American Pastoral: Adapting Your Story

On October 28, Ewan McGregor will unleash his adaptation of a dense, introspective Philip Roth novel for his directorial debut.  I highly recommend reading this novel if you’re ready for a dense read.  More on the book-to-movie transition follows:

American Pastoral

by Philip Roth

Movie: directed by Ewan McGregor, and written by John Romano


Book: 4.5 out of 5 stars

When extrapolation and existentialism in a novel are removed, what remains for an author’s work?  In American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the post-war American experience, Roth delves into the inner workings of a golden man whose family looses its sheen amid Vietnam War-era domestic terrorism.  Attempting to go two-for-two on passable Roth adaptations, Ewan McGregor mounts an ambitious directorial debut bringing this powerful novel to the big screen.


Seymour “Swede” Levov grew up in post-war America.  The son of a prosperous glove manufacturer, beloved by his hometown as their ultimate sports star, military baseball champion, and married to a beauty queen, every aspect of Seymour’s life appears ideal.  The Jewish man has achieved the American dream; the struggles of the past have bled out, and he is left with his peaceful, charmed existence.  Appearances do not equate the truth, though.  Discover through the eyes of his younger brother’s childhood playmate Nathan Zuckerman, the Rothian narrator reminiscent of Woody Allen appearing in his many neurotic guises, we discover that tragedy struck this man and did not relent.

The trailer for this movie is accentuating the darker perils of this story, and it seems that the movie focuses primarily on the main action, about one-third of the book, from when the Swede’s daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning, finally receiving juicy roles again) becomes a Vietnam War protester and eventually a domestic terrorist.  Filming Roth is no easy feat.  We’ve seen plenty of missteps in the past, but Indignation, though not much of a hit, received rave reviews from those who did not find it excessively dark.  American Pastoral is expansive, and this could provide promise in narrowing the focus, or it might be the downfall for a screenwriter unable to trim the existential fat.


Screenwriter John Romano provides limited hope for a masterful adaptation, with his previous works including Night in Rodanthe, Intolerable Cruelty, and his best reviewed feature The Lincoln Lawyer.  The characters in the book are rich and complex, from the former beauty queen-turned-cattle rancher wife to the terrorist cohorts with whom Merry aligns, to friends of the Levov’s who sprinkle the narrative; managing to pick and choose who makes their appearance and who is dropped will be vital to the film’s success.  With a debut director in Ewan McGregor, a script ready for fresh eyes seem tantamount.


The cast appears to be strong enough to carry the film, filled with actors whose fame has drifted in recent years; they are likely all ready to have some limelight again.  Jennifer Connelly will glam up for the aging beauty queen, and Ewan will be stretched with the aging jock and suffering father while under his own direction.  I anticipate the bulk of attention will fall on Dakota with the juiciest role.  Uzo Aduba will be given something to work with as Vicky, the forewoman of the Levov glove factory, and Valorie Curry has been given a bizarre role as Rita Cohen to chew on.


This exquisitely executed novel of great depth and extensive reflection on the American Dream is worth a read, if you’re ready for a plot dense book filled with family drama, glove making, race relations, and the separation of the American male from their assumed superiority.  Roth is a creature of his time, but his characters are open to (and have been subject to) mass speculation and interpretation. Check out this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel if you are ready for a thought provoking read.


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