While it is difficult to pull off a good adaptation of a great book under normal circumstances, it is even harder to do so with a writer like Philip Roth. And anyone who is familiar with Roth’s novels will understand why. Like all of Roth’s work, and in particular from the period in which American Pastoral emerged, this story is a dense and layered powerhouse of a book over 400 pages long. In just about 90 minutes, one can imagine the immensity of Ewan McGregor’s undertaking.
Roth builds on his American Pastoral in layers, vast sequences that span over decades, and whole chapters dedicated solely to fleeting moments within a day, or even a few hours. Roth’s style is demonstrative of what a novel can do and what a novel can do alone: it demands time, which in turn allows the reader to live with the characters at all times, day after day, until the book is finished. The art of adaptation is lost on most people because they fail to see this crucial difference.
Read at Unsung Films: Philip Roth Unleashed.
McGregor has taken Roth’s novel and extracted what gives it its shape. The film is a combination of the principle events in the book – all the defining moments in Swede Levov’s descent into the American Nightmare – and a neat collection of the novels finer and more moving details. Where the film falls short (and it only really does in comparison to the book, not as a piece of cinema in itself) is where Roth is most at home. Character development is lacking, as is only natural, and so in this way, some of the book’s characters lack depth or relevance.
Dawn Levov comes across vain and shallow when in the novel she is a complex creation. This is only because the little details, descriptions, Roth’s sympathetic approach to Dawn, had to be omitted. And Swede’s relationship with his family and friends suffers without the space and time that Roth allowed himself – the elaborate, tender, sometimes cynical observations are only half made up for by McGregor’s fine cast and exceptional performances. It is easy to love McGregor’s American Pastoral if you haven’t read the book, because it is a well-made and gripping story. If you have, it takes accepting the inevitable downside of squeezing 400 pages of Roth’s intense storytelling into an hour and a half.
The attention that McGregor gives to some of American Pastoral’s most hard-hitting moments suggests that the actor-director really knows and understands the book: the Swede’s relationship with Merry, his encounters with Rita, his total passiveness in the face of insult, his truly likeable and sympathetic personality, Merry’s transformation.
As a directing debut, American Pastoral is an ambitious and admirable effort. Also, it is by and large a successful one. And while it won’t find its place alongside cinema’s greatest adaptations (films like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange come to mind, not to mention The Godfather) it stands as an inspired work in its own right, and demonstrates that McGregor is moving ever in the right direction.
Watch the trailer for American Pastoral here:
American Pastoral at IMDb
American Pastoral (film) at Wikipedia
American Pastoral (novel) at Wikipedia
American Pastoral official film’s website
American Pastoral (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb