict of mores should originate from someplace within. Roth, outside the bounds of this story, may not believe this any more than the filmmakers do, but his prose incriminates Marcus of the far more heinous crime of incurable narcissism. The film sends Marcus down a comparatively less ambiguous path to his secular cross. A marketable adaptation choice no doubt, but one that’s ironically less tolerant of the inherent complexities of human motivation.
Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.